High school

Why is flying East faster than West?

After we talked about the universe and its wonders, we spent the second half of my last year in high school studying our own planet. Even though we all live here on the same carrousel that spins around its own rotation axe and revolves around the Sun along with the other planets of our solar system, I realized I actually did not know too much about it.

Again I got super mesmerized by how continents formed billions of years ago and how these continents will evolve in thousands of years. How what we usually call rocks are actually minerals and the stories of their different origins. How earthquakes take place and why in some particular areas, and the importance of volcanoes (that are the actual orchestra directors that back in the days formed all the lands where we stand on) and the fascinating stories of islands that formed over a night, started conquer wars between countries, and then disappeared back in the sea leaving behind some steam and people with mixed feelings. How currents move and produce heat in places that are supposed to be cold (and as an example I would like to mention the El Niño one, that allows a bearable life in Northern Europe) but also how delicate and in danger this balance is and why we have to preserve it.

My mind was drifting away and I was seriously considering the most diverse courses I could choose for my university studies. Indeed, when it came time when I really had to start thinking about making my choice, I still remember what my mother told me, to help me figure out what I wanted to study for the rest of my life: “Think about something you enjoy studying, think about something that as difficult as it could be, it brings you satisfaction once you crack it, because once you will be in university it’s gonna be twice as difficult as it is right now and only if you are enjoying what you are doing, you could successfully earn your degree”. Therefore, as much as I was actually enjoying learning new things about the universe or even my own planet, I knew I would have never been able to actually stand all the physics lectures I would have had to go through and I got back to what I could now define my first and true love: Biology.

However I will talk about this choice soon in a new post, but for now, since I am actually on holidays and going a bit around with planes, today for the srf I will talk about the “Coriolis effect”, an effect that not only influences the movement of gaseous masses, but also planes.

“Science Related Fact” (SRF):

Coriolis force is a fictitious force that acts on objects that are in motion in respect to earth’s surface, determining a deviation from their initial direction. This force was first described in 1853 by the French physics Gaspard Gustave de Coriolis and it might be appreciated in our everyday life by having fun with some friends on a rotating merry-go-round while throwing a ball back and forth. When the merry-go-round is not rotating, throwing the ball back-and-forth is simple and straightforward. However, while the merry-go-round is rotating, if we throw the ball with regular effort, the ball appears to curve to the right. Actually, the ball is traveling in a straight line, but the people throwing the ball on the merry-go-round are moving out of the path of the ball while it is in the air (see picture below).

“Apparent deflection of a plane’s path due to Earth’s rotation and Coriolis Effect”. If a plane flies south from the North Pole across Canada, its path is deflected and curves away to the right of its initial course. Modified from http://kejian1.cmatc.cn

The most important effect of this force is on the winds’ movements: if the earth did not rotate, winds would only flow north-south, migrating between the equator and the poles. But because of the earth’s rotation and the Coriolis effect, these winds are pushed to the side, creating both the swirling shapes of hurricanes and the undulating pattern of the jet stream.

Planes are influenced by the Coriolis effect as well, along with the earth’s atmosphere. When a plane starts to move, it has to start moving relatively to the surface and reach a certain speed to take off: if the plane is moving towards East, its speed is added to the speed of earth’s rotation; if the plane is traveling towards West, it is going against the earth’s rotation and atmosphere, that is dragging the plane along with it. Therefore to go West, we anyway move towards East, but slower than the initial earth rotation, and that is why flying West takes more time than flying east. Moreover, the weather and the winds are influenced by the Coriolis effect, as we mentioned above, and pilots must take that into account when charting flight paths over long distances.

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