A Day in the Friendly Skies

When people tell me that no one cares about geography (preposterous, I know), I show them things like this.

This short clip, which was sent to me by a former Macalester College professor and current My Wonderful World campaign member, has been “making the blogging” rounds, meaning that it has achieved some degree of viral popularity. It’s a visualization of international flights in a single 24 hour period, produced by the Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW) in Switzerland. While some initially assume that the yellow flight paths depict real GPS traces, they’re actually computer-generated interpolations calculated from flight data. When overlaid on what appears to be a composite of time-elapsed satellite images (can the remote imaging geeks help me verify?), a relatively accurate picture of daily flight trends emerges.

Watch how traffic shifts among the three major hubs in Europe, North America, and Asia/Australasia as the Sun moves from East to West in the image. Not too many red-eye flights, it appears. What other trends do you notice? And why has this two-minute visualization gained such popularity?

To me, it’s all about perspective. As humans on the Earth’s surface, those of us who are not scientists have few opportunities to see forces acting at larger scales. Just as the first captures of Earth transmitted from the Apollo missions have become some of the most iconic images of all time, we’re equally enchanted with the prospect of being able to view our own house on Google Earth. And while we know that there are Walmarts in nearly every county, visualizing the expansion of the chain across the country is a novel experience. Of course, maybe people just like to watch fun videos on the internet, as the meteoric rise of YouTube would suggest.

Sarah for My Wonderful World

Video courtesy ZHAW, image courtesy NASA.

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