Reading the ABCs from Space

By Adam Voiland Design by Jesse Allen & Paul Przyborski December 15, 2015

A few years ago, while working on a story about wildfires, a V appeared to me in a satellite image of a smoke plume over Canada. That image made me wonder: could I track down all 26 letters of the English alphabet using only NASA satellite imagery and astronaut photography?

With the help of readers and colleagues, I started to collect images of ephemeral features like clouds, phytoplankton blooms, and dust clouds that formed shapes reminiscent of letters. Some letters, like O and C, were easy to find. Others—A, B, and R—were maddeningly difficult. Note that the A below is cursive. And if you can find a better example of any letter (in NASA imagery), send us an email with the date, latitude, and longitude.

When I finally tracked down all the letters and it was time write captions, I happened to be a new dad and deep into a Dr. Seuss reading phase with my son. The Seuss-inspired ABC gallery below is the result. To add some education to the fun, I added hyperlinks (highlighted in blue) to help you find out more about specific places, names, and features. To view a large version of an image, click on it.

A

A, what begins with A? There is Antarctica and the Arctic, algal blooms, acid rain, and the atmosphere. And aerosols altering an astronaut’s view of this ancient assemblage of rock in a state adjacent to Arizona!

An astronaut captured this photograph of Utah’s Green River doubling back on itself—a feature known as Bowknot Bend—from the International Space Station on January 22, 2014.

B

Bonjour B, what begins with B? Biomass and boreal forests. Beirut, Barcelona, and Brasília. A bunch of babbling birds bunched up along Holla Bend.

On August 4, 2014, the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8 acquired this image of the Arkansas River and the Holla Bend Wildlife Refuge. In the winter, it is common for the refuge to host 100,000 ducks and geese at once.

C

Big C, little C, what begins with C? This curving crescent of carbonate and quartz clinging to the coast. There is CloudSat and CALIPSO. Contrails from jets cruising over cumulus clouds. The Corolis force, chlorofluorocarbons, and crafty coccolithophores!

An astronaut captured this photograph of an artificial island at the southern end of Bahrain Island on January 23, 2011. The beach sand on tropical islands is mostly made up of calcium carbonate from the shells and skeletons of marine organisms.

D

What begins with D? Decomposing detritus and dust deposited on a dimpled island during deglaciation. Deserts, deltas, and deforestation. What else? DATA! Data sets…databases…data systems….data visualizations.

The Enhanced Thematic Mapper on Landsat 7 acquired this image of Akimiski Island in James Bay on August 9, 2000.

E

What begins with E? Earth, of course. Evaporation and the exosphere. Egypt and Eyjafjallajökull. Eskers, erratics, El Niño, and EO-1. This ephemeral entourage of algae off the east coast of an island where English is spoken!

On October 25, 2009, the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite captured this image of a phytoplankton bloom off the coast of New Zealand.

F

Big F, little f. What begins with F? Firn-filled fjords and frozen forms on folded, fossil-filled facies of rock! Fog, fossil fuels, and faults. France, Fort Collins, and don’t forget Fiji.

The Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8 acquired this false-color image of valleys and snow-covered mountain ranges in southeastern Tibet on August 4, 2014. Firn is a granular type of snow often found on the surface of a glacier before it has been compressed into ice.

G

Good day, G. What begins with G? Geostationary satellites in geosynchronous orbits. Greenhouse gases and global warming. Glaciers…going, going, gone. These glorious grains of sand gently groomed by the grinding power of the Pacific Ocean.

This image of Pinaki Island was captured by astronauts on the International Space Station in April 2001.

H

Hello H, what begins with H? Haze, hurricanes, and hydrocarbons. Hawaii and Hakodate. Hummocky humus heaped on these hills in the heart of Kyrgyzstan.

On, August 30, 2014, the Operational Land Imager on Landsat 8 acquired this image of rivers running through colorful ridges in southwestern Kyrgyzstan.

I

What begins with I? In situ measurements and infrared radiation. Ice sheets and isthmuses. Istanbul and Ilopango. This intriguing image of India’s Andaman Island after an intimidating incident involving an earthquake.

On February 10, 2007, the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite captured this image of the Andaman Islands. The thin, bright rings surrounding several of the islands are coral reefs that were lifted up by a massive earthquake near Sumatra in 2004.

J

What begins with J? Jason-1 and the jet stream. Jerusalem, Jakarta, and Johnson Space Center. This jade-colored coral reef juxtaposed against the jumble of the sea.

On July 17, 2015, the Operational Land Imager on Landsat 8 captured this image of the Trunk Reef near Townsville, Australia.

K

What begins with K? Kamchatka’s Kizimen, Kronotsky, and Krasheninnikov volcanoes. Kelp, karst, and kettle lakes. Kilauea and Krakatau. Katabatic winds cruising down crevasses of ice in Canada!

On August 3, 2015, the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8 acquired this image of glaciers at the Sirmilik National Park Pond Inlet in Mittimatalik, Canada.

L

What begins with L? Las Vegas and Le Havre. Landsat, lidar, and the lithosphere. These little lumps of frozen liquid littered across the Northeast like lamb’s fleece.

On October 30, 2008, the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on the Aqua satellite captured this image of snow across the northeastern United States.

M

What begins with M? The meandering Mississippi. MODIS and MISR. Mumbai, Miami, and Moscow. These medial moraines merging muck and minerals for millennia!

On August 14, 2015, the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8 captured this image of glaciers in the Tian Shan mountains in northeastern Kyrgyzstan. The trail of brown sediment in the middle of the uppermost glacier is a medial moraine, a term glaciologists use to describe sediment that accumulates in the middle of merging glaciers.

N

What begins with N? Numerous cloud condensation nuclei in the North Pacific! Nefarious nitrogen dioxide and NOx. The near infrared and NDVI and the Nimbus satellite. Nor’easters and the Nile at night.

On March 4, 2009, the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on the Terra satellite captured this image of ship tracks over the Pacific. Ship emissions contain small particles that cause the clouds to form.

O

Olá O, what begins with O? Was it an odd inorganic object from outer space that obliterated this piece of Mauritania? Of course. What else begins with O? The Okavango Delta. Oxbows, oozing lava, and the ozone layer.

On January 24, 2008, the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) on the Terra satellite captured this image of Tenoumer meteorite crater in Mauritania. The meteorite struck Earth between 10,000 and 30,000 years ago.

P

What begins with P? Plumes from Pavlof. Plate tectonics, polynyas, and pumice in pyroclastic flows. Paris and Perth. The powerful push of water polishing pebbles as it passes permafrost along the Mackenzie River.

On August 4, 2005, the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) sensor on the Terra satellite captured this false-color image of the Mackenzie River Delta in Canada.

Q

What begins with Q? QuikSCAT, quakes, and quicksand. The quirky quixotic quartz pebbles in this lake with a queer shape!

On November 29, 2004, the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) on NASA’s Terra satellite acquired this image of Lonar Crater in India. Shocked quartz—minerals with an unusual structure that can only form under intense pressure—offers a clue that the lake was formed by a large meteorite.

R

R, what beings with R? Radiometers and radiosondes. Rome and Rotterdam. The resplendent solar radiation reflecting from the surface of this lake.

On January 20, 2015, the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8 captured this image of Lago Menendez in Argentina.

S

What begins with S? Swirling stratocumulus sliding over salty Atlantic seas! Stratovolcanoes, sulfates, and sunglint. Satellites and spectrometers.

On April 29, 2009, the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on the Terra satellite acquired this image of clouds swirling over the Atlantic Ocean.

T

What begins with T? Taal and Tolbachik. Taiga, typhoons, tornadoes, and thunderstorms. The trove of trees and towns tucked into this terrain in the United Arab Emirates.

On March 9, 2015, the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8 captured this image of development along two roads in the United Arab Emirates.

U

U, what begins with U? Ulaanbaatar. Ultraviolet radiation and urbanization. This undulating uplifted river up in Utah.

On May 9, 2004, the Ikonos satellite captured this image of Gooseneck State Park in Utah.

V

Big V. Little V. What begins with V? Vast volumes of volcanic ash veering in variable winds! Vladivostok, Venice, and Venezuela’s Lake Valencia.

On March 23, 2015, the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8 acquired this image of ash on the snow around Shiveluch—one of the largest and most active volcanoes on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula.

W

What begins with W? Wayward wisps of dust wafting in winter winds. Washington and Warsaw. Water, wavelengths, and weathering.

On January 13, 2009, the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite captured this image of dust blowing over the Red Sea.

X

What begins with X? There are xenoliths, the xylem in xeric woodlands, and the cities of Xian and Xalapa. Not much else begins with X, so relaX and enjoy this eXcellent icy X!

On August 7, 2012, the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) on NASA’s Terra satellite captured this false-color image of the northwest corner of Leidy Glacier in Greenland.

Y

What begin with Y? A youngish underground river yearning for water in northern Namibia. Yellowstone, the Yukon delta, and the Yellow Sea.

On December 25, 2000, by the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) on NASA’s Terra satellite captured this false-color image of the Ugab River in Namibia.

Z

Z, what begins with Z? Zambia and Zimbabwe. Zenith and zooplankton. Zillions of smoke particles zipping, zooming, and zigzagging above Canada!

On July 11, 2012, the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite captured this image of wildfire smoke over Canada.