See One of the First Climate Models

May 21st, 2015 by Adam Voiland
climate-models-Calendar-Cover

Columbia University climate scientist Kátia Fernandes appeared on the cover of the 2014 Climate Models wall calendar. The calendar, dreamed up by two science writers at Columbia University, offered a fresh look on the meaning of the term ‘climate model.” Read more about the calendar from AGU’s Plainspoken Scientist blog. Image credit: Charlie Naebeck.

Based on email and social media comments we receive, climate models are one of the least understood and most maligned tools used by Earth scientists.

What is a climate model? Putting aside the scientists from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory who posed for a climate model calendar in 2014 (cover above), climate models are simply mathematical representations of Earth’s climate that are based on fundamental physical, biological, and chemical laws and theories. As NOAA explained in a story about the first general circulation model to include both the ocean and atmosphere, scientists divide the planet into a three-dimensional grid, use computers to solve the equations, and then evaluate the results when they “run” a climate model. As the story noted: “Models calculate winds, heat transfer, radiation, relative humidity, and surface hydrology within each grid and evaluate interactions with neighboring points.” The illustration below should help you visualize how the grids are laid out and some of the physical processes models include.

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Image credit: NOAA

One of the first general circulation models was developed at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory by Cecil “Chuck” Leith in the early 1960s. Unlike the NOAA model mentioned above, Leith’s model only simulated the atmosphere. What make Leith’s work so remarkable was that he was the first to produce a computer animation based on the model output. Watch the video below to see how these wobbling yet compelling animations looked.

From the very beginning, Leith’s animations attracted attention. “The one that I have is essentially a polar projection of the Northern Hemisphere, and you can see the patterns moving in mid-latitudes,” Leith explained during an oral history interview conducted by the American Institute of Physics. “I did it just because I knew we could do it, it would be interesting to look at, but it was almost too interesting. Whenever I’d go anywhere and give a talk about what I was doing, I would show the film and everybody was fascinated by the film, and they didn’t care what I said about the technical aspects of the model, as far as I could tell. And, in fact, Smagorinsky (another pioneer of climate modeling and the first director of NOAA) used to chide me about it a little bit. He says: ‘That’s just big plan showmanship. There’s no science there.’ But they started making movies too.” You can read more about Leith’s animation from Climate Central.

If the animation makes you curious about the history of climate modeling, try this chapter of Spencer Weart’s excellent book “The Discovery of Global Warming,” as well as this excerpt from Warren Washington’s autobiography “Odyssey in Climate Modeling, Global Warming, and Advising Five Presidents.” And if you’re looking for a more current take on climate models, how they work, and how they can be useful, see Motherboard’s new story and video profile (below) of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS). Finally, the TED talk by GISS Director Gavin Schmidt about models and the emergent patterns of climate change is well worth the twelve minutes.

The following is a statement from NASA Administrator Charles Bolden on the House of Representatives’ NASA authorization bill:

“The NASA authorization bill making its way through the House of Representatives guts our Earth science program and threatens to set back generations worth of progress in better understanding our changing climate, and our ability to prepare for and respond to earthquakes, droughts, and storm events.

NASA leads the world in the exploration of and study of planets, and none is more important than the one on which we live.

In addition, the bill underfunds the critical space technologies that the nation will need to lead in space, including on our journey to Mars.”

Elusive Earthquake Imagery

April 29th, 2015 by Adam Voiland
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Clouds obscuring the Operational Land Imager’s view of Kathmandu, Nepal.

Several readers have asked us to post satellite imagery related to the earthquake that struck Nepal on April 25, 2015. While we regularly post imagery of natural hazards, the weather and the satellites haven’t cooperated in this case.

Some people assume NASA’s satellite fleet can collect images of virtually any part of the world in near-real time, but the reality is more complicated. The orbital track of the satellites and the specific capabilities of the sensors on board determine whether we have imagery to share. In the case of Nepal, things haven’t lined up in our favor.

NASA did acquire imagery of Nepal soon after the earthquake. The Aqua and Terra satellites capture images of Nepal every day with their identical Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) sensors. Note, however, the words “moderate resolution” in the name. Each MODIS pixel corresponds to 250 meters of the Earth — not 1 meter or less like you will find if you zoom all the way in on Google maps. MODIS does a fantastic job of showing a broad area, but if you compare an April 22 MODIS view of Nepal with an April 27 view, you’ll see the sensor doesn’t have enough spatial resolution to see changes caused by the earthquake. What’s more, it has been rather cloudy since the earthquake anyway.

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Mount Everest before and after the earthquake. Not much change is visible because of a fresh coat of snow and cloud cover. The April 23 image was acquired by the Operational Land Imager on Landsat 8. The April 28 image was acquired by the Advanced Land Imager on Earth Observing-1.

Other sensors like the Advanced Land Imager (ALI) on Earth Observing-1, the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8, and the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) on Terra have much higher spatial resolution (10, 15, and 15 meters per pixel respectively…good enough to see individual buildings). But each satellite passes over Nepal much less frequently. OLI, for instance, captured imagery of Nepal on April 23, but it isn’t due for another pass until May 9. ALI did get an image of Mount Everest on April 28, but as shown in the images above, there’s no noticeable sign of the earthquake and avalanche due to a fresh coating of snow and some cloud cover. ASTER also was clouded out.

It’s also possible for the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on the Suomi NPP satellite to detect the widespread blackouts that have occurred since the earthquake but, again, the weather has not cooperated. As you can see in the images (below) tweeted by NASA researcher Miquel Roman, clouds blocked the satellite’s view on April 25 (below), 26, and 27.

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Why doesn’t NASA have sensors with extremely high spatial resolution (less than one meter per pixel) that like some commercial satellite companies do? (Some of those satellites have glimpsed damage to individual structures and shown groups of people congregating in streets.) That’s a complicated subject that would need a much longer blog post to explore properly, but the short answer is that NASA’s emphasis is on the broad view—using medium- and low-resolution imagers to understand macro scale processes on Earth.

NASA sensors are sometimes useful for disaster response and often provide a unique and memorable view of an event like a landslide or wildfire. Yet the strength of satellites like Terra, Aqua, Aura, Landsat, CALIPSO, Cloudsat, GPM, OCO-2, Aquarius, and GRACE is that they drive cutting-edge science by providing global perspective. Want a global map  of the world’s fires? Or global view of sea surface temperatures? A map of ground water? A record of how Arctic ice has changed over decades? A view through a smoke plume as it drifts from Asia to North America? A three-dimensional perspective on the world’s forests?  That’s where the NASA satellite fleet shines. For high-resolution imagery of specific events…well, there are plenty of other organizations that specialize in that.

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April Puzzler

April 20th, 2015 by Adam Voiland

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Every month on Earth Matters, we offer a puzzling satellite image. The April 2015 puzzler is above. Your challenge is to use the comments section to tell us what part of the world we are looking at, when the image was acquired, what the image shows, and why the scene is interesting.

How to answer. Your answer can be a few words or several paragraphs. (Try to keep it shorter than 200 words). You might simply tell us what part of the world an image shows. Or you can dig deeper and explain what satellite and instrument produced the image, what spectral bands were used to create it, or what is compelling about some obscure speck in the far corner of an image. If you think something is interesting or noteworthy, tell us about it.

The prize. We can’t offer prize money, but, we can promise you credit and glory (well, maybe just credit). Roughly one week after a puzzler image appears on this blog, we will post an annotated and captioned version as our Image of the Day. In the credits, we’ll acknowledge the person who was first to correctly ID the image. We’ll also recognize people who offer the most interesting tidbits of information about the geological, meteorological, or human processes that have played a role in molding the landscape. Please include your preferred name or alias with your comment. If you work for or attend an institution that you want us to recognize, please mention that as well.

Recent winners. If you’ve won the puzzler in the last few months or work in geospatial imaging, please sit on your hands for at least a day to give others a chance to play.

Releasing Comments. Savvy readers have solved some of our puzzlers after only a few minutes or hours. To give more people a chance to play, we may wait between 24-48 hours before posting the answers we receive in the comment thread.

Good luck!

Tournament Earth 2015 Champion

April 10th, 2015 by Adam Voiland

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Tournament Earth 2015 has come to a dramatic end. Despite some tough match ups, the colorful faults of Xinjiang fought off a bolt of lightning (as seen from the International Space Station), taking the #2 seed from the art division all the way to the championship.

This year’s victory was a first for an image from a Landsat satellite. In 2014, the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on Terra captured the winning shot. In 2013, it was the Advanced Land Imager (ALI) on the Earth Observing-1 (EO-1) satellite. This was also the first year that an image not associated with the Canary Islands won the tournament.

As noted in our original Image of the Day, Piqiang Fault is a northwest trending strike-slip fault that runs roughly perpendicular to a series of thrust faults. The thrust faults are marked by the colorful southeast-to-northeast running ridges. The ridges are offset by about 3 kilometers (2 miles) due to the strike-slip fault. For another perspective on the faults, see how they look in the near infrared and shortwave infrared (below).  In the near infrared, variations in mineral content, vegetation, and water cause the patterns of light and dark. Below that, comparing the differences between 3 shortwave infrared bands highlights the mineral geology surrounding the fault.

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Though obvious from above, the Piqiang Fault can be a challenge to see from the ground. “You can’t actually see the fault unless you hike into the mountains,” explained Sebastian Turner, a geologist who has conducted studies in the area. If you would like to learn more about the geology of this area, I would recommend looking through Turner’s study or this one by Mark Allen.

Thank you for voting!

March Puzzler Answer: NWT Winter Road

March 23rd, 2015 by Jesse Allen

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The answer to the March 2015 puzzler, most commenters agreed, involved snow and ice and cold climates. A great many guesses correctly zeroed in on far northern latitudes, with surmises about pipelines in Alaska, airport runways in Siberia, railroad sidings, and ice roads on frozen lakes. You can see the full answer and image reveal in our March 22, 2015 Image of the Day.

Reader James Simard was the first to get the location fully correct as the winter road in Canada’s Northwest Territories. James wrote:

The world’s longest ice road connects Yellowknife to three diamond mines: Ekati, Diavik, and Snap Lake. Of the 475 kilometers (300 miles) of ice road, 86 percent of it is across frozen lakes.

The ice road is the only overland supply route for the mines. Each winter, a year’s worth of fuel, construction material, heavy mining equipment, and explosives are trucked to the mines. The road provides the most cost-effective method for transporting these supplies.

However James went a step further and said that it was Landsat 8 image (yes!) from April 10, 2014 (alas, no). It turns out my puzzler choice was something that the USGS Earthshots posted online (and James’ detailed quote is from that page). If I had known the USGS folks had run this before, I would not have selected it as a puzzler. This image is actually a much more recent Landsat 8 image from February 24, 2015. I actually stumbled on it while purusing the daily images from a sister satellite instrument, EO-1’s ALI, but the Landsat image three days later covered more of the winter road. Nice find, James! Clearly I need to comb through the Earthshots page in the future first!

I also want to give a special shout-out to reader Shirley. She also got the right answer, giving the full name of the Tibbett-Contwoyto Ice Road. However, she did have an inside track on the answer. She wrote: “My company works on the road every year.”

On Facebook, many people posted correct answers (including James one minute after he posted the answer here). Some readers locked into the correct answer after recalling episodes of the History Channel’s TV series Ice Road Truckers, which focused on the Tibbett-Contwoyto Ice Road during its first season.

If you would like to know more about the Tibbett-Contwoyo Ice Road, check out the references cited on our Image of the Day answer.

March Puzzler

March 16th, 2015 by Jesse Allen

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Every month on Earth Matters, we offer a puzzling satellite image. The March 2015 puzzler is above. Your challenge is to use the comments section to tell us what part of the world we are looking at, when the image was acquired, what the image shows, and why the scene is interesting.

How to answer. Your answer can be a few words or several paragraphs. (Try to keep it shorter than 200 words). You might simply tell us what part of the world an image shows. Or you can dig deeper and explain what satellite and instrument produced the image, what spectral bands were used to create it, or what is compelling about some obscure speck in the far corner of an image. If you think something is interesting or noteworthy, tell us about it.

The prize. We can’t offer prize money, but, we can promise you credit and glory (well, maybe just credit). Roughly one week after a puzzler image appears on this blog, we will post an annotated and captioned version as our Image of the Day. In the credits, we’ll acknowledge the person who was first to correctly ID the image. We’ll also recognize people who offer the most interesting tidbits of information about the geological, meteorological, or human processes that have played a role in molding the landscape. Please include your preferred name or alias with your comment. If you work for or attend an institution that you want us to recognize, please mention that as well.

Recent winners. If you’ve won the puzzler in the last few months or work in geospatial imaging, please sit on your hands for at least a day to give others a chance to play.

Releasing Comments. Savvy readers have solved some of our puzzlers after only a few minutes or hours. To give more people a chance to play, we may wait between 24-48 hours before posting the answers we receive in the comment thread.

Good luck!

February Puzzler Answer: Bang Kachao

March 3rd, 2015 by Kathryn Hansen

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The answer to the February 2015 puzzler does not involve the stomach or kidney as many readers suggested. But if your answer mentioned the organ associated with breathing—the lung—then you were partially correct. The image shows Bangkok’s “green lung.” That’s the nickname given to Bang Kachao, a lush protected area that has escaped the dense development seen elsewhere in Bangkok, Thailand. Read more about the region in the caption of the March 1, 2015, Image of the Day.

In response to the February 24 blog post announcing the puzzler, Robert van den Helm was the first to correctly name the city and country. Tanatakorn was the first to specify Bang Ka Chao (one of a number of alternate spellings for the area).

Paul Mueller contributed colorful details about the region that he calls home—and indicates that stomach would have also been an acceptable answer:

 “It’s my home, Khung Bang Krachao, nicknamed “The Lungs of Bangkok” or, as the locals say in Thai: “Pig’s Stomach”. It is located in a meander in the Chao Phraya River just south of Bangkok. Comprised of six subdistricts with a population of around 10,000 and an area of around 16 square kilometers, it is part of the Phrapradaeng District of Samut Prakan Province. It is an island since there are at least two canals that cut through the “neck” It is also the largest green space in the world next to any city the size of Bangkok or larger, but sadly is being quickly developed. In 1977, the original plan by the government was to buy almost the entire island to preserve it as a green space, but it was only in 1982 that the funding came in, resulting in only a little over ten percent actually being purchased …”

Finally, Rolf Dunker contributed some interesting nuggets of information on Facebook, noting that buildings in the area not to exceed the height of the palm trees.

Thank you for participating in the February puzzler discussion. We look forward to hearing from you again in March!

A Century Studying Flight

March 3rd, 2015 by Mike Carlowicz

“Today marks a special anniversary for the NASA family,” Administrator Charles Bolden wrote in a letter to NASA employees.

On March 3, 1915, the U.S. Congress created the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the organization from which NASA was later created in 1958. Bolden notes that NACA was initially formed because political leaders at the time were concerned that the United States was losing its edge in aviation technology to Europe, where World War 1 was raging.

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One of NACA’s missions was to “supervise and direct the scientific study of the problems of flight with a view to their practical solution.” Research by NACA funded engineers led to fundamental advances in aeronautics that enabled victory in World War II, spawned a world-leading civil aviation manufacturing industry, propelled supersonic flight, supported national security, and laid the foundation for modern air travel and the Space Age. Many names we know from the early days of space exploration got their start at the NACA – including Robert Gilruth, Hugh Dryden, Chris Kraft, Gene Kranz and Neil Armstrong, among many others. A number of the laboratories and wind tunnels built in the NACA era are still at work today.

You can learn more about NACA by visiting this page on the main NASA web site. And you can watch pieces of the centennial symposium here.

February Puzzler

February 24th, 2015 by Kathryn Hansen

puzzler_201502

Every month on Earth Matters, we offer a puzzling satellite image. The February 2015 puzzler is above. Your challenge is to use the comments section to tell us what part of the world we are looking at, when the image was acquired, what the image shows, and why the scene is interesting.

How to answer. Your answer can be a few words or several paragraphs. (Try to keep it shorter than 200 words). You might simply tell us what part of the world an image shows. Or you can dig deeper and explain what satellite and instrument produced the image, what spectral bands were used to create it, or what is compelling about some obscure speck in the far corner of an image. If you think something is interesting or noteworthy, tell us about it.

The prize. We can’t offer prize money, but, we can promise you credit and glory (well, maybe just credit). Roughly one week after a puzzler image appears on this blog, we will post an annotated and captioned version as our Image of the Day. In the credits, we’ll acknowledge the person who was first to correctly ID the image. We’ll also recognize people who offer the most interesting tidbits of information about the geological, meteorological, or human processes that have played a role in molding the landscape. Please include your preferred name or alias with your comment. If you work for or attend an institution that you want us to recognize, please mention that as well.

Recent winners. If you’ve won the puzzler in the last few months or work in geospatial imaging, please sit on your hands for at least a  day to give others a chance to play.

Releasing Comments. Savvy readers have solved some of our puzzlers after only a few minutes or hours. To give more people a chance to play, we may wait between 24-48 hours before posting the answers we receive in the comment thread.

Good luck!