As global groundwater disappears, rice, wheat and other international crops may start to vanish

from PBS Newshour

We already know that humans are depleting vital groundwater resources across the globe. But a new study shows one of the biggest causes of disappearing groundwater is the international food trade. Read more…

Summer and Waterfalls    

  With the school’s yearbook safely uploaded to the publisher, I can now go back to more routinely posting tidbits of geography. I’ve chosen to “go local” for this post, so apologies to the many readers outside of southern Ontario…

As yet another thunderstorm rolls and bellows overhead, my thoughts turn to the swollen rivers around here. We’ve had more rain than usual; the parks are green, the gardens filled with colour and the rivers high – a great time to go waterfalling – observing the waterfalls, that is, as caution must be exercised around flowing water.
Ontario has one waterfall renowned around the world – Niagara – but there are dozens of others scattered around the province, especially in relation to the Niagara Escarpment. With the escarpment cutting through and around it, Hamilton, Ontario is known as the City of Waterfalls with more than 100 (!) cascades in the surrounding area (maps here). My favourites include Tews Falls, Webster’s Falls in Dundas and Tiffany Falls in Ancaster. Down Stoney Creek way there’s the Devil’s Punchbowl and, on the east “mountain”, where I grew up, visit Albion Falls. All of these are accessible along the Bruce Trail – Canada’s longest and oldest public footpath. In fact, it could be called the trail of waterfalls!

Two websites I turn to for information about waterfalls in this part of the country are Go Waterfalling: Great Lakes Waterfalls & Beyond and the website that supports the book by Mark Harris and George Fischer, Waterfalls of Ontario. Each website has excellent information, maps and details. At Go Waterfalling,there are excellent maps well organized by region and scale including the five Great Lakes, all of Canada and the USA. The label on each map is linked to detailed write-ups for each waterfall and links to the pages of nearby waterfalls – very helpful for planning visits. Waterfalls of Ontario has a slightly different design, using Google maps with pop-up windows, each with a photo and links to longer descriptions. There are also some very helpful lists of waterfalls on their Inventory page (although I notice some of the links are dead; hopefully it’s just temporary).

 For a list of types of waterfalls, try the Wikipedia page or visit the more in-depth article at National Geographic Education. I found a helpful one-page visual guide, shown here, but cannot trace its original source. Of course, what’s a discussion of waterfalls without mentioning sapping – the process of differential erosion that produces waterfalls.

So, if you’re looking for a great outing for the Canada Day holiday on Wednesday, look up a local waterfall and Go Waterfalling! Or, better yet, plan a day trip  visiting a number of falls in the region. Later in the summer, when the water flow becomes safer and the temperatures hit 30°C, get your swim suit on a go for a waterfall plunge. Cool – very cool!

Weekend Wandering 8 – App Review: Earth Primer

EarthPrimerI’m not usually in the habit of reviewing apps, but when Earth Primer came along, I was excited enough by its prospects to give it a try. I must admit to hesitating at the $9.99 price tag, and was thinking I would not bother. [Aside: It’s a shame, really, that we’ve become so highly price-conscious of apps that cost more than a couple of bucks, but that’s the way apps have gone. In fact, I was recently burned after paying $12.99 for an Oxford Atlas that I learned wouldn’t work after upgrading to iOS 8 and that Oxford would not be updating the app – annoying to say the least!] So, in the interests of full-disclosure, I am reviewing a free copy of the app thanks to the author, Chaim Gingold.

Let me start off by saying this is one cool app. I can’t imagine how much I would have loved to “play” with this as a 9 to 11 year old. Over my 20+ years of teaching, I’ve always maintained that if anyone could build learning into a “video game” (then computer game, then app) then we would have the most knowledgeable students around – Earth Primer goes a long way towards fulfilling that notion.

Earth Primer has four “chapters” or areas of learning: 1. Interior, 2. Surface, 3. Water and 4. Biomes. Beginning at the “Core” we work our way out to the “Crust” with “Tectonic Collisions” and “Hotspots” as well. This is well-thought-out with a logical progression of understanding. The convection current animations in the Mantle are effective, so much much so, that I miss them in subsequent animations of “Subduction”, for example. However, beyond a quick mention, where’s the Seafloor Spreading? Rifts are there and a reference to the East African Rift, but it’s difficult to talk about tectonic processes without a page on mid-oceanic ridges and, for example, Iceland. Also, I would have liked to see a connection made between the location of earthquakes, volcanoes and plate margins. What a great animation opportunity!

Another error of omission is an “Atmosphere” component. While some of the atmosphere concepts are covered elsewhere, for example, “Evaporation” is under “Water”, and one can change the temperatures of terrains and add rainfall, there is no treatment of the Sun-Earth energy balance that drives many of Earth’s EarthPrimerGalciersurface processes (and is connected to climate change which is mentioned a few times), there is nothing about climate as a whole except being casually mentioned in the various “Biomes”.

I do like how each chapter is designed, however, around an overview illustration. As well, the Biomes are arranged on a grid from cold to hot and dry to wet – nicely done and great for making connections. But, I miss a map reference when place names are mentioned. This is particularly apparent in Biomes; it appears Biomes could use a bit more work in this area as well as the addition of some photographs, as the animations are poor; e.g. Taiga shows only patchy areas of coniferous forest rather than great swathes of forest as it characteristic of the biome.

The other point of note is that Earth Primer defaults to a strictly linear path through the app. At first, this confused and frustrated me, but then again, I’m not a gamer and this app is made for 9 to 11 year-olds who would be more inclined to follow a linear route and complete tasks to get to the next “level”. While a linear approach seems counter-intuitive to today’s ways of dynamic learning, I understand that knowledge builds on knowledge. If desired, full access to all areas can be toggled on in the iOS Settings screen.

EarthPrimer-SandboxThe interactivity of the animations is wonderful, however, and is Earth Primer’s greatest strength. Each terrain responds to the earth process you introduce: raise/lower bedrock, add/remove sediment, wind, rain, raise/lower sea levels, raise/lower temperature – the permutations and combinations are immeasurable!

One area to spend some time in is the Sandbox. You start by selecting a terrain model. From there, the sky is the limit as to what you do with it. Drop the temperature, add a glacier, raise the sea level, add sand and wind – with each change the animation responds accordingly based on the principles of earth science. As you reduce the temperature, for example, even the tree types change from Tropical Broadleaf, to Temperate Deciduous then to Boreal. What a great way to have students design a terrain then talk you through the changes they make and the results of those changes. It would be nice, though, to see some tectonic sandbox terrains and tools.

Overall, Earth Primer is an intriguing app. It offers an incredible number of interactive animations that explore a large gamut of earth science processes. Animated trees and rocks are simplified into geometric shapes, but are very effective in their presentation. What I find frustrating, though, is that, while the diversity of topics is there for the most part, the depth of presentation and knowledge is, at times, lacking I know, it’s for 9-11 year olds, but there is enough potential built into app for right up to high school.

Further to examples of even greater potential mentioned above, the app explores erosion, transportation and sedimentation but only mentions weathering. And, while river deltas come at the end of “Streams” (under “Surface, not “Water”), it ignores the fact that erosion, transportation and sedimentation have been presented and only gives a still satellite view of the Nile Delta. To me, it seems like an ideal place to use an interactive animation to allow users to create a delta, having it form and grow with the different grades of materials introduced previously in “Sediments” sorting themselves downslope.

Here are summaries of what I’ve found in these first few dips into the app.

Positives…

  • Interactive: it will get kids creating volcanoes and rift valleys, causing erosion with rainfall, etc. They will see the effects of warmer temperatures on glaciers, for example.
  • Animations and visuals are very well done adding to the interactive nature of the app. To be able to rotate and zoom visuals add more rain or higher temperatures, even build a glacier, are all truly amazing.
  • Sandbox: Using a variety of earth processes, although not complete, students can create terrains that they can then explain based on their learning.

Shortcomings…

  • Too shallow in places; e.g Students can create volcanoes, but there is no deeper level to learn more about types of volcanoes, features, location, etc.
  • Too simple: No mention of the Rock Cycle which is a great tie in with the “Interior”, nor climate, not sealer spreading. Mountain-building is limited to pushing up terrain with your finger in “Surface” rather than pushing plates together to cause folding, which could easily be done in “Interior” under “Continental Convergence”.
  • Use precise language in more places; e.g. Instead of “mountains might break down into sand”, the terms weathering and erosion should be introduced, perhaps with a glossary or simple a click on the word brings up a bubble with the definition.
  • Grammatical Errors or typos: e.g. “Volcanoes emit lava which cool [sic] and grow the hard shell of rock…”. Also, no mention is made of  the difference between lava and magma.
  • Earth Science Errors – I noticed some errors perhaps due to the app’s simplistic nature; e.g. at the San Andreas Fault, Earth Primer shows the North American plate moving southeast and the Pacific Plate moving northwest – this is only true in a broad, relative sense. What is actually happening is the North American Plate is moving west-southwest while the Pacific Plate is moving northwest but at a faster rate..
    Another example is with Groundwater: “If the [ground]water hits a dead end it will fill it up, creating a kind of underground lake.” It is simplistic learning like this that needs to be unlearned and re-learned correctly later on in school. It’s not a lake, but an aquifer: an underground layer of rock, sand  or soil saturated with water.

Next Steps:

  • While the soundtrack can be turned off under iOS > Settings, the sound effects cannot.
  • Add a Search function. If a student wants to go to “Erosion” they must guess that it’s under “Water > Streams”, yet erosion can also be the result of wind and glaciers and it is not found under “Sedimentation”.
  • Add map references to places named.
  • Add a slider to change the speed at which animations happen. Although they are meant to represent a thousand years per second, the clouds begin to look like pinballs bouncing around the animations.
  • Add more topics; e.g. some basic earth science topics such as the Rock Cycle and Flood Plains are not mentioned even though magma, lava and meanders are.
  • Add further, more in-depth learning. At $9.99, the price seems steep for this simple level of learning.

So, the bottom line question is this: Is Earth Primer worth the $9.99 being charged? While I applaud the work that has gone into this app, I feel there are too many missed opportunities and errors of omission to make it worth the full price; $3.99 perhaps, Even $4.99, but not $9.99. Earth Primer calls itself “A science book for playful people” – that I agree with! Does it replace a textbook for younger students? While some of the topics are covered at that age, most are not, so Earth Primer becomes a great bridge to further learning. Overwhelmingly, though, Earth Primer is certainly a great way to introduce kids to the dynamics of earth processes.

Another Interactive – Into the Ocean Depths!

bbcoceanIt appears, BBC has been on an exploration kick by creating interactive websites for us to visit new frontiers , albeit from our armchairs! Last week, I highlighted “How Big is Space?“. Today, we’ll dive to the ocean’s greatest depths with BBC’s website: Ocean Trench: Take a dive 11,000m down.

Perhaps due to its earlier design, Ocean Trench is not quite as immersive (no pun intended) as the How Big is Space? site, as it does not fill the screen. You can always reverse-pinch your trackpad or tablet screen to enlarge the presentation. What I do find interesting is the info-box that travels down the right side as you descend. The background becomes darker and darker as you enter the abyssal depths, and the creatures become more and more interesting.

I know, it’s not geography, exactly, but it does help with one’s understanding of the oceans. For more information on Oceans and Oceanography, have look at GeoKnow.net > Hydrosphere > Oceans which includes Oceanography.

Weekend Wandering 5 – The 25 Biggest Turning Points in Earth’s History

BBC25I know – it sounds like another “Big History” website, and it is, but in a simpler format. BBC Earth takes us through the big events in a visually-pleasing, easy-to-navigate way with simple (perhaps a bit simplistic) text and animations.

I find the page provides a great overview of Earth history with its strongest quality being that it is not anthropocentric as so many “Earth history” websites are. Humans are left to the very end; let’s face it, we are but a blip in Earth’s history. (Perhaps that’s the next phase of development: 25 Biggest Turning Points in Human History over on BBC History.) Even better, from an Earth science and biology perspective, is how we can learn about each successive stage as Earth as we know it unfolds. I found it easier to make mental connections between events because each was given as an overview and I didn’t get lost in the details. It is especially helpful to students new to Earth science.

Additionally, although the information is presented linearly (of course it would be), one can use the navigation buttons to the right to skip ahead and back as needed. One improvement would be to add a “hover” title or tag to each button so we know where we’re going.

One highlight for me was learning about C4 photosynthesis. I probably learned about it in botany 30+ years ago, but the short article sparked my interest and caused me to search for more information about it.

So, in one sense, where I would like to see this site develop further is in providing “places to go” to answer the myriad questions spawned by the one, simple paragraph of text per “Turning Point”. Instead of the Facebook, Twitter and Google+ icons, how about links to further knowledge?!

But perhaps that, too, is a strength in that the pages are not polluted by more links. With the world at our fingertips, further questions can be answered with a quick Google/Bing search, albeit, that, too, leads to visual pollution and a form of knowledge pollution with the thousands of “answer” pages out there. I suppose, one could always visit GeoKnow.net for more information – perhaps you’ll find the answer there! 🙂

Enjoy your weekend!

Mountains, clouds and relief precipitation

CroatiaHere in Canada, we are very familiar with how the Coast Mountains of BC influence the precipitation patterns of places along the west coast like Vancouver, Tofino and Ucluelet. It’s a classic case of moist, west winds from the Pacific being forced upwards by the mountains to cool, condense, form clouds and precipitate (CCCP* to my students) providing in excess of 3000mm of precipitation along the coast.

So, it’s interesting to see a similar but quite different phenomenon occurring in Croatia as shown by this NASA Earth Observatory Image-of-the-Day. Instead of west winds from the sea (the Mediterranean, intros case), they are easterlies, so that the moisture is “dumped” on the east side of the coastal range as shown by the cloud.

Have a look at the NASA EO IOTD page for a more thorough treatment of this: Of Mountains and Moisture.

* Of course, CCCP is only significant to old farts like me who remember the USSR and, in my case, their hockey jerseys emblazoned with CCCP. It does make for a good hockey story for my students, though. A little history mixed in with Geography never hurts.