Tag Archives: Science

Scars upon the earth

Since childhood, I’ve been a map hoarder – maps of countries, cities, universities, shopping malls, amusement parks – any graphic representation of places known and unknown. Tracing my fingers along road maps and mountain ranges, I have long been enamored with a map’s ability to create both a comforting since of understanding one’s place, as well as the allure of accessing places previously unknown.

The internet is a treasure trove of maps. I have spent hours happily clicking through old county atlases at Historic Map Works, sometimes for research, sometimes for fun, sometimes to trace the changes on a particular piece of land through decades of maps. However, if I had to give my heart to just one mapping web site – and I hope I’ll never be forced to put all my love in one basket like that – it would be Google Earth/Google Maps.

Through their incredible system of satellite images and street views, Google brings us face to face with ourselves and the effect we have on the planet. Flying over the prairie in Google Earth, we can see every single change human beings have made to the Earth, good and bad. We can see the evidence of our own history.

Earlier this week, I found myself playing with Google Maps, tracing the path of the Santa Fe Trail across Kansas after studying several National Historic Register documents at the Kansas State Historical Society web site. Imagine my sense of wonder, as I scrolled along U.S. 54/400 past Dodge City, and saw this:

Santa Fe Trail ruts west of Dodge City, Kansas
View Larger Map

That curve of tracks, like an archer’s bow holding the string of highway, are the result of thousands of wagons following the Santa Fe Trail, their wheels digging deep ruts into the prairie sod as they made their way along a rough 1,200 mile journey fraught with danger. The route was only officially used by wagons for about six decades, a geological moment in time so small it’s nearly irrelevant. Yet, 130 years after trains replaced wagons as the transportation mode of choice, an arch nearly two miles long remains to tell the story of people willing to put themselves at great risk to cross foreign territory. Over time, it is likely that rivers will shift, the ruts will fill in, or some weather-related catastrophe will obscure them. But right now, we have an easily accessible window from which we can peer into the past and glean understanding from something as simple as the path of thousands of wagon wheels.

And now I’m officially trained to spot weather

It’s hard to think about tornado season when the ground is still covered with snow and ice, but tonight my husband and I went to a Spotter Talk to become trained weather spotters.

Reasons to become a trained spotter:

May 4, 2003 tornado outbreak in Kansas City

The remnants of my godparents' son's house, hit during the May 4, 2003 tornado outbreak in the Kansas City metro area.

Aftermath of the Greensburg, Kansas tornado in 2007.

Aftermath of the Greensburg, Kansas tornado in 2007.

Kansas’ wide-open skies lend themselves to cloud watching. Yet there have been times, especially while on the road, 30 miles away from the nearest exit, when all I could see were dark clouds and I and had no idea whether or not I was in real danger. One summer, we learned the hard way that you can’t always count on the regular radio. Convinced we were seeing a wall cloud, we flipped through the radio stations as we barreled south down the Turnpike toward the Topeka exit. There were no news breaks or updates. Yet when we arrived at the Topeka rest station, other travelers were surfacing from the storm shelter because the sirens had sounded in Topeka.

I’m not likely to turn into one of those insane storm chasers driving right into a storm. But thanks to what I learned during tonight’s 90-minute presentation, you might see me safely driving away from one.