Google Earth is an app that you download and install on your Windows, Mac, or Linux desktop, as well as iPad, iPhone, and Android devices. Best of all, the basic versions are free at: http://www.google.com/earth for computers, or on the Apple App Store or Google Play for mobile devices.
Along with The National Map, Google Earth is an essential tool for working with the data on this site. We’ll describe the computer version first, then make some comments about the mobile versions later.
Google Earth displays a seamless view of the globe on top of which you can “fly around” at will, and zoom in and out. As you zoom in, you see more detail; zoom out, and the detail is reduced. You can also tilt and rotate your view (more about tilt later). Essentially it combines video game technology with geographic databases to give you a wonderful tool for armchair exploration. The view isn’t “live” (though the imagery is constantly being updated), but it can be surprisingly detailed. Most areas of the country show images at about a pixel/foot and have been updated within a year or less.
Here’s a screen shot that should make this clearer. It’s showing some terrain in northern NJ, near where I live and sometimes fish. (Yellow and Cyan text was added in Photoshop for this tutorial).
The panels on the left control what data gets displayed above the imagery. The lower, “Layers” panel controls data that Google supplies. Note everything in this panel is unchecked: I find the display gets cluttered enough with stream data, and therefore turn these layers on only when I specifically want to look at something, e.g. roads or country boundaries.
The upper “Places” panel contains data that I uploaded from KML and KMZ files and organized into folders. Note I have a “PA-NJ Trout” folder open and I’ve clicked on the TU CSI brook trout habitat layer, plus a series of stream layers based on NJ water quality data. The results are visible in the image, called-out in cyan text. You can see part of a TU CSI habitat boundary, yellow, which means this basin is “fair” brook trout habitat (which is pretty good for NJ). You also see a number of dark blue streams: these are NJ streams rated Trout Production 1, which means they should support wild trout populations. This, in combination with the CSI data suggests the stream might hold brook trout (and indeed, from experience, I can tell you that at least one of these streams does).
One of the most powerful features of Google Earth is that it saves the state of the Places Panel when I quit Google Earth, and restores it when I start up again. This makes it sensible to invest time in setting up a “workstation” that meets my needs: i.e. preloading a bunch of useful KMLs and organizing them.
Another great feature is the “tilt” view control. It’s particularly powerful if you’re planning a backpacking trip or something similar where you’re trying to figure out how one stream relates to another. The tilt, in combination with Google Earth’s elevation model gives you a 3-D view of the terrain. The image below zooms into the same valley as shown above (roughly centered on where the cyan arrow points left). The tilt makes the relative elevations much more clear, especially if you watch them as you adjust the view back and forth.
Another important feature of Google Earth is its drawing tools. You can drop down place marks, draw lines, paths, and polygons, and save them all in KMZ or KML files. Just click on the object(s) you want to save in the Places panel, and select “Save Place As…” from the file menu. Again, if you’re planning a trip, it allows you to make notes about specific places you want to visit. Via KML, you can then export the results to The National Map (or other mapping program such as Google Maps or Bing), or to your GPS.
Finally, Google Earth will generate driving directions, just like Google Maps.
We’ve become somewhat familiar with Google Earth on IOS devices recently (July, 2014). One presumes that the version on Android is similar, or possibly even more capable, given the common parentage.
On IOS, there are several problems you need to overcome to use the KML and KMZ files you find on this website: 1) loading the files, 2) learning gestures to control the environment, and 3) accessing the balloon info.
IOS tries hard to hide its file system from you. There’s no “file load” option in Google Earth, making it seemingly impossible to load the KML and KMZ files you download from this site. However, don’t despair. Instead, join Dropbox (if your’re not already a member).
To make Dropbox work, you’ll need to install an app on all of the devices where you want to exchange info. These are free, and each membership comes with an initial 3 GB of cloud storage. Basically, Dropbox creates a shared filespace that it keeps in sync across your devices. You can also share individual folders with other Dropbox members, or make them available to anyone on the Net via links.
In this case, just make sure that you’ve got Dropbox installed on both your computer and your IOS device (say an iPad). Create a subfolder in Dropbox (I created one recently for a trip to CO and NM called CO-NM KMZ) on your computer, and copy the KML/KMZ files you want into it.
Then open Dropbox on your IOS device. Navigate the file menu tree to the file you want to load into GE, and (with the filename highlghted) click on the icon that looks like a page with a vertical arrow originating from the center (the one on the right, above the file preview window). Then select “Open in…” and pick Google Earth from the list of applications. Repeat for all of the files you want to see in Google Earth.
Note that in IOS, you don’t have the fine-grained control over what’s visible and what’s not. If you have conflicting or overlapping files, you need to clear them and load them from scratch. However, Google Earth itself works quite well.
On IOS you use finger gestures on the touch screen to pan, zoom, and tilt the display. They work quite well once you get used to them. Google has a 3-minute tutorial that is well worth the minimal time it takes. You’ll be prompted for it when you start up the first time, or you can find it on the Settings menu (click on the icon which shows 3 parallel bars to open the menu).
Accessing Balloon Information
Most WildTroutStream.com KMLs provide a pop-up balloon with useful information about streams. You may find that the balloon doesn’t respond at all, or responds intermittently when you try it on IOS. It turns out that Google made a design decision to display balloons only if the feature is totally enclosed by your “fingerprint” on the touch screen. So, point data should always work, but stream data is hit or miss. Click on a small stream segment and you might be fine. Click on a stream that extends over a portion of the screen, and it probably won’t respond (unless it’s segmented).
The answer (which can be annoying) is to zoom out to make the feature small enough to be covered by your fingerprint. In the future we’ll look at designing KMLs that are more mobile-friendly, but for now, this work-around is quite reliable.