(Video: CBS Evening News Feb. 2, 2009 piece on Google Earth, featuring the Conservancy’s Stephanie Wear on its utility for marine conservation.)

When Google released its popular — and free — satellite imaging and mapping tool Google Earth in 2006, it enabled users to travel virtually from New York to Papau New Guinea via the software’s flyover interface and zoom down to the island’s jungles and beaches for a closer look.

Later, the tool added data layers, allowing users to get information on everything from local hotels,  to roads and infrastructure, to conservation efforts. But until yesterday, the tool had one major gap — two-thirds of the Earth’s surface (the wet part) wasn’t accounted for, meaning Google “earth” was perhaps a more appropriate name for the software.

Yesterday, that changed: Google unveiled Google Earth version 5.0, which includes an aggressive roll-out of a new set of images detailing the ocean floor and detailed layers for ocean exploration ranging from marine protected areas to killer surf breaks and everything in between.

The Nature Conservancy contributed ocean data and photos to this new version of Google Earth.

So why does this matter? And in particular, why does it matter to conservation?

As the New York Times notes, the new Google Earth and its many layers has the potential to serve as a significant education, marketing and consumer awareness tool:

With only 5 percent of the ocean floor mapped in detail, and 1 percent of the oceans protected, Google executives and the marine scientists who helped build the digital oceans said they hoped the result would inspire the public to support more marine exploration and conservation.

But just as significant, the tool may help boost the “cool factor” for ocean conservation and exploration. Perhaps more than any company other than Apple, Google has the power to create instant street cred and the current applications for Google Earth — which include 3-D buildings and ”street view” directions — have proven to be very popular with techies and hipsters.

Bringing that gee-whiz factor to the ocean can help increase interest in, and funding for, marine conservation.

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.

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