Visualizing a Changing World

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Science  19 Nov 1999:
Vol. 286, Issue 5444, pp. 1497
DOI: 10.1126/science.286.5444.1497a

Last year's El Niño and record temperatures worldwide focused the interest of teachers and students in the Earth and life sciences on global climate change. Numerous reports on the greenhouse effect appear in the media, but understanding the complexity of climate information is a challenge for almost everyone. WorldWatcher is a new (and free) software package that brings hard-to-grasp concepts of atmospheric science to life and helps students visualize and understand large sets of climate-related data.

WorldWatcher was developed by researchers at Northwestern University with support from the National Science Foundation. The software contains a large library of Earth and atmospheric science data. Students may also enter their own data, although, according to the manual, the file import for raw data is somewhat complex and requires “advanced computer skills.” The package is designed to provide students with easy-to-use tools to analyze and view large sets of planet-wide data.

The capabilities of WorldWatcher have been expanded from primarily creating climate visualization maps (Fig. 1) to include the display of line- and scatter-graphs and the performance of calculations on data sets. Simple mathematical operations allow for analysis of the effects of climate changes on surface and water temperatures or on precipitation over the past several years. Data sets for many planetary phenomena have been added since the program's first release in 1996. These range from cloud cover, evaporation, and wind speed data to population density, carbon emissions, and political boundaries. Ecologists may have students plot vascular plant distribution and diversity, solar energy absorbed by plants, dominant vegetation, or chlorophyll concentrations in the oceans. Atmospheric data allow students to observe the greenhouse effect; incoming, absorbed, and reflected energy; and surface temperatures over recent time. Users may find it cumbersome that some of the data are displayed in the English measuring system. The data conversion function does allow the user to convert data into metric values, but it requires that the operator have a basic knowledge of the appropriate conversion equations.

WorldWatcher allows the user to customize output by altering the color of the map, its resolution, and the magnification of the displayed region. The interface is user-friendly and most operations are easy to perform. The Web version comes with a printable 140-page manual that is concise and well written. One important feature of WorldWatcher is the Information button on the toolbar, which gives the user access to an extensive glossary explaining the use and meaning of variables displayed at a given time. The program also contains files of references that were used to compile the data stored in its library. Some of these data can be viewed by simply following the links in the WorldWatcher background sections.

Additional assets to the software include the Notebook function, which allows instructors to create worksheets or problem sets about global warming, rising sea levels, or the greenhouse effect. Worksheets can be designed to contain links to sample data, to the appropriate section of the manual, or to detailed background information about a given problem in the worksheet. New projects and data sets are available for download from the WorldWatcher Web page on a regular basis.

WorldWatcher's strength lies in providing an easy way to superimpose data or analytical results on world maps. The program is suitable for use by Earth science classes from high school through college. WorldWatcher can be obtained through the Internet or installed from a single CD-ROM, which is available free of charge from the Institute for the Learning Sciences at Northwestern University. Although WorldWatcher runs on both Macintosh and Windows platforms, only the Macintosh version can currently be downloaded directly from the Internet. The Web version runs best on PowerMacs with OS 7.0 or later (OS 7.5 is recommended), and requires QuickTime 2.5 or later.

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