Real-time air traffic reveals modern travel patterns occurring on timescales far more rapid than species migration in the natural world. Illustrating flights taken over two days in September 2013, this clip demonstrates the frequency of plane flights arriving at and departing from airports worldwide. 

Guiding Questions

  • How many airplanes do you think are in the sky at any moment?
  • How far do the farthest planes fly? Why do their paths appear curved in this clip?
  • Do you think people are traveling more on airplanes now than they did 50 years ago? Why? Where are they going?
  • Do airplanes have any impacts on the environment? What makes an airplane go/what fuels it? Are there any byproducts of this fuel?

Sample Lesson that Directly Integrates This Science Visualization

Airplane flying

Planes, Trains, or Bicycles: Being a Low-impact Traveler 
The connectivity of regions around the globe made possible by air travel and other transportation modes comes with environmental costs, such as increased carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. In this activity, students will be transformed into strategically low-impact world travelers.

Connections to Standards

Next Generation Science Standards Disciplinary Core Ideas

  • ESS3.C: Human Impacts on Earth Systems:
    • (5) Human activities in agriculture, industry, and everyday life have had major effects on the land, vegetation, streams, ocean, air, and even outer space. But individuals and communities are doing things to help protect Earth's resources and environments.
    • (6-8) Typically as human populations and per-capita consumption of natural resources increase, so do the negative impacts on Earth unless the activities and technologies involved are engineered otherwise.
    • (9-12) Scientists and engineers can make major contributions by developing technologies that produce less pollution and waste and that preclude ecosystem degradation.
  • ESS3.D: Global Climate Change:
    • ​(6-8) Human activities, such as the release of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels, are major factors in the current rise in Earth's mean surface temperature (global warming). Reducing the level of climate change and reducing human vulnerability to whatever climate changes do occur depend on the understanding of climate science, engineering capabilities, and other kinds of knowledge, such as understanding of human behavior and on applying that knowledge wisely in decisions and activities.
  • ETS1.A: Defining and Delimiting Engineering Problems:
    • ​(9-12) Humanity faces major global challenges today, such as the need for supplies of clean water and food or for energy sources that minimize pollution, which can be addressed through engineering. These global challenges may also have manifestations in local communities.​

California's Environmental Principles and Concepts

  • Principle IV: The exchange of matter between natural systems and human societies affects the long-term functioning of both.
    • Concept a: Students need to know that the effects of human activities on natural systems are directly related to the quantities of resources consumed and to the quantity and characteristics of the resulting byproducts.
    • Concept b: Students need to know that the byproducts of human activities are not readily prevented from entering natural systems and may be beneficial, neutral, or detrimental in their effect.

Vocabulary for Students

  • carbon dioxide: a colorless, odorless gas that is present in the atmosphere, formed during respiration, produced during organic decomposition, used by plants in photosynthesis, and formed when any fuel containing carbon is burned
  • climate change: a regional change in temperature and long term weather patterns
  • fossil fuel: a hydrocarbon deposit, such as petroleum, coal, or natural gas, derived from living matter of a previous geologic time and used for fuel
  • greenhouse gases: gases in Earth’s atmosphere that absorb and reradiate heat near the surface of the planet

How Have Teachers Used this Video Clip?

To Teachers, From Teachers

"How Quickly do Ships Cross the Ocean and How Many Planes Are in the Sky are great videos to show modern transportation. Students get a great visual on human impact by seeing all of those lights and what they represent. The habitat earth video is a great overview that ties in many subjects and provides a scaffold for students to build content on.  Planes, trains or bicycles ties in with our unit on Human Impact and Climate Change." -6th Grade Science Teacher from Stockton, CA

"I would love to use some of the videos and guiding questions as a way to provide connections to real-world phenomenon." -High School Life and Physical Science Student Teacher from Berkeley, CA

Have an idea you'd like us to post on this page? Email us.

Visualizations based on aggregated data provide the unique opportunity to engage your students in various Science Practices highlighted in the Next Generation Science Standards, including asking questions, analyzing and interpreting data, and constructing explanations. As an example, Academy educators developed sample activities such as this one and this one.

Other Related Activities

Fossil Fuels (grades 4-8)
In these two quick activities, students will explore two consequences of burning fossil fuels: air pollution and the greenhouse effect.

Carbon Cycle Role-Play (grades 4-12)
How does the finite amount of carbon on this planet move around in the environment, from one place to another? How do the geosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere interact? In this active demonstration, students will model the carbon cycle, and consider way in which human actions play a role.

Carbon Cycle Poster (grades 4-12)
Working in groups, students can create simple illustrations of how carbon flows between the biosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere and lithosphere. Use the provided materials to tell the story of how human activity can contribute to global climate change.

Recommended Resources

Science News: Visualizing Global Travel
How do animators create clips such as this one? With just numbers, GPS coordinates, spreadsheets, and a few still images!

Tiny Bird, Long Migration
Scientists confirmed that the blackpool warbler—a tiny, 12-gram bird—can migrate incredibly large distances, and make the trip almost entirely over the open ocean.

Science News: Getting to Carbon Negative
This article argues that we could actually go carbon negative by adopting methods that include bioenergy with carbon capture, afforestation, wetland restoration, and improved land-use management.

Data Sources

Real Time Air Traffic

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