Geoscientist’s Toolkit: Science on a Sphere

An educator from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science presents about sea floor spreading at the Science on a Sphere network meeting in Long Beach, CA (2012).  Image credit: Bill Mitchell.
An educator from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science presents about sea floor spreading at the Science on a Sphere network meeting hosted by the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, CA (2012). Image credit: Bill Mitchell.

One of the coolest tools I’ve had an opportunity to work with in the course of my research, outreach, and explorations of science centers, is the Science on a Sphere (SOS), which can be found at any of more than a hundred museums, educational institutions, and science centers worldwide.

Developed by NOAA, Science on a Sphere is a 1.7-meter diameter globe, surrounded by four projectors, which can display animated digital maps of the globe. Because the display is actually spherical, the maps do not have edges or strongly distorted projections, which can make looking at rectangular maps confusing.* On this display, it makes perfect sense why a flight from Los Angeles to Beijing would go near or over the Aleutian Islands of Alaska.

Many, many maps are available, covering a variety of topics including biology, geology, meteorology, planetary science, oceanography, and geography. There are maps of temperature changes going forward a hundred years, generated for each of the scenarios in the IPCC’s latest report. There are near-real-time maps of clouds seen (in infrared) by NOAA’s GOES and POES weather satellites. A near-real-time feed of earthquakes, coded by size and depth, is provided by the USGS. Following a tsunami, NOAA provides computer model output showing the wave heights as the waves travel across the ocean.

You can see the paths of commercial airplanes, the Earth at night, agricultural regions and their productivity, and the locations of volcanoes worldwide. Even the Moon, other planets (particularly Mars), and the Sun have their own visualizations.

Through the marvels of modern technology, these datasets can be overlain on top of each other, paused, backtracked, and even marked up like a sportscaster.

I spent many hours with the SOS at the Lawrence Hall of Science while I was living in Berkeley. Not only did I have fun talking with visitors about science, but I brought my favorite dataset to Science on a Sphere: near-real-time true-color imagery from the MODIS instrument aboard NASA’s Aqua satellite.

Aqua/MODIS image of Earth, March 30, 2015.  Can you spot Heard Island peeking out from the clouds?  Image credit: NASA.
Aqua/MODIS image of Earth, March 30, 2015. Can you spot Heard Island peeking out from the clouds? Image credit: NASA.

You should see if your local science center has a Science on a Sphere exhibit. The Science Museum of Minnesota does!

* For the curious, SOS maps are stored in an equirectangular (i.e. lat-long) format.

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