Saturday, September 3, 2016

Vacation Science and Geography

Summer 2016 provided opportunity for personal travel to three different vacation venues to visit with family in different regions of our country. Two journeys were extended automobile trips; one was by commercial airline. Each trip provided occasions for scientific and geographic observation and interesting conversation and potential for research when we returned.

Traveling east by automobile or airplane on our spherical planet we were obligated to advance our clocks in order to keep them synchronized with the apparent motion of the sun. Conversely, traveling west we set our clocks back for the same reason. Most human activity correlates with the sun’s apparent motion, particularly in mid-latitude (temperate) and tropical regions where most earth residents live. Frequent adjustment of clock time is an interesting phenomenon of our mobile society. 

From season to season other interesting differences in hours of daylight versus hours of darkness exist between northern and southern cities. We discovered residents of  Ft. Myers, FL experience January day length 1 1/2 hours longer than our nearest large northern city—Chicago, IL. In July, however, summer daylight is 1 1/2 hours longer in Chicago than in Ft. Myers. Our spherical, axis-tilted, rotating earth provides a variety of wonders to enrich our life experience.

The air journey from Chicago to Ft. Myers at nearly seven miles altitude was one of the most interesting flights in our memory. Most fascinating was the flight over the Ohio River floodplain. Turbid Ohio River water sometimes blends grudgingly with clearer water from tributaries. The meanders in the river are beautiful features bearing the imprint of geological history. The rich patchwork of farmland testifies to the energy and creativity of early American farmers who have “subdued the earth” (Genesis 1:28) in the last two centuries as world population swelled from one to seven billion souls. Since 1800 the population of the nascent United States of America has increased by many multiples the world rate of increase.

At nearly seven miles (36000 ft) altitude, more than three quarters of Earth’s atmosphere and 99% of Earth’s water vapor is beneath us. Airliners commonly cruise at this altitude where the outside temperature is roughly -55ÂșC. In mid-latitudes the troposphere, the zone where most of earth’s weather occurs, is beneath the altitude of 11 km. Looking out the window of our airliner, we observed a faint haze surrounding the earth. The troposphere is beneath us with its air, water vapor, and dust particles. Gazing out to the horizon, we might imagine we see the curvature of the earth’s surface above the faint haze. Perhaps this is because in the 21st century scientists have provided ample photographic proof of the entire sphere of Planet Earth. But surprisingly, in the childhood years of millions of senior citizens currently alive, our rocket probes had not yet achieved a height of 65 miles above Earth’s surface.

Outer space is acknowledged as anything 62.5 miles above Earth’s surface or higher. Following World War II American scientists used captured German 1946 V-2 rockets to carry cameras to a height of 65 miles. Grainy black and white pictures provided the first photographic proof of the Earth’s curvature, although in 1935 Explorer II balloons had provided a primitive precursor at an altitude of nearly 14 miles. The Russian launch of Sputnik I in 1957 was generally acknowledged as the beginning of the Space Age. Personally, I witnessed the 1957 Sputnik satellite orbiting the Earth as a tiny, slow-moving speck of light in the pre-dawn skies before commuting to my college classes.

Our automobile journeys were blessed with unusually beautiful displays of various cloud formations. Airline pilots need more than a rudimentary knowledge of meteorology. Location and type of cloud signal weather conditions such as fronts, turbulence, precipitation, and storms. Invisible water vapor in the air condenses to visible droplets of liquid water or crystals of ice when air reaches 100% relative humidity. Watching wisps of cumulus clouds vanish from visibility to invisibility is an instructive activity for young people, illustrating that invisible water vapor is always present in our atmosphere. 

The transitions of invisible water vapor to visible precipitation and back again quench  earth’s thirst and provide a return to fair weather following beneficial rains. Even hurricanes (one is traveling up the US eastern coast as I write) and other flooding rainstorms often provide relief from drought and provide climatic balance for earth residents, notwithstanding their inherent danger to our safety and comfort. On our recent trip to the east coast, we transitioned from locations of overly plentiful rainfall in Illinois to a region of crop wilting drought in Ohio in one afternoon’s drive. The Giver of life-sustaining weather conditions, however, blesses humanity with wisdom to cope with disasters both short and long term and to be intelligently prepared for diverse weather events.

Shifting from earth science to life science, we recount one more vacation experience. Our 11-year old grandson excitedly entered our family reunion rental home in Georgia to announce that dozens of frogs were serenading the neighborhood in the rain by the pool. Sure enough, our flashlight revealed many gray tree frogs inflating their throats to produce a unique nighttime trill. A few weeks later in Florida, we spotted an attractive Cuban tree frog sitting motionless on an outside ledge of our hotel when we returned after dark. Sources report he sometimes feeds on ubiquitous brown anole lizards. The frogs and lizards provided fascination for their northern visitors.

If you have been able to bear with the foregoing stream of consciousness ramblings about our vacation experiences, you may also be able to identify with the message of a popular song from a half-century ago. “What a Wonderful World” is an apt description of how we might react to the ordered and intricately designed world that surrounds us. Its lyrics appropriately express sentiments of those who love the Creator and his created world. “I see skies of blue and clouds of white. The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night. And I think to myself what a wonderful world.”