Archive for the ‘NASA News’ Category

NASA Earth Science in the News

December 10th, 2014 by Patrick Lynch

Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from the NASA Earth Science in the News column, published in the November/December issue of The Earth Observer newsletter. You can download the current issue here.

America’s Tiny Four Corners Region is an Outsized Methane Hotspot; One small spot in the U.S. Southwest is surprisingly the producer of the largest concentration of methane (CH4) gas seen across the nation. Levels of CH4 over the Four Corners region are more than triple the standard groundbased estimate of the greenhouse gas, as reported in a point study of satellite data by scientists at NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and the University of Michigan. CH4 is a heat-trapping gas whose increasing quantities in the atmosphere have fueled concerns about global climate change. The methane “hotspot,” seen on the map as a small splotch—see map above—measures approximately 6475 km2 (2500 mi2) at the junction of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah. For scale, the state of Arizona is about 292,668 km2 (113,000 mi2). But the area generated an annual 0.59 million metric tons of methane between 2003 and 2009—about as much CH4 as the entire coal, oil, and gas industries of the U.K. give off each year.

The Four Corners area (red) is the major U.S. hot spot for methane emissions in this map showing how much emissions varied from average background concentrations from 2003-2009 (dark colors are lower than average; lighter colors are higher). Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Michigan


Scientists Say Ozone Layer is Recovering; Associated Press. Earth’s protective ozone layer is beginning to recover from its previously reduced levels, largely because of the phase-out since the 1980s of certain chemicals used in refrigerants and aerosol cans, a U.N. scientific panel reported. Scientists said the development demonstrates that when the world’s peoples come together, we can counteract a brewing ecological crisis. For the first time in 35 years, scientists were able to confirm a statistically significant and sustained increase in stratospheric ozone, which shields the planet from solar radiation that causes skin cancer, crop damage, and other problems. From 2000 to 2013, ozone levels climbed 4% in the key mid-northern latitudes at about 48 km (30 mi) above Earth’s surface, said scientist Paul Newman [NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC)].

Deep Ocean Hasn’t Warmed Measurably in a Decade, Says NASA; The Weather Channel. Deep below the ocean surface, there’s a place global warming hasn’t yet reached. According to a study published on October 5, 2014, in Nature Climate Change, scientists at NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) have found that over the last decade the deepest part of the world’s ocean has not warmed measurably. The scientists analyzed ocean temperatures from between 2005 and 2013 and found that below a depth of approximately 2 km (~1.2 mi)—roughly halfway to the bottom at this location—the global ocean has not warmed nearly as quickly as the top half. The scientists collected the temperature data using both satellite measurements and data from the Argo array, a network of some 3500 floating probes scattered throughout the world that measure ocean temperatures and salinity. “The sea level is still rising,” said study coauthor Josh Willis [JPL] in a news release. “We’re just trying to understand the nitty-gritty details.”

Antarctic Sea Ice Level Breaks Record, NASA Says; Sea ice surrounding Antarctica is at an all-time high, even as global temperature averages continue to climb. NASA reports that ice formation in the continent’s southern oceans peaked this year, breaking ice-measuring satellite records dating back to the late 1970s. For the first time since 1979, on September 19, 2014, Antarctic sea ice extent exceeded ~20 million km2 (~7.7 million mi2) whereas the average maximum extent between 1981 and 2010 was ~19 million km2 (~7.3 million mi2). Despite this trend, sea ice as a whole is decreasing on a global scale. Researchers say that, just like global warming, trends have different outcomes in different parts of the world; not every location with sea ice will experience ice loss or gain. “When we think about global warming we would expect intuitively that ice should also be declining in the Antarctic region as in the Arctic,” explained senior research scientist Josefino Comiso [GSFC]. “But station and satellite data currently show that the trends in surface temperatures are most positive in the Arctic, while in the Antarctic region the trends are a mixture of positive and negative trends,” he said, adding that cooling and declining sea surface temperatures could also contribute to a “more rapid advance at the ice edge.”

1934’s Dust Bowl Drought Was the Worst in a Thousand Years for U.S.; The drought of 1934 wasn’t just bad, it was the worst. That’s the finding of a reconstruction of North American drought history over the past 1000 years, done by scientists from NASA and Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Their study, published in the October 17 issue of Geophysical Research Letters, concludes the drought of 1934, during the Dust Bowl years in the North American Plains, was 30% more severe than the next worst, which occurred in 1580, NASA scientists said. The scientists used tree ring records from 1000 to 2005 along with modern observations. They found that the 1934 drought extended across over 71% of western North America, compared with almost 60% during the 2012 drought. “It was the worst by a large margin,” said lead author of the study Ben Cook [NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies—Climate Scientist]. The scientists found two main reasons: a winter high-pressure system over the West Coast that blocked precipitation and spring dust storms that suppressed rainfall.

GRACE Spacecraft Changed the Way Groundwater was Measured; CBS’ 60 Minutes. Leslie Stahl hosted a segment on California’s groundwater issues. The segment described the difficulty in sampling groundwater levels until NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) spacecraft was launched. Mike Watkins [JPL—GRACE Project Scientist] described how GRACE “can tell whether an area has gained water weight or lost it.” Jay Famiglietti [University of California, Irvine] said that he thought the method was “complete nonsense” until he started examining the data, which changed his position. The broadcast noted that Famiglietti was so worried by what he saw in the data that he is working “to alert governments and academics to the problem.”

Science Cover_GRACE

Drought-induced depletion of groundwater is no longer an issue that’s out of sight, out of mind.

Research by scientists from Scripps Institution of Oceanography, published this week in Science, describes a GPS technique used to measure drought-induced uplift of land in the western United States. The uplift measurements were used, in turn, to calculate the deficit in surface and near-surface water for the area, which they estimated for March 2014 to be 240 billion tons. That’s equivalent to a 4-inch-thick layer (10 centimeters) of water over the region, or the current annual mass loss from the Greenland Ice Sheet.

GPS is not the only way to measure land displacement caused by the loss of ground and surface water. Scientists have long used the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites to estimate groundwater depletion around the planet, as noted by Marcia McNutt in a related editorial.

GRACE’s achievements even graced the cover of the same issue of Science (pictured above). The image shows California’s loss of fresh water (red) from 2002 through 2014. Drought has drained the region of more than 3.6 cubic miles (15 cubic kilometers) of fresh water in each of the past three years.

The image was updated from a version that initially appeared alongside research in 2013 by James Famiglietti of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and University of California, Irvine, and Matthew Rodell of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Read more to learn about how GRACE is used to view Earth’s water supplies, or how U.S. groundwater on July 7, 2014, compared to the average from 1948 to 2009.

NASA Earth Science in the News

September 16th, 2014 by Patrick Lynch

2005 2011

These images compare averaged yearly nitrogen dioxide concentrations over the Ohio River Valley region from 2005 [top] to 2011 [bottom]. Image credit: NASA Goddard’s Scientific Visualization Studio/T. Schindler

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from the NASA Earth Science in the News column published in the May/June issue of The Earth Observer newsletter. You can download the current issue here.

See NASA’s Dazzling Proof that U.S. Air Quality Has Improved, Summer in the U.S. is the time of year when humidity skyrockets, air stagnates, and the air quality deteriorates, especially downwind of the coal-fired power plants and manufacturing plants of the Ohio Valley. During hazy and hot summer days in the big cities along the Interstate 95 corridor, the sky often looks like the visual equivalent of white noise—with the horizon indistinguishable from the milky sky. Yet air quality has actually been steadily improving over the past few years, largely thanks to the Clean Air Act, along with a drop in coal use and dramatic changes in vehicle fuel efficiency and emissions. NASA has released beautiful images demonstrating that people in major U.S. cities from Los Angeles to New York are breathing less nitrogen oxide. The data come from the Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI) aboard NASA’s Aura satellite. Nitrogen dioxide is one of the six common pollutants the EPA regulates to protect human health. It can harm the respiratory system and also combines with other pollutants to form smog. Nitrogen dioxide is mostly produced by burning gasoline in vehicle engines and from burning coal. “While our air quality has certainly improved over the last few decades, there is still work to do—ozone and particulate matter are still problems,” said atmospheric scientist Bryan Duncan.

Water Weight Used to Calculate the Amount of Snow in California with GPS, Scientific American. Water weighs about 8.3 pounds per gallon (1 kg/L). Now, scientists have developed a way to use water’s weight to measure just how much snow is covering mountains in the western U.S. In states like California, currently in the midst of a crippling drought, the more water managers know about how much snow is in the mountains, the better they can plan for the summer months ahead. More accurate information about such snowpack can help these managers and hydrologists plan for how to fill reservoirs, how much water they might have available during the dry season, and how dry the soils might be during fire season. They’ll also get a better fix on future levels of reservoirs for hydroelectric power generation. Donald Argus, a research scientist and geophysicist at JPL, recently published a study outlining the new technique in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. If scientists know the height of a piece of land in summertime, and the height when snow covers it, they can use the difference to calculate how much snow is sitting on the mountains. The technique uses a dense network of global positioning system (GPS) sites scattered across the Western U.S.

Scientists Warn of Rising Oceans From Polar Melt, The New York Times. A large section of the mighty West Antarctica ice sheet has begun falling apart and its continued melting now appears to be unstoppable, two groups of scientists reported on May 12, 2014. If the findings hold up, they suggest that the melting could destabilize neighboring parts of the ice sheet and a rise in sea level of 10 feet (about 3 meters) or more may be unavoidable in coming centuries. Global warming caused by the human-driven release of greenhouse gases has helped to destabilize the ice sheet, though other factors may also be involved, the scientists said. The rise of the sea is likely to continue to be relatively slow for the rest of the twenty-first century, the scientists added, but in the more distant future it may accelerate markedly. The West Antarctic ice sheet sits in a bowl-shaped depression, with the base of the ice below sea level. Warm ocean water is causing the ice sitting along the rim of the bowl to thin and retreat. As the front edge of the ice pulls away from the rim and enters deeper water, it can retreat much faster than before. In a new paper published in Geophysical Research Letters, a team led by glaciologist Eric Rignot used satellite and airborne measurements to document an accelerating retreat of six glaciers draining into the Amundsen Sea region. With updated mapping of the terrain beneath the ice sheet, the team was able to rule out the presence of any mountains or hills significant enough to slow the retreat.

NASA Places Radar in North Carolina to Study Rain in Smokies, Washington Times. NASA placed two radars on land in Rutherford County, North Carolina, for a field campaign to study rainfall in the Great Smoky Mountains. The campaign ran from May 1 to June 15, 2014. “We have set up rain gauges and radars across the area to learn more about how weather and rain systems behave in the mountains,” said research scientist David Wolff. The campaign was designed to validate data from the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) mission’s Core Observatory, which launched in February 2014. The science team expected to end the six-week campaign with detailed data to improve their understanding of both the fundamental sciences of mountain rainfall and how best to estimate rainfall using satellite observations over remote and rugged regions. Scientists will use what they learn to improve weather predictions and flood warnings. Team members will take a break after the summer and are scheduled to travel to Seattle, Washington, in 2015-16 to measure winter weather there.

NASA ‘Balloon Campaign’ Goes to Australia, International Business Times. NASA and the University of Wyoming teamed up with the Australian Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) in Darwin, Australia, for a balloon-based campaign designed to better understand the composition and behavior of volcanic plumes. The Kelud Ash (KlAsh) experiment involved launching a series of balloons to take measurements of emissions from the volcano in Indonesia. Mt. Kelud sent small droplets of sulfuric acid—as ash particles and sulfate aerosol—up to 15 mi (25 km) above Earth when it erupted in February this year. Principal investigator Duncan Fairlie said: “The purpose is to better characterize particle sizes, composition, and optical properties from a relatively fresh volcanic plume in the stratosphere.” The two-week balloon campaign, which started on May 14, 2014, launched small balloon payloads over the Indian Ocean from the bushes of Darwin territory. Fairlie said the team sampled the volcanic plumes at an altitude of around 12 miles (20 kilometers) in all flights.

Last Day to Vote in Round One of Tournament Earth

March 7th, 2014 by Adam Voiland

I hope your brackets are ready because polls for round one of Tournament Earth close today at 4 p.m EST/9 p.m. UTC. Second round voting will open on Monday at 9 a.m. EST/ 1 p.m. UTC). Also, stay tuned for occasional posts on Earth Matters with details about how images fared in the competition.

The images in the tournament are a blend of reader and staff favorites from the 2013 calendar year. The images are seeded and divided into four brackets categorized by image type: data visualization, photographs, art, and events. The top seed in the data visualization bracket — and the No. 1 seed overall — is a global map of fine particulate pollution that garnered more than 150,000 page views in 2013. The photo section is topped by a nighttime view of Liege, Belgium, as photographed by an astronaut on the International Space Station. The “art” section is led by a satellite image of a rare snowfall in Great Britain. The top seed among natural events is a January 2013 satellite image of a smog and pollution over China — the second most popular image on the Earth Observatory last year. Six of the seven most-viewed images on the site are battling in the events section. Good luck with your bracket!

Vote at

Create and print your bracket at

Tournament Earth


Night Launch Beauty

February 27th, 2014 by Adam Voiland

On February 27, 2014, we published an Image of the Day of the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) satellite soaring above Tanegashima Space Center like a candle in the sky. However, that wasn’t the only spectacular photograph of the night launch that chief NASA photographer Bill Ingalls (@ingallsimages) captured. I collected a few of my favorites below, and you can browse many more on NASA’s Flickr page.



You can also read more about Ingalls’ work for NASA — which at one point required climbing into an active volcano in Antarctica to get photos of a robot that was testing concepts for a planetary mission — in this profile and this Q & A with Space News.



A Quick Guide to NASA’s Newest Satellite

February 20th, 2014 by Adam Voiland

Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) is a name worth remembering. First of all, it’s a satellite.  On February 27, 2014, GPM’s Core Observatory is scheduled to rocket into space from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Center carrying a radar and radiometer capable of measuring precipitation in new ways.

However, this joint NASA/JAXA mission is bigger than just one satellite. The scientists behind GPM are hoping that the core observatory will function like a key that “unlocks” and unifies data collected by a whole constellation of existing and future satellites.

GPM Constellation 1-13-14


For instance, an earlier precipitation-monitoring satellite called the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) also used radar to measure precipitation, but it could only detect moderate and heavy rain in tropical areas. GPM, in contrast, will also sense light rain and snow and will see nearly to the poles (65 degrees latitude north and south), meaning it will extend and improve upon TRMM’s measurements.

Expect to hear a lot more about this satellite over the next few weeks. There’s a lot of information to sift through if you want to learn more about the mission, but some of it can be tricky to find. To make the sifting a little easier, I’ve compiled a “best of guide” to images and other resources about the mission to make your search a little easier.  Stay tuned for more, follow the mission via @NASA_Rain and on Facebook, and enjoy the launch.


Videos Worth Watching

More videos at


Precipitation 101
Find out more details about precipitation and GPM’s science goals at


Image Galleries
See image galleries at

The Human Dimension

Find out how GPM will affect life on the ground at

The Nuts and Bolts
Find out more about the instruments and technical details of the core observatory at

Learn more about the HII-A Rocket that will launch GPM into orbit at

Want even more detailed information?

See the Bulletin of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society paper at

Or read the launch brochure at

What’s Your Favorite Space Station Photograph?

November 20th, 2013 by Adam Voiland

Happy 15th Birthday, International Space Station! The first International Space Station component, the Russian Zarya module, was launched in November 1998. In the years since, NASA and its global partners have built a world-class orbiting laboratory and kept a continuous human presence in space since 2000.

I decided to celebrate the occasion by searching through the astronaut photography collection on Visible Earth to find of my 15 favorites. My goal was to find at least one image for each year dating back to 2000, though I couldn’t resist adding a few extras for some years. I also checked our web traffic statistics to see how well my tastes matched with our readers. In a some cases, my favorites were also popular. In other cases, not so much. (Any other fans of crepuscular rays out there?)

But enough about me. What do you think? In the comments section, please send us the links to your favorite astronaut photographs from the ISS. However, we’d prefer if you send no more than three.  And don’t forget to scroll to the bottom of this post for a list of the 15 most popular astronaut photographs on our site.

Sunrise, 2013
ISS036-E-028913 (sunrise 2013)

Elusive Red Sprite, 2012 (12th most popular)
ISS031-E-10712 (red sprite, 2012)

Midwestern USA at Night with Aurora Borealis, 2011 (6th most popular)
ISS029-E-012564 (Aurora, 2011)

Crepuscular Rays, 2011
ISS029-E-031270 (crepescular rays, 2011)

Nile River at  Night, 2010 (3rd most popular)
ISS025-E-09858 (Nile River, 2010)

Sarychev Peak Eruption, 2009 (9th most popular)
ISS020-E-09048 (Sarychev Peak, 2009)

Tokyo at Night, 2008
ISS016-E-027586_tokyo (2008)

International Space Station from Endeavor, 2007
STS118-E-9469 (ISS, 2007)

Total Solar Eclipse, 2006
ISS012-E-21351 (eclipse, 2006)

St. Petersburg and the Gulf of Finland, 2005

Greenhouses of the Campo de Dalias, 2004
ISS008-E-14686 (greenhouses 2004)

Hurricane Isabel, 2003
Isabel_Eye_ISS2003247 (Hurricane Isabel, 2003)

Mount Etna Erupting 2002
etna2_ISS2002303 (Etna, 2002)

Dhaulagiri, 2001
ISS01E6765 (Dhaulgiri, 2001)

First Image, 2000

Earth Observatory’s 15 Most Popular Astronaut Photographs (based on website statistics since 2010)

1. Iberian Peninsula at Night

2. Montreal at Night

3. Nile River Delta at Night

4. India-Pakistan Borderlands at Night

5. Fire in the Sky and on the Ground

6. Midwestern USA at Night with Aurora Borealis

7. Las Vegas at Night

8. Liège at Night

9. Sarychev Peak Eruption, Kuril Islands

10. Northwestern Europe at Night

11. Mount Tambora Volcano, Sumbawa Island, Indonesia

12. Elusive Sprite Captured from the International Space Station

13. Looking Down on a Shooting Star

14. Atafu Atoll, Tokelau, Southern Pacific Ocean

15. Hurricane Earl – The Astronaut View

Have a Question about Climate Science? #askclimate

September 13th, 2013 by Adam Voiland


Note: See the comment thread for an archive of questions and answers related to this event.

Do you have questions about how NASA measures, models, and visualizes our changing climate?

Here’s your chance to ask them directly. Earth Observatory is hosting a climate Q & A with NASA scientists at 2 pm EDT on Wednesday, September 18. Gavin Schmidt and Benjamin Cookboth climate specialists from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York Citywill be answering questions live via the @NASA_EO Twitter feed. Earth Observatory artists and writers will also be available to answer your questions about how we visualize and communicate climate data.

There’s no such thing as a dumb question. Climate change science can be confusing, complex, and controversial. Our goal is to help you cut through the noise and find out what the science actually says. Need inspiration as you think about your questions? Here are some of the more common questions we’ve received over the years.  You can also read through some of our stories about key climate change topics including: warming, aerosols, extreme storms, the water cycle, and the carbon cycle.

Start sending your questions now by posting a comment in the thread below or by sending a tweet tagged #askclimate.

This September, Ask a NASA Climate Scientist

September 4th, 2013 by Patrick Lynch

The topic of climate change inspires a lot of debate. At NASA, it has also inspired a lot of science.

NASA scientists examine the Earth’s climate and how it is changing – gaining knowledge (or insight?) through decades of satellite observations, powerful computer models and expert scientific analysis.

Over the course of this month, these NASA climate experts will answer selected questions through the agency’s social media channels – primarily on YouTube, Twitter and Google+.

But first – we need your questions.

Have a question that’s always confounded you about Earth’s climate? Wonder why it matters that the climate is changing now if it has changed before? Or how scientists know changes seen in recent decades are the result of human activities, not natural causes?

Go ahead. Ask a climate scientist.

Here’s how you can take part:

NASA scientists will be recording video responses to some of the questions we receive. The responses will be posted to the NASAExplorer YouTube channel.

To submit a question, record a short, 10-15 second video with your question and upload it to YouTube – and be sure to tag the video “#askclimate” so that we can find it. You can also simply post a question on Twitter with the same hashtag, “#askclimate.”

NASA scientists will directly answer questions in three separate Twitter chats, covering key climate topics. Again, all these chats will use the hashtag “#askclimate.” You can join in on these dates and at these accounts:

Wed., Sept. 4, 2 p.m. EDT

Wed., Sept. 11, 2 p.m. EDT

Google+ Hangouts
On Sept. 27, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will release the Summary For Policymakers of its Fifth Assessment Report. This plain-language document, intended for the public, lays out what is a consensus understanding by the scientific community of the state of climate change science.

On Mon., Sept. 30, NASA will host two Google+ Hangouts – one in English, one with Spanish-speaking scientists – to continue the discussion about climate science and answer questions about the IPCC report.

Watch for announcements via NASA’s Google+ and our other social media accounts about the specific times and details for these events.

Smile! You’re on Space Cam

July 19th, 2013 by Mike Carlowicz

Comedian Stephen Wright has a one-liner that he used to deploy in his stand-up routines: “Every so often, I like to stick my head out of the window, look up, and smile for a satellite picture.”  This weekend, the entire planet is being encouraged to take that chance at least twice. The Cassini spacecraft — launched in 1997 and still sending back images from Saturn — and Messenger — in orbit around Mercury — will look back at Earth for long-distance snapshots of home. Here are some details from NASA news releases.

From the Jet Propulsion Laboratory: “The image taken from the Saturn system by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft will occur between 2:27 and 2:42 Pacific Daylight Time (5:27 and 5:42 p.m. EDT, or 21:27 and 21:47 UTC) on Friday, July 19. Cassini will be nearly 900 million miles (nearly 1.5 billion kilometers) away from Earth…The Cassini Earth portrait is part of a more extensive mosaic — or multi-image picture — of the Saturn system as it is backlit by the Sun. The viewing geometry highlights the tiniest of ring particles and will allow scientists to see patterns within Saturn’s dusty rings. Processing of the Earth images is expected to take a few days, and processing of the full Saturn system mosaic will likely take several weeks.” 

Cassini also collected this image (below) of Earth and Saturn in 2006. For details on how to find Saturn in the sky and participate in this weekend’s event, visit:



From the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory: “NASA’s Mercury-orbiting MESSENGER spacecraft will capture images of Earth on July 19 and 20. The images will be taken at 7:49 a.m., 8:38 a.m. and 9:41 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time on both days. Nearly half of the Earth, including all the Americas, Africa, and Europe, will be illuminated and facing MESSENGER, according to Hari Nair, the  planetary scientist who designed and is implementing the campaign. The images on the second day will also include pictures of the Moon, where all six of the Apollo landing sites will be illuminated, 44 years to the day after Apollo 11 landed on the Moon’s rocky surface. These images of Earth and the Moon are coincidental, taken as part of a search for natural satellites around Mercury.” 

For more of the MESSENGER story, visit:

We hope to post both views on Earth Observatory in the coming weeks.