Australia has had its share of natural disasters in recent times. Devastating bushfires in Victoria two years ago, then unprecedented floods and the terror of Tropical Cyclone Yasi this year. It’s difficult to avoid the news of these events and for children, the images can be frightening. During both the bushfires and the Queensland floods, my older children asked whether our house would also flood or burn – it’s tricky to explain the magnitude of natural disasters to a child and equally difficult to explain distance without putting it in perspective.
I recently discovered an online mapping tool that puts major historical events, places and natural disasters in context by using your own street as a starting point. Created for the BBC by BERG, Dimensions is a Google Map–based tool that lets you look at all sorts of things from how far the deepest hole ever drilled would stretch down your street to the area affected by the 2010 Pakistan floods.
There are nine categories including Space, Ancient Worlds, Depths and Environmental Disasters and each is broken down into numerous overlays to map over your own address or any other address. The results are fascinating and school-age children will certainly enjoy the stunning effect of overlaying the moon on their street (it is actually is the size of Australia) and then in contrast, overlaying the distance Neil Armstrong walked when he first stepped on the moon in 1969 (basically equivalent of stepping out your front door, crossing the street and coming back again).
While many of the categories aren’t relevant to children, there is lots to learn about distance and perspective. Adults will be stunned by the maps of some of the historical events and natural disasters that have happened in our lifetime – the area affected by the Chernobyl cloud is chillingly enormous, as is the Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch. In contrast, the area covered by the ancient city of Alexandria, once the trading hub of the world, is almost intimate in its expanse.
There are plenty of other mapping projects online worth checking out – the Life Size Blue Whale is fascinating, The Atlas of the Real World maps human geography and the before and after photos of the Queensland floods are remarkable (all shown below).