The EarthObserver App, for the iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch, displays natural features and forces on land, undersea and in the air.
Created at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, it works on an intuitive level with touches of the fingers, drawing on dozens of frequently updated databases from institutions throughout the world. For a limited time, it may be downloaded free at the education section of the Apple app store. The app will eventually retail for a small fee.
"This exposes the public to far richer data than has ever been available, in a form that has enormous potential beyond the flat screen of a computer," said William Ryan, a marine geologist at Lamont who directed the project.
Geologic map of the U.S. mainland on the EarthObserver app for iPad (Image courtesy Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory)
With EarthObserver, users can zoom into and explore Pacific deep-sea canyons, or ripple marks in New York harbor. The can visualize Earth's tectonic plates and their rates of movement; or call up histories of earthquakes, volcanoes and other hazards in specific places.
Users can view plankton productivity at river mouths; see Arctic ice cover during different months of the year, or temperatures past and present across the world; plot human populations and indexes of their well-being; or access maps of cloud cover, permafrost or rock types.
"This gives consumers a look at the world in a way they've never seen it before," said Calvin Chu, a senior licensing officer for Columbia Technology Ventures, which licensed the app. "It's the first of its kind that encapsulates this much information."
The application comes with overlays of political boundaries, and includes charts of U.S. offshore waters and lakes, as well as topographical maps of the United States suitable for planning hikes.
Ryan sees benefits not only for students, educators and scientists, but also for members of the public. The ability to pan, zoom, and call up the names of landscape features, elevations of hills and mountains on land and on the seafloor as well as a wealth of other information with the fingers "gives you a tactile experience of touching the Earth that results in a real retention of information," he said.
"It takes what traditionally has been in a big atlas with a complex legend and allows you to just tap your way in," Ryan said.
Among other databases feeding EarthObserver, Lamont's own Marine Geoscience Data System supplies the oceanography. Scientists have already been accessing this data on conventional computers via the observatory's GeoMapApp and 3-D Virtual Ocean; but while free to the public, those research-oriented tools are complex to manipulate.
GeoMapApp, for instance, currently has only about 4,000 users, mostly scientists. "This completely simplifies it and makes it easy to use," said Ryan.
The U.S. National Science Foundation has supported compilation of EarthObserver's base map, with its detailed land elevations and seabed depths.
Many datasets are updated monthly as new information comes in from satellites, research ships and other sources.
Ryan said that ongoing synthesis of other data has come from thousands of scientists, technicians and crew members aboard research ships and on land, and government agencies that have been making all kinds of charts since the 1930s, along with data now coming in from satellites run by NASA and related institutions.
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2011. All rights reserved.