Tips, tricks and tweaks for Google Earth

Features David Hayward Dec 6, 2012

Once a CIA mapping tool, now a tool for being nosey; either way, Google Earth is cool

Google Earth, as we know it, started life in 2005, but its story goes further back than that; in fact its true beginnings can be placed as far back as 2001.

The virtual globe geographical information program and data was originally known as Keyhole EarthViewer 3D, and was developed by Keyhole Inc., a CIA-funded organisation that was eventually bought by Google. The extensive imagery satellite imagery required to create the first iteration of this digital elevation model of the Earth was obtained via the Department of Defence, NASA, and through various CIA channels, which gives the whole project an interesting frisson, don’t you think? That Google Earth was born out of a secret government spy system put it in the same exclusive club as, er... Teflon, and didn’t we reverse engineer Velcro from alien spaceships? Obviously, the modern Google Earth is far better than it was ten years ago, so to pay tribute to this wonderful application, used by millions around the globe to spy into their neighbours’ gardens, here are our collection of Tips, Tricks and Tweaks.

Step back in time

The ability to scroll through history via Google Earth is, quite frankly, blooming amazing. Most people can look at their house, street or even town as it was from satellite imagery from the 70’s, all the way back to aerial footage from the 1940’s; it really is a blast from the past. To enable the historic imagery, do the following:

Open up Google Earth, type in your desired location and hit Enter. On the top menu bar, in amongst a set of icons, you’ll see a clock with an anti-clockwise green arrow, click this and a slider will appear in the top left of the map. Use the slider to scroll through the aerial data; a marker represents a date when the image was taken.


A handy tip this; it comes from a friend who recently bought a house, and wanted to check where the position of the sun was in the back garden throughout the day. Find your location, and next to the Back in Time icon, you’ll see a sun popping over the horizon icon. Click on it and you'll see a slider in the top left, where you can check the position of sunlight relative to the time of day.

How far is it?

If you’ve ever felt the need to know how far it is in a straight line between two places (which seems to crop up in school homework quite a lot, not that we’d encourage cheating) the ruler will tell you. To use it, locate the ruler icon along the top of the screen, and in the pop-up menu choose your units (metres, miles, or inches). Click on the map for the start point, then scroll out and click for the second point (depending on how far you want to go).

The result in the pop-up Ruler window will display the length of the distance, and the heading. For example, it’s only 152.83 miles from my house to the bright lights of Birmingham, as the crow flies.

In addition to this, if you now save the measured distance - by clicking on the ‘Save’ button and naming it - you’ll see that it now appears in the left-hand ‘Places’ section. If you right-click the newly saved measurement, and choose Show Elevation Profile’ from the menu, you’ll get a new window along the bottom of the screen displaying the elevation between the two points.

Live weather

There seems to be a trend in reading live weather from various sources; be they desktop gadgets, Windows 8 live feed tiles, or a smart device. It’s fair enough, people like to know about the weather - myself included - but did you know that you can receive live weather information via Google Earth? If you didn’t, then do the following: on the left of the screen you’ll see the ‘Layers’ section. Click on the box entitled, ‘Weather’ and zoom out to get a clear view of what’s going on in your area, or across the country.

Flight simulator

The flight sim on Google Earth is often regarded as being one of the most annoying features of any application. It’s good, don’t get me wrong, but the controls are somewhat sensitive, at the best of times. However, when you do get the measure of it, flying through the heart of old London, or under the Golden Gate Bridge is a pleasure all in itself. To enter the Flight Sim, click on ‘Tools’, from the top menu and click on ‘Enter Flight Simulator’. Alternatively, you use the keyboard shortcut, which is Ctrl+Alt+A. Choose your craft from the menu, and the airport from which to take off from. Using your mouse, click in the centre of the screen, then press Page Up to throttle up, an use the arrow keys to move around.

It takes some getting used to, but persevere and you can have some fun.

Increase cache and use offline

Google Earth uses a constant Internet connection to download and display the relevant data; however, if you need to view your imagery offline, or you want to help speed things up a little, then consider toying around with the cache.

Go to ‘Tools’, then ‘Options’. Click on the ‘Cache’ tab, and change the Memory Cache Size to 1024 (the maximum) and the Disk Cache Size to 2000 (the maximum). Navigate to the location(s) you want to use offline, and when you come to use it without the Internet connection, you’ll read direct from the cache. 

Even if you’re still online, this will speed up the loading of previously viewed places, and unless they suddenly decide to update the map, that’s a good thing.

The Final Frontier

Earth isn’t the only heavenly body you can view on Google Earth (and feel free to insert your own joke here). We can also view the imagery available from NASA, and other sources, for the Moon, Mars and the entire universe; at least the bits we know about. To view the heavenly splendours, click on the planet icon in between the Ruler and Sunlight icons. Choose from Earth, Sky, Mars or Moon - depending what you’ve chosen, you’ll be magically transported there by the power of Google. Cosmic.

You can easily spend hours navigating the universe, as there are plenty of incredible images thanks to the Hubble Space Telescope.

Oceans of fun

Google has done some magnificent work on mapping the ocean floor, it’s contours, ridges, trenches and so on. Try this: zoom in until you are just above the surface of the water, then tilt the Earth until you are parallel with the surface, then zoom in until you're just under - you should now have a grand vista of the world below the depths. 

Have a particular look at the Mid-Atlantic ridge, the Mariana Trench, and the Mesoamerican Reef.