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.
Von 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.

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 , 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.

Croatia's 'Lovers' Island'

A small, remote island off the Croatian coast attained fame this year -- just in time for Valentine's Day. Using Google Earth, it was discovered that the tiny isle of Galesnjak, between Zadar and the island of Pasman, was in the shape of a perfect heart. Since then the 130,000 square meter (32 acre) chunk of land has become known as "Lovers' Island," and the owner has cashed in on the sudden hype, offering boat tours around the island to amorous couples.

Meteorite Crater in Western Australia

It was pure chance -- and Google Earth -- that led to Arthur Hickman becoming a virtual explorer and a namesake. In 2007 he was browsing in Google Earth and happened upon a meteorite crater in the wastelands of Western Australia.

Researchers later confirmed the existence of the Hickman Crater -- measuring 260 meters (853 feet) in circumference and believed to be between 10,000 and 100,000 years old.

Sunken Treasure in Texas

A sunken ship, with innumerable riches on board, is what Nathan Smith of Los Angeles set out to find with Google Earth. He speculated that the wreck of the Spanish merchant ship Barquentine, which had been carrying gold worth about $3 billion (€2.2 billion), lay on the ocean floor near the Texan harbor city of Corpus Christi.

Without further delay, the musician made his way to Texas, only to find out that his possible treasure lay on someone else's private property. Now the courts must decide who is entitled to the bonanza -- although it is not yet confirmed if there is any treasure to salvage.

Ancient Villa in Italy

Luca Mori wasn't expecting anything unusual when he took a look at aerial photos of his Italian hometown of Sorbolo. But thanks to Google Maps, he discovered the underground remains of an ancient river, and using Google Earth, something that could be described as a rectangular shadow. After closer examination of the photo, Mori finally decided to seek the opinion of a professional archaeologist. It turns out the rectangular shadow was actually the ruins of a Roman villa.

Marijuana Farm in Switzerland

Marijuana plants in Lebanon: Swiss police owe it to Google Earth for a similar find.

Marijuana plants in Lebanon: Swiss police owe it to Google Earth for a similar find.


Anyone who watches TV knows that there's no search warrant without reasonable grounds for suspicion, and without a search warrant, the police have no right to enter a property without permission. Good thing, then, that there's Google Earth. In January Swiss police officers using it found a marijuana field measuring 7,500 square meters (1.8 acres) in the middle of a cornfield. The responsible farmer in the canton of Thurgau was suspected of being involved in the drug trade. Google's world atlas delivered the required evidence for an investigation.

Secret Chinese Submarine Base

Even state secrets aren't safe with Google Earth. In 2007, satellite photos taken by the service revealed a secret submarine base in the Chinese city of Dalian -- complete with a new atomic Jin-class submarine.

Undetected Forests in Mozambique

It is no longer true that Mount Mabu in Mozambique is one of the last uncharted spots on Earth. That's because researchers at London's Kew Gardens were observing the area via Google Earth and organized an expedition that discovered an unbelievable number of previously unknown species of plants and animals. All thanks to Google satellite images.

Thousand-Year-Old Fishing Trap in Wales

An unusual underwater shape was detected by a plane flying over the shore of the Welsh Teifi River. A short search on Google Earth and a later diving expedition revealed that it was a 260-meter (853-feet) long stone structure built approximately 1,000 years ago for catching fish. 

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