Monday, January 16, 2012

Biology with a Birds-Eye View: From an Airplane Window or Google Earth

One of the last places you would expect to do biology is on an airplane.  As long as you have a window seat however, and can look at the ground you can make some pretty interesting biological observations.  For that matter, you really don’t need an airplane you could simply use Google Earth to make the same observations.  Google Earth is of course the easier and better option of the two though, but either way you can look at the ground and find out some pretty interesting things.  A birds-eye view of the ground can tell you about soils, vegetation, landforms, landscape patterns, and simply be interesting to explore.  In some of my scientific investigations I have spent a lot of time examining Google Earth images looking for vegetation, soil, land form, and land use patterns.  Aerial images truly can be a joy to search through and can yield all kinds of interesting pieces of information.  

Here are some of the things you can discover about the landscape with an aerial photograph:

Land forms: Is the landscape hilly, mountainous, flat, marshy?  Often Google Earths 3-D landscape feature will help with this.

Vegetation: Forest, grassland, desert, agriculture, swamps and all their variations can be identified with aerial photos.  

Soil: Identifying soil is difficult when lots of vegetation is covering the ground.  However, in areas of sparse vegetation such as in deserts or where agricultural fields have been cleared you will be able to identify soil color.  These colors can tell you something about how the soils developed.  Also look for changes in color in the soil across the landscape, often you will be able to identify vegetation changes that go along with soil changes.  

Drainage patterns and waterways: It can be very interesting to see how exactly water moves or drains across the landscape and how this relates to soil color where visible and to vegetation patterns.  It can also be fun to trace a waterway back to its source.

Look for other things also such as abandoned mines, farms, secluded streams, or anything else of interest.  I have searched Google Earth images for hiking trails, specific types of landforms, canyons, rock formations, and anything else of interest I come across.  I have also enjoyed tracing the path of a waterway to see how it changes with distance.  Sometimes, after exploring these aerial images you can then hike or drive through the area you explored, make sure you have legal access to the land before entering the land however.  Also, be extremely careful searching for old mines or farms which can be extremely dangerous.  Obviously you could fall into an old mine and old farms often have unmarked wells.

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