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Visualizing the Speed of Light (Fast, but Slow)

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Visualizing the Speed of Light

With the flip of a switch, your room can be instantenously flooded with brightness.

In fact, there is no noticeable lag effect at all.

That’s because emitted photons travel at 186,000 miles (300,000 km) per second, meaning it takes only 1/500,000th of a second for light to reach even the furthest part of an ordinary room. And, if it could go through the wall, it would orbit the entire planet 7.5 times in just one second.

Light Speed is Fast…

In our every day experiences, we never see light as having to “take time” to do anything. It’s inconceivably fast, brightening up everything in its path in an instant — and with a few odd caveats, scientists believe light speed to be the fastest-known achievable pace in the universe.

But what if we get out of our bubble, and look at light from outside the confines of life on Earth?

Today’s animation, which comes from planetary scientist Dr. James O’Donoghue, helps visualize the speed of light in a broader context. It helps remind us of the mechanics of this incredible phenomenon, while also highlighting the vast distances between celestial bodies — even in our small and insignificant corner of the solar system.

Light Speed is Slow…

Once a photon is sent into the vast abyss, suddenly the fastest possible speed seems somewhat pedestrian.

  • Moon: It takes about 1.255 seconds for light to get from Earth to the moon.
  • Mars: Mars is about 150x further than the moon — about 40 million miles (54.6 million km) in the closest approach — so it takes 3 minutes to get there from Earth.
  • Sun: The sun is 93 million miles (150 million km) away, meaning it takes 8 minutes to see its light.

Let that sink in for a moment: the sun could explode right now, and we wouldn’t even know about it for eight long minutes.

Going Further, Taking Longer

If it takes light a few minutes to get to the closest planets, how long does it take for light to travel further away from Earth?

  • Jupiter: The largest planet is 629 million km away when it’s closest, taking light about 35 minutes.
  • Saturn: The ringed planet is about as twice as far as Jupiter, taking light 71 minutes.
  • Pluto: It takes about 5.5 hours for light to go from Earth to the dwarf planet.
  • Alpha Centauri: The nearest star system is 4.3 light years away, or 25 trillion miles (40 trillion km).
  • Visible stars: The average distance to the 300 brightest stars in the sky is about 347 light years.

If you really want to get the feeling of how “slow” light really is, watch the below video and journey from the sun to Jupiter. It’s done in real-time, so it takes about 43 minutes:

So while light obviously travels at a ludicrous speed, it really depends on your vantage point.

On Earth, light is instantaneous – but anywhere else in the universe, it’s pretty inadequate for getting anywhere far (especially in contrast to the average human lifespan).

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Misc

Visualizing the U.S. Airports with the Worst Flight Delays

With flight travel more than tripling in the past 30 years, we break down the most notorious airports in the U.S. with the worst flight delays.

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Visualizing the U.S. Airports with the Worst Flight Delays

They say good things come to those who wait. In the case of flight passengers, however, some may be waiting much longer than others.

With frequent flights comes frequent problems. Unexpected travel irritations, delays, and cancellations are all common issues faced by flyers the world over. Correspondingly, certain airports have developed a reputation for making their passengers wait.

Today’s interactive chart from USAFacts shows the percentage of flights delayed, as well as the average length of those delays, at U.S. airports between October 2018 and September 2019.

The Top 10 Airports With the Longest Delays

In the worst airports across the country, over 25% of all flights get delayed. Here is a list of the top offenders based on percentage of flights delayed and the average delay, according to flight data.

RankCity
AirportPercent of Flights Arriving LateAverage Delay Across Flights
#1NewarkNewark Liberty International 26.5%22 minutes
#2New YorkLaGuardia24.5%19.6 minutes
#3ChicagoChicago O'Hare International 25.5%19.2 minutes
#4BostonLogan International22%17.3 minutes
#5DallasDallas/Fort Worth International23.3%16.5 minutes
#6San FranciscoSan Francisco International22.4%16.2 minutes
#7Fort LauderdaleFort Lauderdale-Hollywood International21.9%16.3 minutes
#8DenverDenver International21.6%15.3 minutes
#9MiamiMiami International21.6%15.3 minutes
#10ChicagoChicago Midway22%13.4 minutes

Newark Liberty International takes the top spot, with 26.5% of all flights taking off late. To make matters worse, it also had the longest average delay time, at 22 minutes per flight. The runner-up is another New York-based airport, LaGuardia, averaging close to 20 minutes per flight delay.

The third worst offender was Chicago O’Hare International airport, where over a quarter of flights arrived late, with an average delay of 19 minutes. Chicago O’Hare International saw more flights than Newark and LaGuardia combined, making average delays more costly.

What’s Behind These Major Flight Delays?

While the New York area hosts two of the worst airports in the country, flight delays are exacerbated by a number of regional factors.

First, it hosts one of the busiest air corridors worldwide. As a result, any unexpected interruption or delay has an outsized effect on flights arriving at their destination on time.

Coupled with this is the commanding presence of United Airlines. As one of the largest airlines in the world, it operates over 401 daily flights at Newark airport. Additionally, United has been known to have operational issues. For example, in June 2019, significant aircraft problems led the Newark airport to suspend flights altogether.

There are four major causes of flight delays: poor weather conditions, late aircraft, carrier related (such as baggage, fueling, or maintenance problems), and airspace system issues.

cause of airport flight delays

According to this data, it’s clear that late aircraft is the most prevalent cause for flight delays that ended up being longer than 15 minutes.

Late aircraft creates a domino effect: when an airplane arrives late at an airport, a following flight that uses the same aircraft will depart behind schedule. In peak months such as July, this contributes to nearly 50% of flight delays.

Worst Months of the Year to Fly

The number of flights on U.S. airlines has more than tripled, from 275 million flights in 1978 to 889 million in 2018.

Along with this, flight activity is typically highest in the summer—coinciding with July’s highest average flight delay of 76 minutes. Months in the summer followed suit, with June averaging 72 minutes per delay and August having an average delay of 71 minutes, among flights that were delayed over 15 minutes.

MonthRankAverage Delay (in minutes)
July176
June272
August371
April471
May570
February669
January

768
September867
March965
November1062
December1160
October1259

Perhaps surprisingly, flights in December bucked this trend. Even as a flight-heavy month, average long delays hovered around 60 minutes during the holiday season.

The 10 U.S. Airports with the Fewest Delays

By comparison, a number of airports appear to have avoided this trap. Data below shows the top airports in the U.S. with the fewest flight delays during the same time period.

Rank CityAirportPercent of Flights Arriving LateAverage Delay Across Flights
#1HonoluluDaniel K Inouye International10.5%6.8 minutes
#2AnchorageTed Stevens Anchorage International11%7.1 minutes
#3LihueLihue Airport10.1%7.7 minutes
#4Long BeachLong Beach Airport12.6%8.4 minutes
#5SacramentoSacramento International14%8.6 minutes
#6KahuluiKahului Airport12.7%8.9 minutes
#7PortlandPortland International13.8%9 minutes
#8San JoseNorman Y. Mineta San Jose International14.9%9.2 minutes
#9Salt Lake CitySalt Lake City International13.3%9.7 minutes
#10Santa AnaJohn Wayne Airport-Orange County14.7%9.8 minutes

As the volume of air travel continues to climb, it is clear that some airports underperform others by a wide margin. To break the vicious cycle of delays, it will be vital for airports to get initial flights departing on time in the first place.

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Economy

Timelapse Maps: An Overview of Our Changing Planet

From rapid urbanization to retreating glaciers, these timelapsed satellite maps capture the drastic changes the Earth’s surface has undergone.

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timelapse map

Humankind’s impact on the world is obvious, but our spatial patterns are sometimes difficult to recognize from the ground.

Publicly accessible, high-quality satellite imagery has been a game changer in terms of understanding the scope of forces such as urbanization and land use patterns.

Google Timelapse Maps

Google Earth’s timelapsed satellite maps capture the drastic changes the planet’s surface has undergone over the past 34 years. Each timelapse comprises 35 cloud-free pictures, which have been made interactive by the CREATE Lab at Carnegie Mellon University.

Three different satellites acquired 15 million images over the past three decades. The majority of the images come from Landsat, a joint USGS/NASA Earth observation program. For the years 2015 to 2018, Google combined imagery from Landsat 8 and Sentinel-2A. Sentinel is part of the European Commission and European Space Agency’s Copernicus Earth observation program.

Deforestation, urban growth, and natural resource extraction are just some of the human patterns and impacts that can be visualized.

Editor’s note: to view the following timelapses, press the play button on any map. You can also view individual years in the time periods as well. On slower internet connections you may need to have patience, as the series of images can take some time to load or display.

Cities and Infrastructure

Urban Growth: Pearl River Delta, China

Up to 1979, China’s Pearl River Delta had seen little urbanization. However in 1980, the People’s Republic of China established a special economic zone, Shenzhen, to attract foreign investment. In the following years, buildings and paved surfaces rapidly replaced the rural settings around the river delta. This is the Lunjiao area just south of Guangzhou.

Urban Growth: Cairo, Egypt

The present-day location of Cairo has been a city for more than 1,000 years, and its constrained urban footprint is now bursting at the seams thanks to Egypt’s population growth. A new city is being built in the nearby stretch of desert land (agricultural land is scarce) that will one day replace ancient Cairo as Egypt’s capital. If the government’s ambitious plans are realized, this desert boomtown could have a population of over 6 million people.

The Egyptian state needed this kind of project a long time ago. Cairo [is] a capital that is full of traffic jams, very crowded. The infrastructure cannot absorb more people.

– Khaled el-Husseiny Soliman

Urban Growth: Phoenix, Arizona

According to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, Phoenix is the fastest-growing city in the United States. Over the past two decades, the suburb of Chandler evolved from agricultural uses to sprawling residential developments. This pattern was repeated in a number of cities in the Southern U.S., most notably Las Vegas.

Construction: The Brandenburg Airport, Germany

Berlin’s long overdue Brandenburg Airport began construction in 2006, with the airport initially expected to open in 2011. However, the airport has been subject to numerous delays and the airport now has a new opening date. Berlin Brandenburg Airport is now expected to open on Oct. 31, 2020.

Megaproject: Yangshan Port

The Port of Shanghai became one of the most important transportation hubs in the world after the completion of its offshore expansion – the Yangshan Port.

Building this massive port was a gargantuan engineering feat. First, land reclamation was used to connect two islands 20 miles southeast of Shanghai. Next, the port was connected to the mainland via the Donghai Bridge, which opened in 2005 as the world’s longest sea crossing. The six-lane bridge took 6,000 workers two and half years to construct.

In 2016, the Port of Shanghai was the largest shipping port in the world, handling 37.1 million twenty-foot container equivalents.

Resource Extraction

Mining: Chuquicamata, Chile

Chuquicamata is the largest open pit copper mine by volume in the world, located 800 miles north of the Chilean capital, Santiago. In 2019, Chile’s national mining company Codelco initiated underground mining at Chuquicamata.

Deforestation: Ñuflo de Chávez, Bolivia

Ñuflo de Chávez is one of the 15 provinces of the Bolivian Santa Cruz Department. Satellite images of southern Ñuflo de Chávez illustrate deforestation from agrarian expansion in the jungles of the Amazon. From the air, the deforestation takes on a unique grid pattern with circular clearings. Developed as part of an organized resettlement scheme, each circle is anchored by community amenities and housing, and surrounded by fields of soybeans cultivated for export.

According to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, 8.4 million soccer fields of land have been deforested in the Amazon over the past decade.

Shale Gas Boom: Odessa, Texas

The small town of Odessa sits in the middle of one of the most productive shale gas regions in the world, the Permian Basin. The region is expected to generate an average of 3.9 million barrels per day, roughly a third of total U.S. oil production. While the gas may come from underground, the pursuit of this source of energy has drastically altered the landscape, marking the terrain with roads, wells, and housing for workers.

Changing Environment

Drying of the Aral Sea: Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan

It took almost 30 years to make a sea disappear. When the Soviet Union diverted the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers to irrigate cotton and rice fields in the 1960s, it turned the Aral Sea into a desert. Once the world’s fourth largest lake, the region is struggling to restore water levels and aquatic habitats.

Glacier Retreat: Columbia Glacier, Alaska, USA

The Columbia Glacier is a tidewater glacier that flows through the valleys of the Chugach Mountains and into Alaska’s Prince William Sound. Increased temperatures initiated a retreat in the length of the glacier over three decades ago. Once in motion, a glacier’s retreat accelerates due to glacial mechanics. It is one of the most rapidly changing glaciers in the world.

Changing Rivers: Iquitos, Peru

Not all change is from humans. There are natural physical processes that continue to shape the Earth’s surface. For example, rivers that experience heavy water flows can be altered through erosion, changing the bends.

Better Perspectives, Better Decisions?

Often, the greatest impacts that occur are out of sight and mind. However, with the increasing availability of satellite technology and improved distribution of images through platforms such as Google Timelapse, the impact of human activity is impossible to ignore.

The bulk of visible changes come from human economic activity, because it is more easily observable on a smaller time scale. However, it’s also worth remembering that there are still many natural processes that take generations, if not thousands of years to affect change.

It is one thing to hear the facts and figures of humankind’s impact on the environment, but to see the change is a whole other story.

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