The U.S. president’s digs
When Google Maps and Google Earth first launched, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., was whited out. It was a short-lived attempt at national security protection; comments on a 2005 post on the website Google Sightseeing suggest that the blurring was lifted by early 2006.Blurred or not, the White House is surrounded by multiple layers of security. According to ABC News, this includes windows made of bulletproof glass, alarms and infrared sensors along fencelines, armed security teams on the property grounds and teams of snipers on the White House roof.
Still, it’s pretty common for people to try to jump the White House fence. Usually, they’re caught quickly, but there have been major lapses, too. One notable failure was an incident in March 2017 in which a man from California jumped a fence and spent 17 minutes on the grounds with a backpack that contained pepper spray.
One Observatory Circle
While the White House was brought into view fairly quickly after Google Maps and Earth launched, the Vice President’s residence remained obscured for the entirety of Dick Cheney’s tenure in the office. One Observatory Circle in Washington, D.C., remained blurred out on Google Earth until Jan. 18, 2009, according to a Gawker post from the time. Users can still see the slate-roofed 1893 structure and its surrounding grounds without pixilation.
Like the White House, the Vice President’s residence has plenty of on-site security. Former VP Joe Biden allegedly let some of those security secrets slip in 2009, when he told dinner companions about a bunker underneath the home, according to Fox News. His staff later released a statement saying that the VP was referring not to a classified bunker location, but to a secure upstairs workspace.
The U.S. Capitol Building
The U.S. Capitol was another U.S. government site pixelated when Google Earth first launched in 2001. Things got worse before they got better. According to a 2007 article in the Washington Post, Google originally launched its views of D.C. with U.S. Geological Survey satellite imagery that censored the Capitol, as well as the White House. In June 2007, the company opted to use imagery that didn’t block these sites, but that was much older (and blurrier). For a while, D.C. was a confusing mishmash of clear USGS aerial photography and blurry, out-of-date commercial satellite imagery. Today, it’s all cleared up.
Ah, HAARP. The High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program is better known for what it doesn’t do than what it actually does. HAARP is an Alaska-based program for studying the ionosphere, an upper layer of the atmosphere, in hopes of developing better radio communications. To conspiracy theorists, it controls the weather and chemtrails and the minds of the populace and … you get the idea.
Various blog posts and news items claim that HAARP’s facility in Gakona, Alaska, was once blurred on Google Earth. A look through the program’s history page shows no deliberate censorship of the facility, though there are large defects in the satellite data that partially cover the site until 2013. (The facility holds an annual open house and posts pictures of its interior on Facebook, so it’s unlikely that researchers are sweating some overhead shots.)
The Faroe Islands
The Faroe Islands, halfway between Norway and Iceland, were once largely a fuzzy blur on Google Earth. Today, they’re crystal-clear, with the exception of two small islands, Fugloy and Svínoy. An Australian news article once speculated, with no particular evidence, that the blurring had to do with fishing rights. It’s also entirely possible that the blurriness has nothing to do with censorship and everything to do with the technical challenges of getting high-resolution imagery for every place on the planet.
According to Google, some fuzzy places, particularly in remote regions, are simply the result of a lack of good aerial images. When better imagery becomes available, Google incorporates it, so “censored” spots may become clear with the next software update.
Volkel Air Base, the Netherlands
The censorship of Volkel Air Base in the Netherlands was definitely no accident. The air base, which is the site of a U.S. nuclear weapons repository, once appeared as a patchwork of green and white pixels. The presence of the nukes first became wide public knowledge in 2010, when Wikileaks leaked a diplomatic cable that mentioned their existence. The former Prime Minister of the Netherlands confirmed the presence of the nukes in 2013, calling them “absolutely pointless,” according to The Telegraph.
The nukes make it clear why the Dutch felt rather secretive about the base, but Google unblurred it on Sept. 14, 2016.
Noordeinde Palace, the Netherlands
The Dutch are rather famous in satellite-imagery-loving circles for their enthusiastic pixelation. On Google Earth, the country was dotted with pixelated splotches covering military bases, government buildings and more. According to CNN, Dutch law changed in 2013 to lift this censorship, and the Netherlands have become considerably clearer since. (There are some spots, like a blob in Noordwijk aan Zee, where new satellite imagery has yet to become available since the law change.)
Most of the censored areas in the Netherlands used the large, pixelated mask still seen in Noordwijk aan Zee to obscure sensitive sites, but Noordeinde Palace in The Hague got a more personal touch. The office building of the country’s kind was once painstakingly blurred pixel-by-pixel with a much more delicate hand than usually used on the country’s satellite imagery. Until 2013, the palace, as seen on Google Earth, looked like something out of an old Atari game.
The Elmira Correctional Facility, New York
The Elmira Correctional Facility in Elmira, New York, is a maximum-security prison with a wild history. In 2003, two inmates, Timothy Morgan and Timothy Vail, made paper-mache models of themselves using their own hair, left them snuggled in their beds, and escaped through a hole they’d made with a sledgehammer through the ceiling of their cell. They were recaptured two days later. More recently, in the summer of 2017, the prison was hit with a series of brawls involving homemade weapons, according to USA Today.
Around 2006, the images of Elmira on Google Earth were very low-resolution, reportedly over concerns that satellite imagery would be used to stage helicopter escapes from the prison — though it may just have been poor-quality satellite imagery, because the surrounding neighborhoods weren’t particularly sharp, either. However, helicopter escapes have happened. The first, made famous by the 1975 movie “Breakout,” took place at the Santa Martha Acatitla prison in Mexico. New York businessman Joel David Kaplan, who was serving a sentence for killing his business partner while in Mexico, fled the prison by helicopter. He made it to California and was never recaptured, no satellite imagery required. According to Time magazine, Kaplan’s wife had visited the prison a day before the escape with a male companion who seemed to be scoping out the prison yard.
The prison roof became much more clear in a 2013 Google Earth update.
Bhabha Atomic Research Center, India
BARC, or the Bhabha Atomic Research Center, is the home of India’s nuclear power research program. It’s in Mumbai, and its appearance on Google Earth has been a headache for India’s officials. In 2005, the then-president of India, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, called for new laws to obscure India’s sensitive sites; in 2006, the nation’s defense and science agencies started looking into how to obscure or downgrade the available imagery, according to Phys.org.
Little came from these efforts; the sites remain clear. But India’s concerns were perhaps warrented. In 2011, the nonprofit Institute for Science and International Security used Google Earth imagery to suggest that the country might have been building a new uranium-enrichment facility, and it has been tracking the country’s uranium-enrichment infrastructure with satellite imagery since.
Ingolstadt Manching Airport, Germany
Sometimes, a spot that looks secretive on one mapping service is clear as day on another. That’s the case with the Ingolstadt Manching Airport in Germany, a military air base that also serves some private charter flights. On Microsoft’s Bing Maps, the airport is blurred out. On Google Earth, it’s clearly visible. The airport has aerial imagery of its own layout right on its website, so it’s possible that Bing’s blurring is just a holdover from old, redacted satellite imagery and that Google has a less secretive source.
Mystery Square in El Ejido
A persistent Google Earth mystery was the blurring of a single square surrounded by roads and plantations in El Ejido, Spain, at the coordinates 36.747447, -2.718279. The site was clear until an update in 2007, when a blurry mask was added over the square. Rumor had it that the blurs hid a helipad. As of 2013, the square is visible on Google Earth, showing an arid stretch of land, a handful of trees, and buildings and a few roads leading toward the center.
El Ejido is part of the autonomous region of Andalusia. The area is largely agricultural, as the sea of greenhouse roofs visible from Google Earth can attest. On Google Maps, the Street View ends on a dirt road leading to the square.
Malaga Airport, Spain
Another blurred-on-Bing but clear-on-Google spot is one runway of the Malaga Airport in Spain. It’s unclear what could be so sensitive about a single runway, which is the older of the airport’s pair — the runway on the other side of the airport is clear, even on Bing Maps. So are the airport buildings. Some 2012 views of the airport in Google Earth are obscured by an irregular black box, but today the entire airport is visible.
The airport is the fourth-busiest in Spain, serving more than 16 million passengers a year as of 2016, according to the Spanish air navigation agency Aena. Strangely, there are no reports that the country’s busiest airport, the Madrid Airport, was ever blurred.
ExxonMobil Former Buffalo Terminal Site
ExxonMobil’s Former Buffalo Terminal Site in Buffalo, New York, once featured blurred-out buildings, but today the site is no longer ExxonMobil’s — and it’s no longer blurry. ExxonMobile began downsizing this site and selling off portions of it in the 1990s. Today, the old oil refinery is gone, and the only business left is gasoline and oil storage operated by the company Buckeye Partners. The site is visible at the coordinates 42°51’50.92″N 78°49’45.62″W.
It’s not really clear whether ExxonMobil requested this site be blurred for security reasons, or whether Google was simply using more-recent but less-clear imagery for a few years. In both 2006 and 2009 versions of Google Earth, the headquarters building of the site is obscured, but the effect might simply be due to shadows and a low sun angle.
Because of soil contamination from oil spills that threatens the nearby Buffalo River, New York has declared the Buffalo Terminal Site a Brownfield Cleanup site. The state is currently working through the public comment process and developing a plan to prevent contaminated soil from eroding into the waterway, including digging up some areas and disposing of the dirt elsewhere, according to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.
Fort Drum Military Base
Fort Drum is a 167-square-mile (433 square kilometers) military base in upstate New York. Its imagery on Google Earth is clear enough to see parked cars and even a few ant-like human figures walking around.
Multiple news sites report that Fort Drum used to be one of the places censored on Google imagery, but a scroll through Google Earth’s historical satellite data doesn’t show much obvious blurring — though the resolution of the imagery varies quite widely through the years.
Fort Drum is most famous as the home of the 10th Mountain Division, a light infantry division that was, at its founding in 1943, one of the few to receive training in mountain and alpine warfare. Today, the division is no longer focused on mountain training, but the trainees do work in difficult terrain, including in rugged provinces of Afghanistan such as the Paktika province, according to the Army.
Rosas Air Station, Girona, Spain
Secrecy still surrounds the Rosas Air Station on a hilltop near Girona, Spain, at least if you’re using Bing. This station, site of a military radar that monitors Spain’s airspace is blurry on Microsoft’s mapping imagery. Google, though, has a clear view of roads snaking up the hill and a series of low-slung buildings. The site was censored until an update in 2015, according to Google Earth’s history tab; until then, the air station was covered with a green blob. To see what’s there now, enter the coordinates 42°16′45″N 3°14′17″E.
Marcoule Nuclear Site, France
While many nuclear power plants are clearly visible on Google Earth and Bing, the Marcoule Nuclear Site in France remains mostly pixelated. Interestingly, Marcoule hasn’t always been censored: Google Earth’s history tab shows the entire facility in previous versions, the latest dating to March 2016. The current imagery, though, blurs all but the very westernmost edge of the plant.
Marcoule is the site of two tritium-producing nuclear reactors. (Tritium is used as fuel in nuclear fusion reactions.) It’s also the site of research into new reactor technology as well as the decommissioning of older nuclear facilities.
Oorsprongpark 8 (3581 ET Utrecht, the Netherlands)
Google Earth may be keeping fewer secrets these days, but there are still a few spots that remain hidden. One is Oorsprongpark 8 at 3581 ET Utrecht in the Netherlands. This address is deliberately obscured. In older images, it’s covered with a white box. Today, it’s pixelated in green and brown.
The reason for the blurring is unclear; the address, a neat brick building, can be seen clearly from Google Street View.
Camp Shorabak, Afghanistan
Satellite imagery from the remote areas of Afghanistan’s Helmand province has never been the sharpest. Even in the 1990s, when there was nothing to hide in this barren desert, Google Earth’s imagery was a bit of a blur. That hasn’t changed, even as U.S. and British forces moved into the area after the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and eventually built up a base that up to 32,000 people could call home.
Beginning in 2005, the British military started constructing an outpost in this region, northwest of the city of Lashkar Gah, approximately at the coordinates 31°51’59.38″N 64°11’43.67″E. At the peak of the war, this outpost consisted of the British Camp Bastion, the U.S. Marine base Camp Leatherneck, and housing for Afghan Army personnel. Today, the much-reduced base is known as Camp Shorabak, but its contours are vague even as Google’s satellite imagery has sharpened. The camp is visible in Landsat imagery from a broad view, but seems to be swallowed by desert as users zoom in using 2017 Digital Globe and CNES/Airbus imagery.
If the disappearance is due to image censorship (and not just the shrinking of the base as U.S. and British troops pulled out of the country), the camp’s history could offer a clue as to why. In September 2012, a Taliban raid on Camp Bastion killed two U.S. Marines and damaged eight aircraft. Earlier this year, a Taliban raid of 10 fighters on an Afghan army base, Camp Sheehan, killed between 140 and 256 Afghan soldiers.
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