As our planet changes, so must our approaches for exploring it and the atmosphere around it.
Time-lapse photography is known for its aesthetic appeal but beyond compelling images, it also has a practical purpose that has become invaluable to scientists – particularly those studying space and the earth’s outer atmosphere.
The progress of time is shown through images captured at regular intervals, played back at a faster frame rate as part of a time-lapse sequence. Natural processes like celestial motion, which are usually too subtle and long-term for the human eye to see and comprehend, are given prominence through time-lapse photography.
The transition from day to night or the movement of stars and other bodies across the night sky are a popular trend for time-lapsers.
One of the true constants to life on earth are these kinds of movements. Time-lapse takes these everyday events but allows us a more immediate perspective of the ever-changing nature of the sky above us.
Celestial phenomenons that appear once every so many years are also especially rewarding to watch through time-lapse as these are things that are not witnessed everyday – or even by many people.
The Northern Lights, or ‘Aurora borealis’ to use their scientific name, are a phenomenon that can be viewed in the northern and southern hemispheres. These ‘dancing’ light displays are caused by collisions between electrically charged particles from the Sun that enter the Earth’s atmosphere.
Generally seen in places with low levels of light pollution, the Northern Lights are ideal for time-lapse capture; a spectacular show is guaranteed with the shifting patterns of light unfolding at a lively pace.
Investigation & education
In addition to visually documenting celestial wonders, time-lapse has been put to use in more formal ways by scientific institutions.
As well as capturing formations of light in our night skies, time-lapse has also been useful for providing a comprehensive perspective of Earth. Not only this, scientists studying changes to our planet find this mode of photography to be an effective way of presenting their research.
NASA satellites have continually being monitoring Earth from space for years. From computer images captured at regular intervals, NASA have produced a time-lapse video showing the periodic growth and shrinking of vegetation and snow coverage.
Gene Carl Feldman of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, refers to this activity as the Earth “breathing every single day, changing with the seasons, responding to the sun, to the changing winds, ocean currents and temperatures.”
Indeed, such a visualisation gives a clear indication of how plant life all over the planet has changed over the last 20 years, helping scientists and researchers to investigate how ecosystems are responding to changing environmental conditions.
Astronauts aboard the International Space Station are also able to add time-lapse to their toolkit. Releasing a time-lapse a day, Paolo Nespoli used daily time-lapse videos to share snippets from his experience during his ‘Expedition 53’ mission to the ISS.
Looking at Earth from space in this way reveals unique and never-before-seen perspectives of our planet: auroras ‘dancing’ over North America, a supermoon rising, and the lights of Bangkok at nighttime. This kind of communication to Earth also highlights the expanses of space that are covered by astronauts each day while undertaking their various missions.
While looking down on Earth from space makes our planet appear almighty in size and significance, when compared to the vast expanses of our universe, we only make up a tiny portion of it.
The above video by John Boswell uses time-lapse to illustrate just how inconsequential our planet and the humanity that it houses is in the grand cosmic scheme of things. Boswell’s animation shows the formation and growth of the universe, beginning with the big bang and ending with the emergence of human kind.
Interestingly, each second in the video represents 22 million years, with humanity appearing at the very last fraction of a second!
Boswell’s voiceover also talks through the basics of this colossal history. From videos like this one, it is clear to see how time-lapse can function as an educational tool; enabling millions of years to be represented in a frame per second.
Even from this handful of examples it is clear how versatile time-lapse can be in terms of its applications in this particular subject area alone. Time-lapse enables the beauty of celestial motion to be relived again and again. And far from simply being put to use for creative purposes alone, this mode of photography is also functioning at scientific levels by recording important changes to our planet.