Geography isn’t supposed to be boring. Maybe you had the same high school lessons that I did: Memorizing the annual soybean output of Ukraine, tons of raw steel produced in Denmark, and the capital of Burkina Faso (it’s Ouagadougou).
But geography comes alive when you take a real look at places. For satellite views, Google Earth is unbeatable. For an online street tour, though, Google Maps is better.
Take Peru, for example. In Google Maps, enter “Lima Mercado Central” in the search box, then zoom in. You’re in the center of Peru’s capital. Hold the mouse button down on any street, then click on the small photo insert. You can now “drive” by clicking.
Street vendors and pedestrians alternate with storefronts, spilling merchandise out onto sidewalks and streets. Some of the vegetable stands offer Zapallo Macre, the incredibly large Peruvian pumpkin.
Life is less hectic at the oceanfront west of Lima (click the gray back arrow and enter “Playa Waikiki” in the search box). The street view reveals stretches of Pacific beach, palm trees and apartment housing on steep cliffs under a cloudy sky. It looks like rain might start any moment, but that’s highly unlikely. Peru and Chile are home to the world’s driest desert, the Atacama. To see it, return to map view, type “Playa Brava” into the search box, then drive down the main road. This isn’t a Florida beachfront. A few small houses sit on miles of sand and stones.
The Panamericana cuts through the desert in plain view of the ocean. There, cold water rises from the deep ocean in a process called upwelling. This brings moisture to the atmosphere, but also causes air to sink. The result is almost constant cloudy, foggy weather.
The Atacama rarely gets hot. The good news about upwelling is that the ocean water scoops up plenty of nutrients for fish, evidenced by the processing plants along some stretches of the Panamericana.
Sometimes, though, warmer water arrives, upwelling stops, and the fish catch declines. This so-called El Niño condition last occurred in March 2017, bringing unprecedented downpours and floods to western Peru.
If you continue south into Chile, the highway moves away from the ocean. Even for Americans familiar with Nevada and Arizona, the view of a completely dry landscape, devoid of any plants, is impressive.
Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor of physical science and director of sustainability at Brenau University. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.