Spherical learning lecture

Presentation reveals new imagery on topics that matter to Alaska

Posted: Friday, March 11, 2011

The sight of a drab blob overlaid atop the middle east was sickening. Even more so was the shocking black patch covering most of the west coast. In size, it dwarfed the blip tucked inside Prince William Sound.

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Information graphics, such as these, were projected on the 6-foot diameter sphere at the Alaska State Museum as part of the final presentation in the Andrew P. Kashevarov Memorial Lecture Series held at noon Wednesday. Many had never been seen before.

Blobs of black and brown on the image represented oil spills and burns — the largest the planet had ever seen. The Exxon Valez oil spill, which tainted the purity of Prince William Sound in the spring of 1989 was tiny, however, compared to one that blackened California. What was first the most productive single oil well in California, became the Lakeview Gusher. It was an immense, out-of-control pressurized oil well resulting in what many regard as the largest oil spill in history, lasting 18 months and releasing 1,227,600 tons of crude oil beginning in 1909. The Exxon Valdez spill dumped 37,000 tons of oil that damaged more than 1,100 miles of non-continuous coastline.

This was an image created by Sara Lee, a self-proclaimed do-all at the museum with a biology background, who had taken an interest in the capabilities of the Science on a Sphere exhibit, which was installed as a permanent exhibit two years ago at the museum. Lee’s talk, entitled “Taking Science for a Spin: Earth Secrets Revealed on the Museum’s Big Ball,” explored an eclectic selection of geographical topics with the use of the visual aid, the SOS.

The 3-D high-tech projection system was created by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as a tool for displaying complex scientific models of earth processes. It illustrates real-time, animated weather patterns, earthquake activity and world-wide flight patterns, to name a few. In all, master computers have the ability to display around 400 images on the sphere.

Lee conducted her own research to create a hefty handful of images, using Photoshop and Map Quest, of particular interest to Alaskans. As far as she knows, she’s the first to create new imagery not already provided by NASA or NOAA. And while she admitted much of her work could still use refining, she displayed her research into the world’s biggest volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and glaciers. Drawing from scientific literature she summarized, for instance, the relative abundance of glaciers around the globe, as well as their status whether retreating, stable, or advancing.

Then there were the oil spills, the migration patterns and the paths early explorers took to arrive at the coast of Southeast Alaska.

Alaskans often hear and see the humpbacks that frequent local waters to feed throughout the year. And many of us know they head southwest toward Hawaii to breed and give birth. But Lee’s imagery of the migration patterns of these mammals revealed paths crisscrossing the world, as if using the oceans as highways.

Throughout the presentation, eyes were wide, some jaws dropped wider as images and animations flashed by. The information was clearly intriguing.

While each image displayed a unique data set, all held the same theme — just about anything can be displayed on the sphere.

It’s Lee’s hope that images of the earth will be replaced by artistic designs and fitting photography — perfect for local artists. She wants to hear from teachers, professors and locals on what they’d like to see depicted on the sphere and how those images can benefit students of all ages.

“But I’m also open to the idea that if there are public entities or public organizations that see this as a facility that might be of use to them, particularly for the educational purposes, that would be great,” she said. “Another way I’d love to see it go is in the direction of the students. I’m not a fantastic, graphic, computer person. I’m not big on technology, so if I can do it, I think anybody else can do it as well.”

The sphere at the state museum is one of two in Juneau. The other is installed at the Ted Stevens Marine Research Institute. Lee estimates there are only roughly 40 other installations around the country. She’s hoping the work she’s done to create localized data sets catches on within that community.

“Now that I’ve put it out there, I can say, ‘Hey I’ve done it, we don’t have to wait for NASA or NOAA to do it.’ I hope other institutions will start to say, ‘You know, we could do that.’ And that, (in turn), would create more imagery available to all.”

The same images displayed at the lecture, will again be shown this summer as appearances are cleaned up and data fine tuned. Lee said these visuals will absolutely become part of the regular summer programs.

• Contact Outdoor editor Abby Lowell at abby.lowell@juneauempire.com.

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