Categories: AstronomyEnvironment

When Science is Art: a New Map of Wind Patterns

A new map of wind patterns is so visually stunning it’s easily mistaken for art.

This interactive visualization of wind patterns — modeled from the U.S. National Weather Service’s Global Forecast System database — provides nearly current weather conditions on the global scale. And it’s beautiful.

In an interactive form, this data set allows the user to move the globe around (simply drag with your mouse) and zoom in and out (use your scroll wheel). After a few seconds the colors appear in snaking lines, depicting wind patterns at varying speeds. Gentle breezes are thin lines of green, strong winds are light streaks of yellow, and the strongest current are thick lines of red and purple.

A screen capture of the Earth’s north pole at 5,500 meters. The thick purple line is the polar jet stream.

Adjustable parameters also allow the user to view the wind patterns at various heights in the atmosphere, from 100 meters (noted as 1000 hPa in the program) to 26,500 meters (10 hPa) above the Earth’s surface. Simply click on the word “earth” in the lower left-hand corner of the web browser.

At the surface the map is a mirage of blue and green — with fairly gentle wind patterns in green. Circling patterns over the oceans are cyclones. They rotate clockwise over the southern Indian ocean and counter-clockwise over the northern Pacific ocean. If you turn your eyes toward land, you can compare the light summer winds across Australia with the swirling gusts off the northeast coast of Japan.

But you can also graze the jet streams, where thick bands of purple and red dance among the less violent green and yellow streaks. The wavy polar jet stream is entering the U.S. near Seattle, dropping southward near the Rocky Mountains, and then turning northward again just beyond the Great Lakes.  It creates a temperature boundary, where south of the jet stream is warm and north of the jet stream is cold.

Users can view seven different altitudes using eight different map projections. This surprising new look at our own world is stunning in its artistic and educative beauty.

Shannon Hall

Shannon Hall is a freelance science journalist. She holds two B.A.'s from Whitman College in physics-astronomy and philosophy, and an M.S. in astronomy from the University of Wyoming. Currently, she is working toward a second M.S. from NYU's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting program. You can follow her on Twitter @ShannonWHall.

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