Google Earth The Desktop Treasure Hunter

Google Earth may aim to map the world, but that's not all it does. The online global atlas has been used to unearth treasure, expose drug growers and discover meteorite sites and ancient villas. It has even helped solve a missing persons case.

By Carolin Neumann


In September 2006, Marcy Randolph boarded a single-engine Cessna airplane for a sightseeing trip from which neither she nor pilot William Westover would ever return. The 43-year-old American wanted to take some aerial photos. Ironically, it was such birds-eye-view footage that would lead to the crash site's discovery more than two years later.

Someone assisting in the search for the missing billionaire Steve Fossett last year found an image of a forest fire taken on the same day that Randolph's plane disappeared from the radar. With the help of Google Earth, the relatives of the missing woman finally pinpointed the exact place where the plane went down.

MARSI, the Mapped Archive of Rescue and Search Information, is now available to help other families of missing persons.

MARSI, the Mapped Archive of Rescue and Search Information, is now available to help other families of missing persons.

Last Saturday, Randolph's father and a friend of William Westover's family traveled to the site and found the wreckage. The remains found there were identified as those of the missing pair. Although it's not exactly a happy ending for the families, Randolph's father has emphasized in several news reports that they can at least have some closure now.

A fundamental part of the search's success rests on a Google Earth-based system called MARSI (Mapped Archive of Rescue and Search Information), which Randolph's family developed and perfected during the past two and a half years. Their accompanying Web site thanks search teams for providing some data, but primarily it was the mapping system that enabled the discovery of the wreck. According to technology blog Techcrunch.com, which covers new Internet products, the all-volunteer Missing Aircraft Search Team wants to use the technique developed by the Randolphs for future searches and expeditions.

Discovering the Lost Treasure of Atlantis

The find of a crashed Cessna is not the first astonishing discovery made courtesy of Google Earth. It's not long ago that the British tabloid The Sun claimed to have found the lost city of Atlantis using Google Earth. Of course, Google immediately quashed the rumors of this supposed mega-find.

The discoveries by hobbyist treasure-hunters or Google Earth devotees randomly perusing the online atlas are varied, as shown by the following examples collected by SPIEGEL ONLINE.

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