One of my favorite things to do while out in nature is observe patterns. Are the plants taller on some slopes than others? Does the air feel colder near a stream? Do I always see bumblebees visiting certain plants and not others? Making these observations helps me notice and enjoy nature more, and these types of observations are often the first step of doing science! Many, many research projects have started with a simple observation about nature.
But, what can you do when you can’t leave your house? Or when you are curious about an area that you can’t visit? Well, here’s where technology can help us out! A number of parks offer virtual tours: for example, Yellowstone National Park has some fun videos where you can experience the sights and sounds of the park, and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has an immersive virtual tour with spectacular footage.
You can also make your own adventure using Google Earth or Google Maps! On either, try searching for a place you are interested in to see what the land looks like from above (on Google Maps, click on “Satellite” view; on Google Earth, this satellite view is the default view). Then try clicking on street view (the small person-shaped icon) to get a close-up view of the area. Try going up or down mountains, closer or farther from towns, and traveling along the ocean or rivers.
One of my favorite places to check out is the Hawaiian Islands. The islands have formed (and are continuing to form!) over a hotspot, a region of volcanic activity. The hotspot stays in place, while the tectonic plate that holds the Hawaiian Islands slowly moves to the Northwest, so old islands drift to the Northwest while new islands are formed from lava to the Southeast side of the island chain. Try using street view to look at the center of the newest large island, which is the big island of Hawaii. Then try using street view to look at the center of the oldest large island, Kauai. What differences do you notice?
As you look around, ask yourself these questions:
- Can I see rocks or soil? What do they look like?
- Can I see plants? How tall are they? How much of the ground do they cover? Can I identify what type of plants are here?
- Can I see water? How could the presence/absence of water affect the soil and plants? What happens if I move to an area with more or less water?
- Is the ground sloped, or is it flat? If I move to a more or less sloped place, does this affect the rocks and plants that I see?
- Where am I in relation to the ocean or large bodies of water? Water holds a lot of heat, so areas close to a lot of water tend to have a more stable temperature year-round.
- Where am I in relation to the equator? Places farther from the equator get less sunlight over the course of the year and are thus colder.
- What impact does it look like humans have in this area?
Note down any other questions or observations that come to mind. If you want to, you can try to find answers to your questions by looking up more information about the location, but don’t worry about answering all of your questions. Focus on asking questions, because asking questions and being curious is a key scientific skill! When you make observations, notice differences, and ask questions, you are thinking like a scientist, and as with any skill, you get better with practice.