Seeing Science Six Miles Up

City patterns, farm history, ancient seabeds, old mountains and new, the why of clouds: take a look

Frequent fliers often don't spend much time looking out the windows, oohing and aahing that they are sitting in chairs six miles high in the sky. If the weather allows, however, there is a lot to be seen and even a lot of science to be learned.

As you take off, cities are presented to you like models on tabletops. The new shape of cities is instantly apparent: so-called edge cities surround the central one. Instead of one hub, there is hub and hub and hub.

Higher still, the natural world underlying the one we've built quickly becomes visible. Flying from the East Coast to the West Coast, we are apt to have a glimpse of the flat coastal plain, through which rivers run to the sea. Quickly, we are crossing the Appalachians, high hills all tending to run from northeast to southwest. These were mighty mountains once, the equal of the Rockies, formed when Africa broadsided North America. Note the clouds along the ridges. They appear stationary, but the water that forms them is constantly moving. As water vapor rises to the crests, it is cooled and condenses out as water droplets, the stuff of clouds. The water is moving with its air mass, however, and as the water drops down the other side of the mountain, it metamorphoses back from liquid to vapor.

Even in the flat Midwest, there's a lot to see. The squares around farms are the Homestead Act printed on the planet itself. Watch to see if dirt roads change color, marking where an ancient sea once covered the whole interior of what is now the United States.

Next come the Rockies, real mountains, geology in action. Glaciers are still grinding them down, and if you could watch long enough, they would become mirror images of the Appalachians. The last mountain range of the trip is not so spectacular but offers an excitement all its own. An avenue of volcanoes reaches from Northern California to the top of Washington State, and some of these peaks are live, as Mount Saint Helens reminded us not that long ago.

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