Virtual views of Earth draw fans, but expose how little we still know of our own planet

A screen capture of a March video showing ocean surface currents between 2005 and 2007.

Courtesy of NASA/SVS

A screen capture of a March video showing ocean surface currents between 2005 and 2007.

The images swept across the Internet last month like a cool breeze over a sun-scorched parking lot. People called them "mesmerizing" and "hypnotic" and "wondrous" and "mind-blowing."

One was a NASA-created video showing all of the world's ocean currents. Called Perpetual Ocean, the 20-minute video tracks all the ocean surface currents that satellites had detected from June 2005 to December 2007. There's no narration, just some spacey music to accompany the swirling blue gyres and curlicues.

"Better than a Van Gogh," raved one website. "NASA has rendered a picture of the ocean that's as gorgeous as the ocean itself."

The other, created by Google's "Big Picture" visualization research group, was an animated map using National Weather Service data to show all the wind currents blowing around the United States. The Washington Post's weather blog noted how the map showed the ways "our nation's streams of flow converge, diverge, accelerate and decelerate as they create our weather."

They were both reminders, just in time for Earth Day today, of how little we really know about the Earth. Neither of the maps that the wired public found so dazzling delved into how the world works the way it does.

Take that NASA ocean currents video. It showed only the surface — not what's going on below the waves, to make them move.

"We know more about the dark side of the moon than we know about the bottom of the ocean," said Steve Murawski, a University of South Florida oceanography professor who previously served as chief science adviser for the National Marine Fisheries Service. "Our knowledge of the ocean is, literally, skin deep."

When the Deepwater Horizon disaster began two years ago, Murawski and other scientists had to say that they didn't really know what the effect might be on the Gulf of Mexico because no one really knew much about the sea life in the gulf.

Now they're trying to play catchup, dispatching research vessels equipped with robotic devices for exploring the vents and crevices of the deep gulf. One ship, the Okeanos Explorer, has remote-operated vehicles scanning the bottom and sending video back to the surface to be posted to a website where the public can watch.

And that's just on a body of water that's encompassed by the southern United States. Oceans around the globe are even bigger mysteries, with research vessels only now discovering creatures living there that seem to have sprung from the imagination of Stephen King. Only 10 percent of the world's ocean bottoms have been plumbed, say federal scientists.

Or take that U.S. wind map from Google. Wind doesn't start and stop at national borders. It circulates across the globe, driven by warming and cooling of the oceans and land.

"Research done in just the past decade has opened our eyes to how the energy of the earth moves around the earth," said Craig McLean, assistant administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's research programs. "We're coming to realize how everything is connected and interrelated."

For instance, Murawski pointed out that deep ocean water beneath the arctic winds up deep in the Gulf of Mexico. Hurricanes that threaten Florida start in swirls of dust off Africa. And McLean pointed out that "what happens in the Indian Ocean has a significant impact on what our seasonal climate will be here. Where is the origin in a system that's continuous?"

Still, McLean said, that continuous linkage can carry a hopeful message for Earth Day —- and a mission as well.

"How we impact our environment locally clearly has global impacts," he said. "What we need to do is figure out the best way to manage this planet, as well as our impact on this planet."

Craig Pittman can be reached at craig@tampabay.com.

.Fast facts

See the visuals

To visit the U.S. wind map and view the three-minute version of NASA's Perpetual Ocean or the Okeanos Explorer video from the Gulf of Mexico through April 28, visit links.tampabay.com.

Virtual views of Earth draw fans, but expose how little we still know of our own planet 04/21/12 [Last modified: Saturday, April 21, 2012 10:17pm]

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