How To Read The Landscape From Your Airplane WindowS

Do you ever wonder what you're seeing when you look out of your airplane window and spot bizarre red pools or strange green circles on the ground below? You're not alone. We talked to Gregory Dicum, author of the incredible aerial landscape guide Window Seat, about the weirdest and most beautiful views from an airplane. We have a gorgeous gallery.

Dicum told io9 that the landscape people find most mysterious is "big round green circles in the middle of [North America]." (You can see an example in the image above.) So what are those weird circles, anyway? "It's called pivot irrigation," he said. Essentially they are farmlands. He continued, "There's a well at the center of each one and then a long arm with sprinklers on it. So it's sprinkling all aorund the well. At a landscape level you're seeing a map of the aquifer." In other words, this kind of irrigation only works over aquifers, so the larger patterns of circles show where groundwater is easily accessible in the midwest. Dicum noted that these circles peter out in western and eastern regions where there is enough rainfall that farmers don't need to tap aquifers. Pivot irrigation exists all over the world, but is the most common in the US midwest.

Here are some more window views that Dicum recommends. Click to embiggen.

How To Read The Landscape From Your Airplane WindowS

Basin and Range, Hawthorne, NV
Dicum says:

Not only is the basin and range one of the thinnest spots in the earth's crust (resulting in lots of volcanoes!), but people get up to some crazy stuff there too: if you know what to look for your can spot the depressions from nuclear tests, some of the largest weapons depots on the planet, creepy bio- and chem- warfare test ranges, and even the spot where they keep the aliens.

How To Read The Landscape From Your Airplane WindowS

The Himalayas
Those are some serious mountains.

How To Read The Landscape From Your Airplane WindowS

La Paz, Bolivia
Says Dicum:

The highest capital city in the world, it is a real trip. The runway is at 13,000 feet, which means you experience a pressure drop when they open the plane door there. It also has to be very long: you end up going really fast before you lift off, and then only gently. But suddenly it drops off beneath you and you are flying over the city as it falls down the mountainside. and even though you're so high, there are huge mountains towering over you that you need to thread before you can get out of there.

How To Read The Landscape From Your Airplane WindowS

The Great Salt Lake, UT
Dicum enthuses:

So much to see! Besides the geological features (the lake was once part of a huge postglacial body of water, and you can see old shorelines everywhere, and salt flats of course), there is all sorts of human activity: the largest open pit mine in the world, the sprawl of Salt Lake City, old Mormon town grids, strange army bases — and the skies are usually clear!

How To Read The Landscape From Your Airplane WindowS

The Amazon Rain Forest
Dicum calls it "an ocean of green that goes on, uninterrupted, for hours," adding that "flying above things like the Amazon is the only chance most of us have to really check out these massive global features."

How To Read The Landscape From Your Airplane WindowS

The Sahara
"I haven't done this," Dicum admits, "but it's at the top of my bucket list for the same reason I love flying over the Amazon." All you see for thousands of miles are swirling, golden sands and nothing else.

How To Read The Landscape From Your Airplane WindowS

Greenland
This region is "very heavily traveled; thousands of planes a day fly between North America and Europe, and many of them cross the southern tip of Greenland," says Dicum. "It's magnificent: massive glaciers flowing down from the ice cap into the ocean, jagged crags, endless icefields. It's really shocking that we've managed to bugger up something so huge."

If you're flying and want to know what you're seeing, second by second, Dicum and his colleagues have put together a web app that follows any flight in the US, identifying every land feature you're seeing. It's called Mondo Window, and it works on any flight in the US with wifi. Dicum said he's currently working on getting Mondo Window installed on planes so that you can get information about what you're seeing below on your airplane console as you're flying. I would watch the hell out of that.

In the meantime, you can entertain yourself on your upcoming flights by picking up a copy of Window Seat, or Window Seat Europe.

Top photo by Glenn Young via Shutterstock. Everything else from Google satellite photos.