Can Google Earth 5.0 save our oceans?

Judging by the thrilled reaction of climate change campaigners, you would think this morning's launch in San Francisco was a new emissions reduction t

Judging by the thrilled reaction of climate change campaigners, you would think this morning's launch in San Francisco was a new emissions reduction treaty, or at the very least a high efficiency solar panel.

"We hope the addition of Ocean in Google Earth will inspire more people to explore the seas they depend on every day," gushed Tom McCann of co-charity Ocean Conservancy.

The World Wildlife Fund agreed: "This provides a powerful method for people to increase their knowledge about the planet's oceans and potentially fuel efforts to protect them."

The new beta release adds up to 20 subsurface 3D layers in the world's oceans, plus 3D sea-floor terrain and facts, photos and video from the National Geographic and Jacques Cousteau.

Eco-vangelist Al Gore even got to roll back climate change using Google Earth 5.0's new Historical View feature. This slider lets you view the planet using older satellite and aerial photography.

"You can look back in time and see for yourself the unprecedented pace of change taking place on the Earth - largely because of human influences," said Gore. "For example, you can watch the melting of the largest glacier in Glacier National Park-the Grinnell Glacier-image by image, for the last decade."

Google Earth has long been accused of ignoring 70 percent of the Earth's surface - earning it the tag 'Google Dirt' from oceanographers.

John Hanke, Director of Google Earth and Maps, admitted: "It was a serious omission on our part not to include a better treatment of the oceans when we launched Google Earth."

But can the new Google Earth really make a difference? I think it can - the worst thing you can do to a problem is ignore it, sweep it under the carpet. By adding Ocean, Google at last recognises the importance of our planet's oceans and gives everyday people powerful tools to explore them.

It's all the more laudable as it's hard to see any short- or even medium-term payback for Google in terms of location-based services or advertising - they're just doing it because it's the right thing to do.

Dive in for yourself at http://earth.google.com/.