Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
Learn about the glaciers and lakes you pass by during those long-haul flights.
With little much else to do on a long-haul flight, looking out the window is one way to pass the time. Sometimes all you see is a puffy sea of white, but other times, the views can be inspiring: mountain tops poking through the clouds, majestic glaciers slowly passing by, and entire cities propped up on islands.
To Shane Loeffler, one of the best views of Earth is from a plane—second only to what astronauts see onboard the International Space Station. That’s because of the scale of the view, says the geology student at University of Minnesota*: “You can see how humans are interacting with these landscapes, how they build around them, and you can see these continental-scale processes like mountain ranges in their full scale from an airplane window with your own two eyes.”
But unless you have a geology background like Loeffler does, you probably have little clue about what you’re flying over. And while that information is a Google search away, not every carrier has in-flight wi-fi. So with a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Loeffler created Flyover Country, a new offline app for iOS and Android that will tell users exactly what they are flying over.
Users mark their starting point and destination, and the app will trace the great circle arc between the two points (kind of like the live flight trackers some carriers have as part of their in-flight entertainment system). The app then gathers information from Wikipedia and scientific databases to highlight geological points of interest such as lakes, mountains, glaciers, and fossil locations. Users can download the info before they board the plane, and read mid-flight. The app even tracks the phone’s location in real-time using its GPS system so users can see what points of interest are right underneath them. Loeffler adds that the app can be used during hikes and road trips, as well.
“The National Science Foundations' EarthCube initiative has been making this geoscience data accessible to anyone,” says Loeffler. “So we're just taking advantage of all of that great content and putting it onto a map and saving it on the phone.”
But that’s just the beginning, says Amy Myrbo, an earth science researcher at University of Minnesota* who worked with Loeffler on the app. With additional funding from NSF, the team will also collaborate with scientists to add a whole lot more information for both the average flyer and researchers. Myrbo hopes to include information on oceans and where continents were located in the past, as well as chemistry of rocks and—for kids—geological data collected by students from around the world.
“Shane worked for a planetarium when he was an undergraduate, and so there's sort of an analogy there,” Myrbo says. “If you can show people, put it in front of their eyes, these beautiful things, that can inspire people to learn more about the processes and get excited about science.”
Sure, you can easily pass the time with the carrier’s in-flight entertainment system, but you can only watch so many movies. And yes, you can snooze, but between the shrinking economy seat and the crying toddler nearby, you probably won’t stay asleep for long. So you might as well pass the time by learning something new.
*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated that Shane Loeffler and Amy Myrbo are at University of Minnesota Duluth.