The End of New Orleans?

Do not panic – but be very afraid. Hurricane Katrina is now a category 5 made landfall as a category 4 storm. It’s current track is expected to take it directly over New Orleans, LA. What’s the link to geology? New Orleans is sinking due to the subsidence of the Mississippi delta; large sections of the city are 10 or more feet below sea level. The levees that keep many floods of the Mississippi River out may seal the city’s fate if they are breached and subsequently trap the storm surge of a major hurricane in. How bad could that be? Potentially very, very bad. In a worst case scenario we could be looking at thousands to tens of thousands of deaths and the end of New Orleans as a habitable city.

Fill your gas tanks today. Oil may well has already exceeded $70/barrel this week. And that might be just the beginning of it.

Pray for the best.

Google Earth Domination

I normally take a rather dim view of conspiracy theories. Nonetheless, I loved the premise of the movie Conspiracy Theory that once in a blue moon they just might hit the nail on the head.

With last week’s news of Google’s move to sell $4 billion worth of shares and today’s NY Times article about Google as the new corporate bad guy I figure it’s time to put forth my own conspiracy theory about Google’s plans for world domination. Who knows – I might hit the jackpot.

To my mind, the most amazing product Google produces is Google Earth. Their search engine is great, mind you, but there’s competition out there and Google’s edge in that field is not what it once was. Microsoft was late to the game with Virtual Earth, which may provide competition for Google Maps, but is not even in the same league with Google Earth. Nobody has an answer for Google Earth (yet).

Why do I find Google Earth so amazing? Well, to begin with, its interface is so throughly intuitive that users of all ages get it. Maybe not since the Apollo Program sent back pictures of the Earth in space has it been possible to feel so connected to the rest of the planet. Google Earth stimulates human curiosity. As an educator and a geologist I can’t think of a better way to bring the whole Earth into the classroom (especially for large scale concepts). Play with it yourself – you’ll see.

But even beyond the “gee, wow” aspects of playing with the planet, there’s so much more power under the hood. Google Earth brings geospatial relevance and functionality to the web browser, the search engine, and even the RSS aggregator (as KML/KMZ networked links – I’d be interested to hear Dave Winer’s take on this – I think Google may grok XML and RSS more than many imagine). As users and developers party together the question soon becomes, “what can’t you do with Google Earth?”

So think about it… Google has a phenomenally innovative product that is going to be useful in all sorts of ways and they are way ahead of their competition. And on top of that, recall that “Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” I think that ultimately, and for many applications, Google Earth will replace the modern web browser as a vehicle for delivering on this mission.

So what does Google Earth lack? Well, for me one of the most disappointing things is that I can’t get high resolution satellite data coverage uniformly over the entire globe. And it’s not that the satellite data don’t exist, but rather that it’ll never be in the interests of the companies that own it to license it all to Google. One obvious thing Google might do with $4 billion is to buy out a couple of satellite imaging companies. That’d be great, but I bet they could do better. Why not go all out and launch an earth observing satellite program of their own? Think about it… GoogleSat! Not only would they achieve far better coverage, but it could also be far more timely. Could this be done for $4 billion? I have no idea, but I wouldn’t bet against it.