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Channel widths, landslides, faults, and beyond: The new world order of high-spatial resolution Google Earth imagery in the study of earth surface processes


The past decade has seen a rapid increase in the application of high-resolution imagery and geographic-based information systems across every segment of society from security intelligence to product marketing to scientific research. Google Earth has positioned itself at the forefront of this spatial information wave by providing free access to high-resolution imagery through a simple, user-friendly interface. Whereas Google Earth imagery has been widely exploited across the earth sciences for spatial visualization, education, and place-based searches, few studies have utilized the highresolution imagery to yield quantitative insights about the processes and mechanisms acting at the earth's surface. In this paper, we detail the benefits of the underlying high-resolution imagery available within Google Earth, review the limited published research to date, and utilize this imagery to quantitatively illuminate previously difficult and unresolved questions within the discipline of geomorphology involving: (1) channel-width variability and scaling relations in the tectonically active Himalaya; (2) landslide characteristics related to large magnitude climatic and tectonic events in Haiti; and (3) identification and quantification of laterally offset geomorphic features within eastern California. In each example, we compare analyses using freely available Google Earth imagery with standard imagery and techniques (e.g., Landsat, ASTER, lidar) to demonstrate the potential benefits of using high-spatial resolution Google Earth imagery over established methodologies. In addition, we discuss the potential limitations and problems with using the imagery currently available in Google Earth and propose favorable future applications, namely studies in remote terrains and those requiring high-resolution imagery across a large spatial extent, where purchasing such imagery in an academic environment would be costprohibitive. Whether as a supplement, for reconnaissance, or as the primary data set, high-resolution Google Earth imagery, when properly applied, holds great promise for quantitatively tackling previously unresolved problems in the study of earth surface processes. © 2012 The Geological Society of America. All rights reserved.

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