The List

The Geopolitics of Google Earth

It's not just for busting swimming pool cheats.

It's way beyond crop circles, blood-red lakes in Iraq, and half-hidden UFOs. Officials from Greece to New York to Switzerland are using the free satellite images to find tax cheats with undeclared swimming pools and illegal pot plantations. Armchair cartographers are also getting in on the game, uncovering -- and creating -- political minefields. 


Where: Huangyangtan, Ningxia Hui, China

What: In June 2006, a man in Germany using the handle "KenGrok" logged on to the Google Earth Community page and asked for help in identifying an unusual land formation he had found in a desert near the city of Yingchuan in central China. In his post, he provided coordinates and described an enormous model landscape outside a military base with "mountain ranges, complete with lakes and snow-capped peaks." But what was it, he wondered?

Check the borders, suggested "stiuskr," a fellow Google Earth fan boy. Two weeks later, KenGrok found what he was looking for: Aksai Chin, a disputed border region of Kashmir claimed by both India and China, over which they fought a war in 1962. The Chinese military appeared to have constructed a 500:1 scale model of the region on the base. Confronted with satellite evidence of the accurate model, Chinese officials denied that it was a replica of Aksai Chin, saying only that it was a tank-training center. That may be, but given its close resemblance to the disputed area, it's still worth wondering what those tanks are training for.


Where: Military installations

What: With the plethora of commercial "remote sensing" satellite images available to the common public, military officials and government agencies have become wary about the potential for terrorists and enemies to use the technology for pinpointing attacks on installations and areas of strategic significance. Even a quick look at Baghdad's Green Zone or the Bagram Air Base is revealing; it's not hard to see how this information could be useful for insurgents.

Thus, government officials often request that commercial imagery black out, pixelate, or cleverly obscure key sites. Take a look at this clumsily altered murky blot in Siberia, or the slick camouflage applied to the U.S. Aviano Air Force Base in northern Italy. Area 51, the secret U.S. air base in the Nevada desert, however, remains unobscured for UFO theorists to analyze to their hearts' content.


Where: North Korea

What: No longer is the world of spy satellites and orbital reconnaissance the sole domain of the U.S. National Security Agency and the CIA. From the comfort of one's living room, amateur sleuths have trained their eyes on the cloistered North Korean regime of Kim Jong Il, discovering everything from nuclear sites to airbases, surface-to-air missile batteries to secret underground bunkers. A few years ago, Google Earth images revealed North Korean submarines -- the existence of which Pyongyang had long denied -- neatly lined up along the country's western coast. This begs the question: why would such a notoriously secret regime leave its vast array of military hardware out in the open, in plain view of commercial mapping satellites?

Military analysts suggest it might be a form of deterrence, a show of strength to anyone watching. Whether there's fuel enough for the hundreds of jets spotted on North Korean airfields is another matter. As for these mansions around an artificial lake, one can only speculate as to the owners ... but it's a bit odd that the roof of the house on the northwestern shore has huge numbers that clearly show the birth dates of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong Il.

North Korea watchers have been aided in their task by Curtis Melvin, a George Mason University doctoral candidate who, with a legion of volunteers, has created the world's most authoritative annotated map of the Hermit Kingdom using Google Earth. In 2008, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) used Melvin's maps of North Korean prison camps in a presentation on the Senate floor, saying, "Google has made a witness of all of us. We can no longer deny these things exist."


Where: Sudan

What: In 2007, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum launched a project in conjunction with Google to map the ongoing destruction of homes and villages in western Sudan. Called "Crisis in Darfur," it's a special layer within Google Earth that augments satellite images with pinpoints of towns and hamlets that have been burned, information and locations of internally-displaced-persons camps, and pictures and testimonies from survivors and international NGOs. The hope is that the collected evidence will refute the Sudanese government's denials that mass killings have taken place. "We need [Sudanese President Omar] Bashir and other perpetrators to know they are being watched," said Daowd Salih, a Darfuri former German Red Cross official, at the project's launch.

Google Earth generally only updates satellite images every couple of years, but users can view earlier images to see the extent of the damage and the displacement of civilians in Darfur. In 2009, the project -- in conjunction with the U.S. State Department  -- had mapped 3,300 villages burned by government forces or janjaweed militants.


Where: China-Vietnam border

What: Five years ago, when Google Earth first launched on the world's desktop computers, it was a novelty people used to find their childhood home or spot naked sunbathers. But with each iteration, the technology and maps have become increasingly accurate, embroiling governments in spats over misplaced borders and mislabeled places that some fear could spark conflict. And it's not only arguments over whether the Persian Gulf should be labeled the Arabian Gulf (Iranians consider the latter, a pan-Arab moniker of the 1960s, an insult to their illustrious history).

In February, Google recently found itself embroiled in a tense battle of wills between Thailand and Cambodia over the exact location of the long-contested, French-drawn, colonial-era border that runs through the Preah Vihear Temple complex. Google has since resolved the issue with more accurate borders and dotted lines that identify places where boundaries are "disputed," but controversies -- and screw-ups -- remain an issue. In July, Google accidentally placed a handful of Vietnamese villages within China's borders (above), prompting a stern rebuke from the government in Hanoi.


Where: Worldwide

What: Satellite images from the NASA/USGS Landsat and Terra programs have long been offered to scientists for terrain mapping, infrared Earth monitoring, and spectroradiometry. These images have starkly illustrated Arctic warming patterns, receding glaciers in the Alps, deforestation in the Amazon basin, and the BP oil spill.

Now Google Earth is taking it a step further, creating an array of prediction models which were used by climate-change campaigners in the run-up to last year's Copenhagen climate summit. The simulator uses models based on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's predictions to visualize the effects of global warming through the year 2100. A new series of nightmare scenarios have just been released by British government scientists, who are using the program to illustrate the effects of deforestation, rising sea levels, and increasing urbanization over time.

As small islands begin to disappear due to rising oceans, Google Earth has also given places like the now-disappeared Cartaret Atoll, the first inhabited island to be swallowed up by the seas, something of a swan song. The island was still visible to Google Earth users for a time before updated images were available. Now, it's lost beneath the waves forever.  

All images from Google Earth

The List

Good Times in Really Bad Places

Looking for a thrill on your next vacation? Here are seven resort destinations that are anything but tame.


Where: Hadibo, Yemen

What: Seeking out Dragon's Blood on Socotra Island

Some 150 miles off the Horn of Africa, Socotra is a naturalist's dream, an ancient wonderland of biodiversity, home to 700 species of plants and animals found nowhere else on Earth -- including forests of frankincense, myrrh, and the fabled dragon's blood tree. Yes, this UNESCO World Heritage site is a bit harder to get to than most: The few flights to the remote island pass through Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, whose impoverished citizens are among the most well-armed in the world and do a healthy business in kidnapping. But Socotra is peaceful. No larger than New York's Long Island, it boasts jagged mountain ranges, brilliant white beaches, and craggy cliffs that fall into the turquoise sea. The locals don't speak Arabic, but Socotri, a native language unique to the island. You might want to think twice, though, about chartering a skiff to the nearby archipelago -- the waters are crawling with Somali pirates. If you're planning to join the few thousand or so bird-watchers and sun-bathers who make the adventurous journey there each year, the main town of Hadibo has a handful of decent hotels. But you'd be wise to move fast: Apparently, both the U.S. and Russian navies are considering the island as a possible base for fleets operating in the nearby Gulf of Aden.


Where: Kabul, Afghanistan

What: Kabul Golf Club and the Gandamack Lodge

For war-weary correspondents, military contractors, and NGO-types, Afghanistan's only golf course gives new meaning to the word "hazard." On this 9-hole course just west of Kabul, avid golfers are more likely to lose their balls amid discarded ordnance than in sand traps. Before the course was re-opened in 2004 following the U.S. invasion, the fairways were reportedly pockmarked with mortar craters and littered with spent casings. St. Andrews it ain't. But with greens fees only $15, it's a cheap afternoon for ex-pats pulling in hardship wages. In the evening, savvy travelers retire to the Hare and Hound Watering Hole at the Gandamack Lodge, run by the British journalist Peter Jouvenal. Rooms start at $75 a night, but it's not quite what it used to be: The old location, a mansion near the Interior Ministry, was reputedly the home of Osama bin Laden's fourth wife.


Where: Bukavu, Democratic Republic of the Congo

What: Seeing the silverbacks at the Orchid Safari Club

Nestled in the foothills of eastern Congo, along the Rwandan border, the Orchid Safari Club boasts an impressive view: It's hard to beat the sunsets over Lake Kivu from the veranda. But once the sun goes down, it's best to stay in for the night. The rustic lodge is in the city of Bukavu, which saw horrific violence in 2004 when rebel leader Laurent Nkunda allowed his troops to run wild for three days, raping and killing civilians at will. There's still the occasional outburst, but U.N. peacekeepers have now tamped much of the embers. For a hundred dollars or so, the Safari Club arranges outings to view Congo's famed, and notoriously reclusive, silverback gorillas. But be warned: The small remaining population of these majestic animals is often found deep in the jungle, in regions where rebels remain unchecked. Maybe a quick dip in the lake is more up your alley? Oh, wait: It's full of toxic methane and carbon dioxide bubbles that kill dozens of people every year.


Where: Rawandoz, Iraqi Kurdistan

What: Pank Tourist Resort

Perched atop a butte in the rugged mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan lies the ambitious resort of Pank, a community of neat ranch homes boasting well-manicured lawns and stunning views of the Rawandoz gully and Halgurd Mountain, the region's highest peak. To be honest, it looks a lot like a suburban town in, say, New Mexico, complete with broad sidewalks and well-lighted streets. There's a Ferris wheel, a mini-golf course imported from Sweden, a 1,400-meter-long toboggan ride, and a "beautiful" restaurant (according to the slick website). For visiting dignitaries escaping the chaos and heat of the rest of Iraq, Pank tourist village offers three helicopter landing pads and six VIP villas, and a five-star hotel is reportedly in the works. And for Kurdish guerrillas looking for a little rest and relaxation before heading back into eastern Turkey (only 40 miles away), go on -- you've earned it.


Where: Poipet, Cambodia

What: Star Vegas Hotel and Casino

Ten years ago, the dusty Cambodian border town of Poipet was a miserable place awash in prostitution, touts, drugs, and pickpockets. For backpackers making their way from Bangkok to the Angkor Wat temple complex in Siem Riep, it was a place to get a passport stamped and a cold soda. But now, not far from where the remnants of the Khmer Rouge once holed up, it's Southeast Asia's Las Vegas, a glitzy development of hotels and casinos that lures Korean high-rollers and Thai punters looking to make a quick baht. Driven by cultural and legal prohibitions against gambling in Thailand, the border town is booming. Star Vegas's motorized rickshaws pick up guests at the border and deposit them at the gaudy complex along Mao Ze Tung Road. There's even a golf course, which the manager assures guests is now completely free of land mines.


Where: Mazatlán, Sinaloa State, Mexico

What: Narco-tours at El Cid

Too old for spring break in Cancun? Looking for something a bit more authentic than Cabo San Lucas? Look no further than the beaches of Mazatlán, a beautiful seaside town about halfway between Mexico City and the U.S. border. Great weather, good food, friendly authorities, and a highway straight north to El Paso -- so fine is the location, in fact, that it's home to the notorious Sinaloa cartel, among Mexico's most ruthless and brazen drug organizations. Locals offer narco-tours of infamous gangster shootouts and take curious onlookers past the glitzy homes of Francisco Arellano Felix and Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera, heads of the Tijuana and Sinaloa cartels, respectively. In June, 28 gang members were killed as two cartels clashed in Mazatlán prison, and in December 2009, Mexican marines literally stormed the beaches in a raid on narcotraffickers. For lodging, try the El Cid hotel chain, which has four posh resorts on the shore and was popularized in a recent "narcocorrido" (or drug ballad) by Andrés Márquez, who waxed rhapsodically about armored cars, nosefuls of cocaine, and the hotel's fine suites.




Where: Kashmir, India

What: Gulmarg Ski Resort

If you're fed up waiting for the lifts in Aspen or in the boutiques of Sundance, look no further than Gulmarg ski resort: the only line you'll be near atop the vertiginous peaks is the Line of Control. Granted, you wouldn't want to cross it in search of some off-piste bowls. The contours of the heavily militarized high Himalayan border between India and Pakistan remained unsettled during partition in 1947 and four wars have been fought over the strategically vital terrain. The latest, in 1999, saw Pakistani troops cross the border and infiltrate Indian defensive positions, bringing the subcontinent to the brink of nuclear war. But after weeks of shelling and a 2003 cease-fire agreement, tensions along the border cooled (local ski websites nonetheless recommend checking the political situation before booking). Though once a playground of Mughal kings and, later, a British hill station, the accommodations at Gulmarg are relatively simple, but for those in search of fresh tracks, there are heliskiing guides and tours. Just make sure you've stashed any contraband, as the road in from the Kashmiri capital of Srinigar is dotted with checkpoints. As for the après ski scene, don't get your hopes up: India's 2001 census counted 664 people in the town of Gulmarg, of which 1 percent was female.

Wikipedia; SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images; LIONEL HEALING/AFP/Getty Images; Flickr User: KURDISTAN; Flickr User: MsNina; Flickr user: Snuskie; CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP/Getty Images