Okay, anybody who’s anybody has Google Earth on their computer. (If you’re not yet anybody and would like to join us, the install link is here).

But Google Earth has matured way beyond being a cool way to see your house, or a cheap way to sightsee. Its 3D graphics, detailed imagery, and its easy access by users have made it a powerful tool for activists and academics working on environmental issues.

With its strong ethos to include a social mission as part of the business plan, Google has started a section called Google Earth Outreach. The link features an overview video that will give you a good idea of Google Earth’s value as an earth-saving tool.

Rebecca Moore runs Google Earth Outreach. In true Silicon Valley tradition, she got her job by inventing it. She’s a software engineer who was outraged by a 2005 plan to log more than 1,000 acres of coast redwoods near her home in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Rebecca took the black-and-white facts of the logging proposal and laid them into a full-color three-dimensional Google Earth backdrop, showing how redwood logs would be hauled out by helicopter only a few hundred yards from an elementary school and day care center; how the logging could impact habitat for an endangered species, and how much old-growth would be lost on the steep slopes of Los Gatos Canyon.

In true Google Earth tradition, work like Rebecca’s has gone global. You can explore the rates of deforestation in the Sumatran Rainforest; see where wind-energy potential and bird flyways might be in conflict; or see how close we’re getting to catching the last fish.

The coolest, most effective use of Google Earth may be on the site I Love Mountains. It’s a project of the activist group Appalachian Voices, and it includes a tutorial on how we’ve leveled 470 mountains to extract coal. The Appalachian Voices site also includes a link to see if your electric use contributes to mountaintop removal mining: Type in your zip code, and they’ll tell you which mountains gave their lives to get coal to your power company.

Here are a few more Google Earth tricks and tips that tell interesting stories about how we deal with nature. Click and drag the latitude/longitude coordinates listed here (40 15 53 71  -73 59 03 45), and put them in the Google Earth browser, and you’ll be transported to the Jersey shore. The bizarre, irregular contour of the coastline is a result of erosion, and of a half billion-dollar effort by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to protect the valuable homes on the other side of the seawall. The Obama administration has hinted that it may curtail the ongoing beach bailout.

Pop in these coordinates (46 11 29 60  -122 11 40 13 ) and it will take you to the rim of the crater of the Mount St. Helens volcano. Use the 3D features to navigate around, and note that the south part of the crater, always in the shade, hasn’t had any snowmelt.

Pop in these (51 22 36 04  -68 41 48 34) and that takes you to Manicouagan Lake in Quebec, which I’m pretty sure is the world’s only donut-shaped lake, a result of a meteor impact more than 200 million years ago.

Google Earth started life as a small, entrepreneurial company called “Keyhole” that offered a user-friendly way to view and distribute the growing volume of imagery from satellites and high-altitude aircraft. Popular with real estate developers, land-use planners, and geeks, Keyhole got famous in the days after 9/11, when its images of Iraq and Afghanistan were highlighted in television war coverage. In 2004, Michael Jones and his Keyhole colleagues sold out to Google, and presumably became Google Earth Gazillionaires. They’re doing well by doing good, in a big way.

Related on MNN: Google Earth stops mountaintop removal in Appalachia.

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Peter Dykstra is the former executive producer of CNN's Science, Tech and Weather Unit. He writes three columns for MNN: Media Mayhem on Mondays, Political Habitat on Wednesdays, and Green States on Fridays. (Yes, he writes a lot.) 

(MNN homepage photo: ShawnRayHarris/iStockphoto)