At the Montana Natural History Center last week, climate scientist Steve Running told some 50 people about one of his favorite examples of what he calls “serendipity science.”
Before him, a digital globe, called a Magic Planet, illuminated the room, showing Earth spinning, city lights aglow on the continents.
“When our satellites orbit, half the orbit is on the sunny side of the Earth, and the other half is in the dark,” Running said. “And the orbit is about 90 minutes long, 45 minutes in the light and then 45 minutes in the dark. We used to just throw away the night stuff.”
Back when computers took much longer to process data, it seemed like a waste of time to look at the dark images. But Chris Elvidge at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration decided, on a curious whim, to look at it one day.
What he saw — twinkling lights illuminating where much of the Earth’s civilization dwells — is now one of the most highly used data sets in all of NASA Earth science, Running said. “And it was totally a fluke.
“Nobody ever built a sensor trying to do this, and he just got curious,” he added. “And I just love the story. For the huge amount of use this gets — a lot of it in socioeconomics, because this tells a lot about population concentration and energy consumption, travel corridors — and yet he just stumbled across it while looking around for the fun of it.”
Running guided the visitors through a fraction of the Magic Planet’s data sets, which show things like ocean currents swirling, the Earth’s biosphere turning green and then white over the seasons, and the way air currents carry ash from a volcanic eruption in the Philippines to every part of the Earth’s atmosphere within several weeks.
“This is a tremendous tool for giving everybody a global perspective of things,” Running said, “and a global perspective of the dynamics of things you just don't ever see otherwise.”
Thursday marked the official unveiling of the Magic Planet, a $30,000 tool recently donated to MNHC by an anonymous donor. Executive Director Thurston Elfstrom said the center’s goal is to connect people with the natural world in an experiential way that “stokes the fire of curiosity.”
Elfstrom invited Running, an emeritus regents professor of ecology at the University of Montana, to demonstrate the Magic Planet’s potential for several reasons.
For one, Running served on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which in 2007 was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts to educate the public about manmade climate change and provide measures for ways to counteract it.
But Running’s connection to the digital globe runs even deeper: ”His data is actually powering this beast,” Elfstrom said.
Running’s research on the Earth’s biosphere, or plant life, is programmed into the globe, showing how the seasons affect the Earth’s plant life cycles. When he first started that work, it wasn't easy to operate with a global perspective.
“Can you remember back to 1980 when we had never really seen the Earth before, other than in Rand McNally maps?” he asked the crowd. “In fact, when I started with NASA, the first question was, ‘We want to study global ecology, how are we going to do that? How could we possibly study the entire world?’
“And so I find it just incredible to now tonight show you what this 40 years of research has done.”
With Elfstrom controlling the globe’s display with a keyboard, Running walked around explaining the meaning of some of the different data sets. The globe already has about 100 different data sets, showing not only Earth’s systems, but also NASA images of planets in our solar system, as well as the Milky Way galaxy.
When the ocean currents appeared on the globe, showing blue swirls all over the Earth, the crowd let out an “Ooo!”
“Yeah, this one is really something, isn’t it?” Running said. “One of the things that we first started understanding from this data is what they call the 'ocean conveyor belt.'”
The conveyor belt, or the ocean currents that move water around the globe, wasn't understood until satellite technology began tracking ocean temperature. We now know it takes about 500 years for water to circulate around the globe.
“In these ocean circulations, one of the things we know for sure is most of the additional global warming energy right now is being absorbed by the oceans,” Running said. “And we can’t tell how and when and where it will bubble back up, which is why we can’t make real precise predictions.”
Other data sets also conveyed how interconnected the Earth’s systems are. When a tsunami occurs in one part of the Earth, the waves bounce off continents until they’ve covered every ocean. When the Pinatubo volcano erupted in the Philippines in 1991, a narrow plume of ash spread and diffused across the entire planet.
“This really shows you how a point source of anything, whether it's a volcano or whether its a coal-fired power plant, or anything like that, this is how fast it diffuses around the whole world,” Running said. “And that's why any kind of air pollution is a global problem, not a local one.”
Air goes around the world in two weeks, which is also why all man-made pollutants can be detected at the South Pole, Running said.
Elfstrom said the globe is one of several new exhibits at MNHC, including a new exhibit that will showcase Montana’s habitats and bioregions. The globe will be on display and available for demonstrations, and people also are welcome to use the touch screen to control the globe themselves, Elfstrom said.
MNHC invites teachers to bring their students to the center to use the digital globe for lessons on global systems. One of the center’s educators has already put together a lesson that demonstrates why Earth experiences night and day. New data sets can also be added to the globe to illustrate other things, like global migration patterns.
Susan Reel, who helped to found MNHC 27 years ago and served on the board of directors for many years, was excited by the presentation and the new exhibits. She said the globe illustrates how everything and everyone on the Earth are connected.
“Don’t you think the bottom line to this whole thing is we just have one planet and something happening in one place, like Africa, affects us all?”