Crunching massive, geographical data visualizations used to require expensive mapping software and powerful computers. Now, Google Earth is becoming the go-to application for scientists who need a cheap way to animate huge sets of 3-D data right on their home desktop. These five projects show how a simple tool can reveal hidden patterns in everything from ash to emotions.
On December 15, 1989, the 231 passengers aboard KLM Flight 867 were cruising at 28,000 feet over Alaska when a strange sulfur smell filled the cabin. Suddenly all four engines quit, and the Boeing 747 started to plummet. The pilots had skirted the edge of an ash plume billowing from Redoubt volcano, about 150 miles away. The ash, mostly made of tiny particles of rocks and glass, was almost invisible. “It melted and resolidified inside the engines, and they stalled,” says Peter Webley, a researcher at the University of Alaska’s Volcano Observatory. Flight 867 and its horrified passengers fell more than two miles—13,300 feet—before the pilots managed to restart the engines and land in Anchorage.
To prevent another near-crash, scientists at the university began the Puff Prediction project in 1989 to help air-traffic controllers divert planes away from dangerous plumes. Starting with wind data from the National Weather Service for all altitudes between the Earth’s surface and 52,000 feet, scientists “release a set of virtual ash particles into the model over a volcano and track where those particles go,” Webley says. In 2006, he began to use Google Earth to create three-dimensional animations that show where and when the ash cloud will be at any given time. The puff predictor updates forecasts every six hours for each of a dozen potentially erupting volcanoes in the North Pacific.
National Weather Service forecasters at the Volcanic Ash Advisory Center monitor the puff predictions in Google Earth and alert air-traffic controllers, who create no-fly zones around potentially dangerous plumes. Stalled engines aren’t the sole concern. “It’s like driving behind a truck that’s kicking up stones on the highway,” Webley says, “only you’re traveling at hundreds of miles per hour with little particles smashing into you.” Word has spread, and he regularly gets requests for puff predictions from Australia, Ecuador, Mexico, Italy, Russia—just about anywhere with a volcano and a flight path.single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.