Teaching Geography With Google Maps

Google Maps
Travelers aren’t born, they’re raised.

Last week we talked about how to connect with your kids while you’re away traveling. There are plenty of ways to get them interested in this great big world of ours while you’re both at home too. One of the best and easiest ways to fire their imagination is with Google Maps.

Like many good ideas in our family, my seven-year-old son thought of it first. He’s recently gotten into Internet Radio, especially Tonik Radio out of Dublin. Tonik and most other stations show a Google map with pointers to where their listeners are. I find it kind of freaky that our house is clearly indicated on a map for all the other listeners to see. The kid just thinks it’s cool. He’s of a generation that has always known the Information Age and thus has a whole different attitude towards privacy.

So as he listens to House and Trance he surfs the globe, looking up where the other Tonik Radio listeners are–the cluster of fans in Dublin, the farmer in Israel, and the guy in the apartment block in Sterlitimak, Russia. Zooming in with the power of satellite photography, he can see what far-off countries look like from above. In some places he can even use Google Street View.

Once he gets bored hunting down his fellow radio fans, he starts exploring the Terra Incognita of the spaces between the points. This week he conducted a close-up survey across the Pacific and happened upon the Johnston Atoll, a lonely little former U.S. military base that I had never heard of.

I also show him places where I’ve been. He got an aerial view of the amusement park in Baghdad where I ate mazgouf. When the satellite took its photo, a small plane was flying over the riverside park and left its shadow on the water of the Tigris. A week later I came into my office and he’d found it again. He’s learning to navigate.

I can even show him my past, hovering with him above the Danish farm where I was an exchange student back in my teens. I brought him up the country lane to the nearest highway and its bus stop, the same route I rode with my bike when I wanted to go to Slagelse, the nearest town. The hedge and ditch where I hid my bike before I caught the bus are still there.

Strangely, this obsession with the computer hasn’t killed his interest in regular maps or his light-up globe. So if you have a young kid who’s curious about the world, try surfing Google Maps. It’s more than a bit Orwellian, but it’s a lot of fun.

Image courtesy Google Maps, copyright 2011.

Watch Las Vegas grow over 40 years

Las Vegas wasn’t always as sprawling as it is today. Modern Las Vegas extends far beyond the Strip. It wasn’t all that long ago, however, that Sin City was just a tiny speck on the map. As more Americans – and international travelers, for that matter – discovered Las Vegas and began turning it into a premiere vacation destination, development projects boomed and investments in this urban oasis exploded. Thanks to this time-lapse of NASA satellite images, we can try to wrap our minds around just how far Las Vegas has come since 1972, and how it has grown exponentially over the decades.

What do the next 40 years have in store for Las Vegas? Hopefully an end to that “Whatever happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” slogan.

Impact of climate change on the Himalaya far less than estimated

Climate change in the Himalaya is far less than previoiusly thoughtA new climate change study, released this past Thursday, has surprised some experts and blown some major holes in the doom and gloom predictions that have been given out in recent years. In fact, the new study, which was published in the scientific journal Nature, found that there has been virtually no ice lost in the Himalaya over the past decade, which runs contrary to reports that many climatologists have given over that same time period.

In this new study, satellites were used for the first time to track the loss of ice in glaciers and the polar ice caps. Previously, teams of scientists would have to visit the glaciers themselves, and measure the changes manually. This was a time consuming and challenging process, and only allowed them to visit a few locations. The satellites gave researchers the opportunity to see the big picture more fully, and what they found was quite surprising.

Previous climate change studies estimated that the loss of ice in the Himalaya Mountains was quickly approaching 50 billion tons per year, but the satellites showed that the actual loss was closer to 4 billion tons annually, which one scientist in the study labeled as insignificant. That means that while the glaciers are indeed still melting, they are doing it at a far less alarming rate than we’ve been led to believe in the past. Researchers went on to say that the contribution to rising sea levels, from these melting glaciers and the ice caps, was less than half what had been predicted by other recent reports.

This research project began in 2003 and ran through 2010, giving the scientists involved an opportunity to observe changes over a substantial amount of time. Their findings fly in the face of predictions from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which once predicted that the Himalayan glaciers could be completely gone by 2035, a statement they were forced to retract later.

All of these different climate change reports just indicate to me that we really don’t know what the hell is going on with our planet.

Space junk is out of control, scientists say

space junkIt’s a dilemma faced by every adventure traveler: to find the perfect remote spot untouched by modernity, free from cell phones, television, and trash. Of course there is no such place, not even in space. In fact, the orbital detritus of modern life can be downright dangerous, scientists warn.

A new report from the National Research Council says there are so many bits of trash in orbit, ranging from defunct satellites to fragments like nuts and bolts, that they’re bumping into each other, breaking apart, and making more trash. Around 22,000 large pieces of space junk are tracked from the ground, occasionally prompting the International Space Station to maneuver out of the way, and there are hundreds of thousands of more pieces too small to be detected. It amounts to a cloud of trash surrounding the earth, as this NASA image shows.

This puts current astronauts and future space tourists in peril. With the high velocities objects achieve in orbit, it’s like having hundreds of thousands of bullets flying around the Earth.

space junkAnd it’s getting worse. The BBC reports two satellites crashed in 2009 and broke apart. Also, the Chinese tested a satellite killer in 2007 that successfully smashed up its target into more than 150,000 pieces larger than a centimeter. The U.S. and Soviet Union tested similar weapons back in the 1960s and 1970s, creating their own clouds of debris.

Several manned spacecraft have been hit by space debris. Two Shuttle missions have had radiator panels in the cargo bay punctured by debris. The International Space Station and Mir have both suffered numerous impacts. Sometimes the damage is caused by natural micrometeorites.

One certain impact by space debris was in 1983 when a fleck of paint smacked into the space shuttle Challenger’s front window and left a crater, as you can see in this NASA image.

If a fleck of paint can do this to the Space Shuttle, imagine what an old rocket booster could do.

Lost pyramids found in Egypt

pyramid, pyramids, Egypt, Giza
You’d think it would be pretty hard to lose a pyramid, yet in fact plenty have gone missing in Egypt over the years. Not all of them are giant edifices like the Great Pyramid at Giza. Most are only a dozen or so meters high and were meant to house the body of a Queen. In 2008 the pyramid of Sesheshet was discovered in the desert near Saqqara, and now a survey using infrared satellite imagery has found up to seventeen more.

The survey was conducted by Dr. Sarah Parcak of the University of Alabama at Birmingham. In addition to the 17 suspected pyramids, the survey yielded more than 4,000 other sites, including tombs and towns. Excavations on the ground have confirmed that two of the suspected pyramids are really there and not just natural anomalies. Hopefully there will be further excavations to uncover the rest.

Infrared imaging is commonly used in satellite surveys because it reveals differences in the ground. Stone or harder soil show up as a different shade than loose soil or sand. This has applications in many of fields, and is turning out to be pretty handy in archaeology too.

[Photo of Queen's pyramids at Giza courtesy Daniel Mayer. These are not the ones just discovered by the Dr. Parcak and her team.]