Fractal mystery

By Tom Yulsman | February 17, 2013 3:33 am

Drainages make a fractal pattern in this satellite image accessed with Google Earth from somewhere in the United States. (Image: © 2011 Google)

Something to ponder over coffee on a lazy Sunday: Where is this fractal drainage pattern located?

Leave your answers in the comments below, and we’ll see how long it takes for someone to get it right.

The image a screenshot of a satellite image, and it’s also part of a feature here at ImaGeo that will appear regularly: EarthArt. Google Earth is an amazing tool for exploring the world and finding images like this.

What are fractals? From the Fractal Foundation (who knew that such an organization even existed?):

A fractal is a never-ending pattern. Fractals are infinitely complex patterns that are self-similar across different scales.

Here’s an image of the same region captured from considerably lower — while I was flying on a commercial flight recently:

The same fractal drainage pattern, seen from an airplane. I shot it using my iPhone and processed it with the Snapseed app. (Image: copyright Tom Yulsman)

May the best Discover reader win…

  • PK

    Louisiana, Mississippi delta

  • RG

    Hells Half Acre, Wyoming

  • Ron Broberg

    40*53’38.5″N, 100*32’45.2″W, elev 3000′
    Although you were flying somewhat south, facing north, at something like
    40*50’N, 100*34′, 34000′?, at 2013:01:17 11:19:43
    Close enough? :-)

    • Anisa_Khandkar

      Haha, I thought to pull the metadata too! Couldn’t get any GPS info though…

      • Ron Broberg

        No GPS. But Yulsman labeled the photos as “Nebraska” when he posted them. Didn’t take long to find something similar on Google Maps and confirm it in Google Earth. The irrigation circle in the lower left hand.made an easy confirmation point.

  • Tom Yulsman

    I’ll weigh in later today.

  • Juicy

    Near Lincoln, Nebraska

  • Erika Engelhaupt

    Nebraska seems like a good pick. I’ve seen similar patterns flying over the Alaska Range, but of course the relief was higher and there was more white!

  • Patty McNulty

    brooks range, alaska.

  • david ropeik

    the amazing thing to me is the predictable periodicity of the spacing. i’m sure geologists have studied why the same patterns and spacing between the run-off vallys occur everywhere.

  • Timothy Palla

    sandhills, NE

  • Tom Yulsman

    Darn! I should have remembered to remove the Nebraska label! That’ll teach me to do stuff like this at 2 in the morning. (Couldn’t sleep last night.)

    But actually, no one got it precisely right. This is not north of the Platte River, which was Ron’s guess. It is actually just south and a little east of North Platte, NE, which means south of the river. I don’t know for sure, but I do not believe that it is actually sand hills territory. The heart of that is to the north of the river. (But please correct me if I am wrong.)

    In any case, it is an astonishing place — a stunningly dissected landscape that gives the lie to the stereotype of the Great Plains as an infinitely flat expanse. I’ve driven along the Platte from Colorado to Iowa many times, but I had no idea that a fractal drainage basin was just to the south. Next time, I’m getting off the highway…

    Thank you all for being such good sports. I’ve decided that I’ll do this once a week — a ‘where in the world?’ feature. And I’ll try hard to remember to remove the darn labels. So please make sure to check back!

  • Guest


  • Pingback: Fractals of the Week: Mixopoeia Fractaloides « The Call of Troythulu()



ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.


See More


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Collapse bottom bar