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geography

Pop Culture

How GeoGuessr pros can pinpoint any place in the world just from a Google street image

Sometimes it's literally just a field, and they can tell you within a handful of miles where it is on the globe.

Photo by Josh Sorenson/Pexels (left) Canva (right)

Can you tell where in the world this is?

Imagine someone handing you a photo of a random street corner, neighborhood or field anywhere in the world and expecting you to know where it is. Occasionally, you might get lucky and see a sign or a landmark that gives a helpful clue, but chances are good that all you'd have to go from is some vegetation and maybe a building or two to guess from. We live in a huge world—seems impossible, right?

But that's often all that GeoGuessr pros need to be able to tell you in seconds where on the globe the image came from, often within just a handful of miles.


When Swedish IT consultant Anton Wallén launched the GeoGuessr app in 2013, he surely didn't expect it to launch an entire global esport phenomenon. It was just a fun game to be dropped somewhere on the globe and try to guess where you are. But thanks to the pandemic forcing people to travel virtually for a while, it took viral hold as a competitive game in 2021. Now there's even a GeoGuessr World Cup championship, and it's a wild ride to watch.

In fact, these players are so fast at pinpointing locations based on photos that would have most of us scratching our heads, saying, "Heck, that could be anywhere," it's almost hard to watch. Check out even just a minute or so of these highlights:

One of the most popular Geoguessr players on social media is Trevor Rainbolt, one of the hosts of the 2023 GeoGuessr World Cup. While he says he's not as good as some of the other pros, his TikTok account has 2.7 million followers and he consistently demonstrates his ability to find anything on the planet based on an outdoor photo. Literally anything, anywhere.

Rainbolt explained to WIRED some of the tools and tricks of the Geoguessr trade, and it's both incredibly impressive and surprisingly mundane. Obviously, when there are street signs visible that offers a huge clue, but players learn details about every element of different countries' landscapes, from telephone poles to vegetation the way lines are painted on the street to what garbage bins look like in different cities. They even get so specific as the color and texture of soils.

Watch Rainbolt explain:

Geoguessr players educate themselves using Google Maps so thoroughly that they are able to piece together every tiny clue to make an educated guess about where an image comes from. But it's the speed with which the pros make their guesses that's so mesmerizing—the result of years of learning and practice, just like any other highly developed skill.

If this all seems a bit pointless (though one could argue there's always a point to knowing where you are), there are actually some really heartwarming things that have come out of the "geonerd" world. For instance, a woman had a photo of her mom, but zero other information about her. Rainbolt was able to pinpoint the exact location the photo was taken, giving the woman a clue into her own past.

@georainbolt

this one felt good #geo #geoguessr #geography #geowizard

And another similar request yielded similar results:

🫶

Sometimes people's requests are even more challenging, and yet Rainbolt manages to find locations with remarkable accuracy.

@georainbolt

road matching #geo #geography #geowizard #geoguessr #ReadySetLift

People often tell him he should be hired by the CIA or FBI, and for sure that seems plausible. But what's great about what he does is that he explains exactly how he does it. It just takes countless hours over years and years to get to know the planet as well as he and other Geoguessr pros know it.

Anyone can play—just download the GeoGuessr app or play online and give it a go. Fair warning, though. It's not nearly as easy as these guys make it look.

Highly recommend following @georainbolt to watch more.

How did North get to be "up"?

When asked to point to North on a map, we point toward the top. Odds are, when you think of the word, you even associate it with “up.” (Unless, of course, you’re a “Game of Thrones” fan, then you might picture a fictional medieval family with very cool dogs and very, very bad luck.)

But why is North always “up”? Has it always been this way? If not, what was “up” before North? Does any of this matter in a digital age where directions are oriented in an instant?

These questions and more are answered by Jay Foreman and Mark Cooper-Jones, two comedians with a passion for geography who host a YouTube series called "Map Men."

Being Brits, the Map Men tend to cover English topics like explaining “Why East London doesn’t have any bridges” or “What went wrong with the Tube Map.” But their latest video goes into more universal territory, breaking down why nearly every map in the world has North on the top.

Though cartographers have experimented with drawing maps that have words written in multiple directions, they weren’t very user-friendly, and therefore never made it to the mainstream. So, generally speaking, all maps need a top and bottom. That we have agreed on.

ancient maps

Yeah…that's not confusing at all…

Jay Foreman/Youtube

However, earlier cultures would certainly disagree that North belongs on a map’s top. That spot, in their mind, belonged to East, since it produced light, daytime, and all things symbolizing happiness. North, incidentally, symbolized darkness and evil. So, with this 90-degree change of perception in mind, an ancient map would actually have North as East, West as South, South as East and North as West. Are you dizzy yet?

This was how most European maps would have looked well into the 15th century. Although no maps survived from this time period, there are plenty of linguistic clues to prove their existence, such as words in Sanskrit meaning both “South” and “to the right,” for instance.

Going back even further, the ancient Egyptians had South at the top of the map. Considering that so much of Egyptian culture is connected to the sun, one would think they would have the direction that brings the sun every morning on the top of their maps. But as Foreman explains, they oriented their map to the apparent source of the Nile River. The Egyptian might have been ceremonious, but they were also quite practical.

ancint egypt

These guys are hilarious.

Jay Foreman/Youtube

So, how did the North rise up?

Ironically it happened as Eurpoeans were heading West. During The Age of Exploration, explorers began incorporating the use of compasses, which are magnetized toward Earth’s poles, to improve their navigation. The Chinese inventors who created the compass originally decided that the needle pointed toward the South. However, Europeans had already been using the North Star in their navigation for years, and were inclined to keep doing so once they got their hands on the tool.

This innovation helped Europeans spread several Western ideologies, including a North-favoring map, throughout the entire globe. And here we are.

Nowadays, thanks to technology, most digital maps we interact with on a regular basis show whichever direction we are facing as “up,” also making this whole where-does-North-point story a moot one. Except there are still subtle, yet negative ways this might be influencing our world view, since humans naturally read things that are at the top as being superior to things at the bottom.

Going back to “Game of Thrones,” the Starks of the North = good guys. The Lannister of the South = bad guys. Just sayin’.

These are only the bullet points of what Foreman and Cooper-Jones covered, and it doesn't begin to embody their incredible wit and hilarious delivery. Watch them do their thing below:

There was one correction that viewers wanted to make. At one point, Cooper-Jones jokes that even J.R.R. Tolkien didn’t fathom a different orientation while creating the fictional map of Middle Earth for his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, just to illustrate how deeply ingrained the idea is in our collective psyche.

However, one impressive LOTR fan noted that Tolkien DID, in fact, get creative with orientation, writing, “Dwarves put East up on their maps,” and “the Elvish words for ‘north’ and ‘south’ are related to the words for ‘right’ and ‘left’ respectively,” which “strongly implies that Elves and other peoples influenced by them usually drew maps with West upwards.” Proving yet again how in-depth Tolkien’s knowledge is.

It’s interesting to think about how closely linked geography and psychology are. Even something that appears to be a scientific fact, like “North is up,” is really more of a reflection of the times. It’s even more interesting to think about how concepts like these might change along with our own paradigms over time.

Is Atlanta really west of Detroit?

As the old saying goes, “the map is not the territory,” and sometimes maps can be misleading. David Blattman, head of production at Barstool Sports, shared four unbelievable facts about U.S. geography on Twitter, all of which appear to be wildly incorrect, but aren't.

“These geography facts have left me speechless,” Blattman wrote on Twitter.

  • Alaska is the northernmost, westernmost & easternmost state.
  • You can travel north, south, east, or west in Stamford, CT & the next state you hit is NY.
  • Reno is further west than LA.

  • Detroit is further east than Atlanta.

Each one of these bullet points deserves a fact check, but Snopes stepped in to make sense of the last one, which feels false. Is Detroit, a midwestern city, really east of Atlanta, a city that’s a 4-hour drive from the east coast?

Yes, Detroit is east of Atlanta.


“Atlanta is actually west of Detroit. Its coordinates are (emphasis added): 33.7488° N, 84.3877° W while Detroit's are 42.3314° N, 83.0458° W,” Bethania Palma at Snopes confirmed. The fact-checking site reached out to geographer Maria Lane for further comment.

She explained that our eyes are fooled by their locations because the east coast extends further east as it moves north. Conversely, in the south, the coast moves towards the west. This makes Atlanta appear to be much further east.

We are also fooled by how we’ve determined what’s “east coast” and what's "midwest.”

"So it shouldn't be any surprise that places on the southern 'east coast' are further west than places on the northern 'east coast,'" Lane wrote. "And northern places that we consider 'inland' or 'midwest' when compared to those far-north areas of the east coast, can still be relatively farther east than coast-adjacent places in the South."

This Tumblr post from @realtivegeography explains it perfectly.

https://www.tumblr.com/relativegeography/111177770466/atlanta-is-farther-west-than-detroit

So what about the other three hard-to-believe geographical facts?

Alaska is the northernmost, westernmost and easternmost state.

It makes sense that Alaska is the northernmost and westernmost state. It also has the title of easternmost because the Aleutian Islands arc right up to the edge of the Western Hemisphere and cross over into the Eastern Hemisphere. Alaska’s Semisopochnoi Island (179° East) is so far west it actually lies in the Eastern Hemisphere. Alaska’s Little Diomede island lies only 4 km from Big Diomede, a Russian territory. In the dead of winter, when the water around the island freezes, one can walk from the U.S. to Russia in under an hour.

https://mapsontheweb.zoom-maps.com/post/173359016889/due-to-the-aleutian-islands-alaska-is-the

You can travel north, south, east or west in Stamford, Connecticut, and the next state you hit is NY.

Blattman explained this perfectly in a tweet with a map showing how it works.

Reno is further west than Los Angeles.

How can Reno, Nevada, be west of Los Angeles, California? Los Angeles has beaches, and Reno is 128 miles from the coastline. Much like how the east coast recedes west as it heads south, the west coast does the same, pushing Los Angeles to the east of Reno.

reno nevada, los angeles california, west coast

Reno, Nevada in relation to Los Angeles, California.

via Google Maps

There's a big change at the 98th meridian.

Have you ever wondered why the eastern half of the United States is densely populated while everything west of Omaha, save for a few metro areas, is no man’s land?

Most people would assume that it’s because people first settled in the east and moved west. Or, they may believe it’s because of the vast desert that takes up most of the southwest. Those are some decent reasons, but it’s a much more complicated issue than you'd imagine.

A 20-minute video by RealLifeLore explains how topography and rainfall have created what appears to be a straight line down the middle of the country on the 98th meridian that dictates population density. Eighty percent of Americans live on the east side of the line and just twenty percent to the west.


RealLifeLore is a YouTube channel that focuses on geography and topography created by Joseph Pisenti.

In the video, we see that several large cities border the American frontier—San Antonio, Austin, Fort Worth, Oklahoma City, Wichita, Omaha, Lincoln, Sioux Falls and Fargo, as well as Winnipeg up in Canada. To the west of those cities? Not much until you reach western California and the Pacific Northwest.

Why? Watch:

The major reason why the population drastically changes is rainfall. It rains much more on the east side of the line versus the west. The reason for the drastic change in rainfall is that the Rocky Mountains create a colossal wall known as a rain shadow that prevents moisture from passing from the Pacific Ocean. This has created a large swath of dry land that’s not conducive to larger populations.