Seeing What Only Wind Gods Get To See

Reply Mon 9 Apr, 2012 02:41 pm
Seeing What Only Wind Gods Get To See
April 9, 2012
by Robert Krulwich - NPR

"Dad, what causes wind?" asks 6-year-old Calvin (of the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes).

"Trees sneezing," his dad explains.

"Really?" says Calvin, amazed.

"No," says Dad, "but the truth is more complicated."
Calvin and Hobbes
BU Culture Shock

Well, it's not that complicated. I can do better than Calvin's dad. And anyway, I've just discovered a video (see below) that makes wind startlingly beautiful to think about. If only Calvin were around to show it to. What causes wind?

Well, wind begins with difference.

Little Cloud On A Sunny Day

Think of a patch of ground on a sunny day. Sunshine pours down. The air gets warmer. Along comes a cloud, not a big one, but big enough to cast a shadow. The air in that shadow cools a little.

Now we've got a difference: cool air is sitting next to warm air β€” and the air that's warming up is getting lighter. The air that's cooling down is getting heavier, and as the warmer air rises, the sinking cooler air slips in to take its place. That slipping in? You feel it as a gentle push against your cheek; that's the beginning of a breeze.

Breezes, blustery days, wind β€” all come from warm and cool air slipping, sliding, tumbling, like kittens at play, across the earth. Normally you can't see this happening, but two designers, Fernanda Viegas and Martin Wattenberg, have just made a moving map of the wind. If you were a wind god gazing down at America, this is what you'd see. This isn't a painting. It's the real deal, taken from the government's National Digital Forecast database.

Viegas and Wattenberg have been partners for a while. Their specialty? They say, "We invent new ways for people to think and talk about data." These days they do it for Google in Cambridge, Mass.

And indeed, at their website, you can click on animated maps that will show you today's wind patterns β€”an hour or so after the fact β€” but pretty close to real time, plus they show you wind maps from earlier in the week, so you can see how things change from day to day.

But here's my favorite. It's a March day in 2012, and we're gazing down at America; then, region by region, we take a closer look, first at strong winds blowing in Texas and California, then another wave washing over the Northwest, over to Idaho and Montana, next come breezes moving up the Florida coast, then a quiet blanket of air coming down from Canada, the east looks kind of sleepy, the west all blustery ... ah ... why am I telling you this?

This is a whole lot more interesting than sneezing trees.

PHOTO: of A map illustrating the wind patterns across the United States on March 21, 2012.

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Reply Tue 10 Apr, 2012 11:21 am
Wind At Sea Is Strangely Van Goghish, Says NASA
April 10, 2012
by Robert Krulwich - NPR

Yesterday, we took a look at invisible winds suddenly made visible, streaming across the Earth. This being the blustery season, I've got more wind today, this time streaming across the sea, but looking uncannily like a van Gogh sky.

Most of the surface currents in the ocean are shaped by wind. In this visualization from the folks at NASA, the ocean is rich with lazy spirals that move in great circular sweeps (called "gyres") clockwise in the northern hemisphere, counterclockwise in the south. Think of the ocean surface here as a reflection of the winds above, a kind of watery mirror (though the spinning of the Earth, tugs of sun and moon and obstruction of continents play a part.) Click on this video, and you'll see the dance of wind-on-water everywhere.

I like watching the Gulf Stream roar past the tip of Florida in the beginning, all white and purposeful, heading up the North American coast. There's something playful about water and wind bumping into large land masses likeAfrica, breaking into whirligig spirals, spinning along the shore. Then there's the equator, which in this version seems almost wall-like. As the winds approach it, they flatten into jet like streams racing along a corridor.

What this map doesn't show is the newest discovery created by ocean gyres. It's called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a vast, Texas-sized clump of human garbage floating in the Pacific. Created by a convergence of ocean currents and wind somewhere betweenHawaii andCalifornia, it's not visible from satellites. Apparently, a thick blanket of pop bottles and chemical sludge sinks a little below the surface so it can't be seen from above and, anyway, it turns out garbage doesn't clump in a spiral; it looks more like a Nickelodeon splat, so if we could see the Garbage Patch, it would ruin the mood created here.

This is an image of wild wind, water and spiral beauty. And what does it say about us that our first human mark is a splat that feels like we've dropped some mud onto a van Gogh painting?



Thanks to reader Donald Thomas for mentioning this video yesterday; and also to Jason Kottke, the blogger who gets everything earlier than everybody. Also, Google Earth has an interactive ocean current explorer illustrated here.
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