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Why is the map the way it is?

Dear Dr. Universe: Why is the map the way it is?

– Pablo, Spokane, Wash.

Dear Pablo,

Next time you eat an orange, try getting the peel off in one piece. Next, try to flatten out your peel. You’ll likely find it a bit tricky to make something round perfectly flat.

The same is true when we map our three-dimensional world onto a flat surface. It doesn’t work very well. That’s what I found out when I went to visit my friend Rick Rupp, a Washington State University researcher.

Rupp is an expert on geographic information systems, which can help us capture and analyze the geography of our planet. He explained that maps can show us all kinds of things and even help us solve problems.

For example, maybe you want to find the quickest way to sail across the Atlantic Ocean. Believe it or not, that’s why the map in a lot of classrooms looks the way it does. It was designed to help sailors navigate the seas.

If you look at this map, you’ll see the U.S. and South America on the left, Africa, Europe Asia, and Australia on the right. There’s the Arctic up north and a big landmass of Antarctica down south.

Since it’s hard to get something three-dimensional translated to two-dimensional surface, map makers have to find the best way to communicate the information. Sometimes they make what are called projections. The map we see in many classrooms is a Mercator projection, named after the map maker Geradus Mercator who made it in the 1500s.

While this map might be great for getting across the Atlantic, you might want to find a different map if you are looking to find precise location and sizes of different lands.

Rupp said that on this map Greenland looks just about as big as Africa. But Greenland is actually about 16 times smaller than Africa. And while Alaska looks like a giant frontier, it’s actually smaller than Mexico.

Satellite imaging in the last few decades helped us get a better 3-D image of our planet. We can’t see our whole planet at once, so satellites out in space take pictures of our Earth. This is helping us put together the puzzle of our planet’s geography.

Maps have all kinds of purposes and Rupp has even helped farmers map different kinds soils in Africa from his office right in Washington State. If you made a map, what might it look like? Maybe it would help solve a problem. Maybe it can take you on an adventure. Grab a paper and pencil. Maybe you’ll map out your house, your neighborhood, or even your state. Tell me how it goes sometime at Dr.Universe@wsu.edu.

 

Sincerely,
Dr. Universe

3 Ways to Your Explore Your World from Dr. Rick Rupp

  • Try out a new view of your world. Compare different map projections here.
  • Play with this interactive map to explore actual sizes of countries.
  • Make your own map. Here are some ideas from kids featured on National Geographic.

How does water in the ocean move?

Dear Dr. Universe:

HOW DOES WATER IN THE OCEAN MOVE? I THINK IT’S BECAUSE OF THE WIND.

–Case, 5, Yakima

Dear Case,

You know, most cats like to stay a comfortable distance from water.

But when I got your science question about our big ocean, I was ready to jump right in.

Ocean water moves in all kinds of ways. Waves curl and crash on the shore. Big conveyer belts of water, currents, flow for thousands of miles around our planet. The tides go out and come back in.

And yes, the wind plays a big part in all of it. That’s what I found out when I went to visit my friend Jeff Vervoort, a geologist and professor of oceanography at Washington State University.

If you stand on the shore, you can often hear and feel the ocean breeze. On windy days, waves start stirring. The smallest waves, called capillaries, start growing as the wind blows across their surfaces.

The stronger the wind blows, the bigger the waves can get. They can reach great heights—some as tall as six-story buildings. When the wave reaches shallower waters, it will start to curl, then break.

If you’re anything like me, you might be wondering where the wind comes from, too. Vervoort explained that our planet is rotating around on its tilted axis. The sun heats the Earth unevenly as it turns. These conditions actually affect the air and wind patterns on the planet surface. All of this moving air pushes the water in the ocean around.

Vervoort pulled down an Earth-shaped beach ball from the shelf in his office. He explained that winds blow in different directions. If Earth wasn’t rotating on a tilted axis, winds would blow very differently.

But, because of the Earth’s spin, wind belts in the northern hemisphere bend to the right. It also makes the winds in the southern hemisphere go to the left. Ocean currents bend in the same way, caused by the Coriolis effect.

The moving water can sometimes also act like a food delivery system. Some currents deliver important sources of nutrients and oxygen down to animals that live in the deep ocean.

Other currents bring up nutrients for animals that live near the surface. These nutrients allow tiny organisms—plankton—to live and grow to great numbers. These very tiny plankton get eaten by bigger animals like krill. Krill are an important food source for even bigger animals such as whales.

Meanwhile, back up on the surface tides go in and out. While wind impacts the tides a little bit, they mostly happen because gravity from the moon, and a little less from the sun’s gravity, pull water on Earth.

For the most part when it comes to water moving in the ocean, your hypothesis is correct, Case. It’s wind that mostly keeps our ocean surface in motion.

Sincerely,
Dr. Universe

 

Find this article printed in Washington State Magazine!

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