Earth Matters: Stunning perspectives now democratized by drones

When I fly, I get a window seat whenever I can. I press my face against the glass, camera ready, and spend the flight marveling at the shapes in the landscape, how the surfaces turn to art, how places I know from maps are transformed by the light and are so, so small.

I thrill to the way the light plays off rivers, and the discovery of what was once a river system, now dried, still leaving its branching pattern etched beneath the farms. I love thinking about the science of the landscape: why rivers were here, why rivers are the shapes they are, how rivers impacted these lands and were shaped by them over geologic time.

I marvel at the ways we humans interact with the natural world — sometimes training our farms around the contours of a former drainage, sometimes squashing our cities right up to the river’s edge and attempting to keep it there with concrete and stones.

As a young environmentalist, I was knocked off my feet by YannArthus-Bertrand’s book “The Earth from the Air.” I found myself continually asking, “What is that?” as the unfamiliar perspective looking at the Earth twisted the contours of familiar landforms into art on the page by a master photographer.

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When I arrived at UMass a decade later, the images stuck with me. I designed a class called Reading the Landscape, where we learned why landforms have certain shapes, what the bones of these forms are made of, and how (and why) we map them. Every week I would challenge students with one of these pictures, pushing beyond the everyday vantage point to see Earth differently, richer.

I was similarly disoriented the first time I saw an orthomosaic image, electronically stitched together from hundreds of pictures from a drone, or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) or system (UAS). To get our bearings, we tend to seek a horizon line, the spot where the landscape fades into sky in the distance as droplets in the atmosphere impede our line of sight toward infinity until the distance fades into white.

An orthoimage is taken straight down, so there is no such line, no lifeline to tell us which way is up. Because interference is (ideally) at a minimum, colors are bright and crisp; and with hundreds of pictures, detail is exquisite.

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Photo credit: Press


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