November Puzzler Answer: The Mackenzie River

December 11th, 2015 by Kathryn Hansen

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The November 2015 puzzler turned out to perplex many of our readers. That’s no surprise; the scene shows less than 20 kilometers of Canada’s longest river—the Mackenzie.

The Mackenzie River flows for more than 4,000 kilometers, and drains a basin that spans one-fifth of Canada’s total land area. Each year, the Mackenzie delivers about 325 cubic kilometers of fresh water to the Arctic Ocean.

Clues to the image’s location show up as flecks of white, which are floating bits of ice. The ice came from the Great Slave Lake, east of this image, where the river gets its start. This image was acquired with the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8 on May 13, 2015, around the beginning of the annual spring melt. A wider view of the area, including the lake, was featured as our Image of the Day on November 28, 2015.

Congratulations to Irene Marzolff, the first to post a correct answer to the blog. Not only did she deduce the correct location, she specified that it was acquired with the Landsat 8 satellite sometime during the melt season. On Facebook, Georg Pointner was the first to correctly name the river and note its location near Great Slave Lake.

Click here to see the river’s other extremity, at the Mackenzie River Delta. This is where the river empties into the Arctic Ocean via the Beaufort Sea.

Fires in Indonesia: Perspective from the Ground

December 10th, 2015 by Adam Voiland
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Aftermath of a fire in peatlands on the southwest border of Gunung Palung National Park, West Kalimantan. (Photo courtesy of the Gunung Palung Orangutan Conservation Program).

Cassie Freund is the program director of the Gunung Palung Orangutan Conservation Program, an orangutan protection project in Indonesia. While working on our latest feature story, we asked her what life was like in West Kalimantan during the 2015 fire season, when smoke blanketed parts of Borneo and Sumatra. Peat deposits, El Niño weather, and agricultural activity converged to produce prodigious fires and planet-warming emissions. Read Seeing Through the Smoky Pall: Observations from a Grim Indonesian Fire Season to learn more.

How has the smoke affected you?

I live in the Ketapang district of West Kalimantan. We had some serious fires here, but it wasn’t as bad as in Central Kalimantan, which was basically the epicenter of the disaster. Breathing the smoke wasn’t pleasant, and I didn’t dare open a window or a door in my house because it would just permeate everything.

The smoke also seriously disrupted some of my travel plans. There were no flights into or out of my town for at least a month, so we had to rely on boats or long-distance travel by car.

The smoke also disrupted my work. I do lot in the community and in schools, but September and October were quiet months for us because the schools were not in session. It was too dangerous for students. Adults were not available to participate in our conservation activities and meetings because they either had to stay in the field and guard their crops from fire, or didn’t want to be outside more then necessary.

Have you had health problems as a result of the haze? Do you know people who have?

I had a cough for several weeks. I do know people whose children were sick, and one woman I spoke to has a three-month old baby that she has not taken outside at all because of the smoke. One problem was that there just weren’t enough good masks to go around. During the worst of the pollution, normal surgical masks aren’t enough. But many people don’t own the N95 masks that block out the smoke particles.

Can you describe how the air smelled and tasted during the worst of the burning?

Acrid is the best word to describe it. Peat fires have a pretty distinctive smell. The smoke just goes right to the back of your throat, and makes your eyes sting. People here describe it has having mata pedas, which translates to “spicy eyes.” The smoke looks like morning fog, but it doesn’t dissipate.

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A peat fire burns vegetation in the Sungai Laur area of Ketapang district, West Kalimantan. (Photo courtesy of the Gunung Palung Orangutan Conservation Program).

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I am afraid that the next huge hot spotsnot this year, but maybe in the futurewill be in Papua. And there, as someone has pointed out to me, there are no charismatic species to get people riled up and to motivate them to donate to conservation. There’s just peat. Most of the peatlands there are still intact, too, and they absolutely need to be protected.

You can read blog posts by Cassie Freund about the fires here and here.

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Photo by William Hrybyk for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.


Earth Observatory has a pretty small staff — seven people — for a daily publication. There are a lot of other folks inside and outside of NASA who help us find and tell stories, but one man stands out from the rest. We might not be able to bring you a new Image of the Day, every day, if it were not for the unsung, unofficial eighth member of our team: Jeff Schmaltz. Our colleagues at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) have just published a Q&A with Jeff, and we thought you should know more about him.

 

“Curious Jeff” Schmaltz is on his third career.

What do you do and what is most interesting about your role here at Goddard? How do you help support Goddard’s mission?

Our group provides real-time Earth imagery from NASA Earth-observing satellites. The data is transmitted from the satellites to the ground stations, then to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and then to the near-real-time data processing system. The data is basically numbers that we convert to images which we place on NASA websites such as https://worldview.earthdata.nasa.gov.

Our images come from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instrument flying on the Aqua and Terra satellites. Each satellite covers the entire Earth every day, so we receive two complete images of the Earth daily. From the time the satellite acquires data to the time we put the image on our website is roughly three to four hours.

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What is your education?

I have three master’s degrees, one each in wildlife management, computer science and remote sensing.

Please tell us about your three different careers.

Since I was a kid in Connecticut, I wanted to work in the outdoors with animals. I got a master’s in wildlife management and then worked as a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Forest Service in the Daniel Boone National Forrest in Somerset, Kentucky. We counted endangered woodpeckers and maintained the forest. I spent all day outside walking through the forest and then came in later to do the paperwork.

I returned to school to get a master’s in computer science. Although I intended to apply my new skills to natural resource management, I was seduced by computer graphics, which was in its infancy. My next job was with the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest Laboratory in Richland, Washington. I wrote software for scientists, which was then called scientific programming. We also used the computer to prospect for gold, but we never found any.

I went back to school again, this time, for a master’s in remote sensing. Then I came to work for Goddard.

Is there a connection between your different careers?

My careers are connected through the common theme of computers. I’m excited that some of the imagery I’m currently creating is being used by the wildlife management and forestry community where I initially started.

What inspires you?

For many years, I have had a quote on my wall from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses”:

Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’

Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades

For ever and forever when I move.

I always want to move forward, to see what is beyond the horizon, to try something new. It’s the way I was born. I’m curious.

What are you searching for at Goddard?

I want to make a practical difference in people’s lives.

How do you make a practical difference?

The thing that is so exciting about my work is that the satellites were originally designed for scientific research, to collect data, but people at Goddard and around the world have found so many other practical uses. In 2000, the western U.S. had a very bad fire season. At that time, the data from our Earth-observing satellites showing the location of the forest fires took weeks to months to be publicly available. At the request of the Forest Service, a team from Goddard and the University of Maryland figured out how to make this data available the same day.

Many other uses have been found for this information including tracking drought and agricultural production, volcanic ash and dust storms.

What is the role of teamwork?

Everything that I do involves teamwork. Thousands of people, in hundreds of disciplines, living all over the world are involved.

What life lesson would you pass along?

You can take anyone’s life story and make a good, entertaining hour-and-a-half movie out of it. Everyone is more interesting than they think.

What would you say to somebody just starting at Goddard?

You never want to be the smartest person in a place because you want to learn from other people. At Goddard, you are surrounded by geniuses. Take advantage of that.

What is first on your bucket list?

I’ve always wanted to go to New Zealand to see the spectacular landscape and wildlife.

This article, compiled by Elizabeth M. Jarrell of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, was originally published here.

November Puzzler

November 23rd, 2015 by Kathryn Hansen

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Every month on Earth Matters, we offer a puzzling satellite image. The November 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!

October Puzzler Answer: Salt Glaciers in Xinjiang

November 6th, 2015 by Adam Voiland

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Congratulations to Shadab Raza, a geologist with Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Limited, for being the first reader to decipher the location of our October Puzzler, Xinjiang in western China. Jonathan Aul followed up later in the day with the exact coordinates. “Roughly 41.6 N, 80.7 E, approximately 10-15 km south of Bozidunxiang, Wensu, Aksu, Xinjiang Province, China.”

In researching the area, I become most interested in the distinctive salt glaciers, though Raza pointed out something that I completely missed: there appears to be a coal mine just to the west of one of the salt glaciers. I am not sure if it is the same mine shown in our image, but Raza also noted that an Aksu coal mine has been in the news recently.

If you are interested in learning more about salt glaciers, read our October 25 Image of the Day and click through the references for more information. University of Leeds geologist Alex Webb was kind enough to share several photographs of the salt glaciers that he took during a research trip. I have posted a few of them below with his commentary.

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Walking around on a the Awate salt glacier. Yellow bits in the foreground are gypsum concentrations. Courtesy of Alex Webb (University of Leeds).

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Salt flow at the surface is largely controlled by dissolution creep, aided by rain water. Here, some patches of crystalline salt from the spout (still dislocation creep) remain within a largely reworked salt layer. Photo courtesy of Alex Webb (University of Leeds).

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Salt extraction via water. They blast the salt glacier with water from hoses, and let that water (now enriched in salt) flow down into flat pools. In the pools, the water evaporates and relatively pristine salt is left behind for collection. Photograph courtesy of Alex Webb (University of Leeds).

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Salt evaporation ponds. Photo courtesy of Alex Webb (University of Leeds).

Satellites as Superheroes

November 2nd, 2015 by Adam Voiland

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Usually, comic book heroes wear tight pants and have superhuman strength. In the new educational manga Raindrop Tales from NASA, one of the heroes (Mizu-chan) evaporates water with her hair. The other (GPM) rides on a 3,900-kilogram satellite that observes rain and snow.

Look carefully at the art in the screenshots above, and you will find some telling details. Mizu-chan wears a flowing blue dress that symbolizes the many forms of water (snow, ice, rain, hail, water vapor, fresh water, salt water, etc.) found on Earth. Notice how her hemline is surrounded by clouds. Depending on her mood, the clouds form different types of precipitation.

GPM—named after the Global Precipitation Measurement mission—has blond hair and wears a kimono with a rain pattern on one half and a snow pattern on the other. Though he rides atop the GPM Core Observatory, that does not mean he has free reign over the satellite. Read the full comic to find out how GPM deals with meddlesome managers on the ground and what happens when he meets a diverse cast of characters in space.

The new manga is the culmination of an anime challenge sponsored by GPM’s education and outreach team. They made a call to artists from around the world to develop anime-themed comic book characters that could be used to teach students about the mission. Yuki Kiriga of Tokyo developed the GPM character; Sabrynne Buchholz of Colorado developed Mizu-chan. See some of their winning artwork below.

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After finishing the manga, you may want to learn more about water. If so, try this story about the water cycle. “Viewed from space, one of the most striking features of our home planet is the water, in both liquid and frozen forms, that covers approximately 75 percent of the Earth’s surface,” the story begins.

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The vast majority (about 96.5 percent) of that water, of course, fills the oceans. As for the rest of it, approximately 1.7 percent of Earth’s water is stored in the polar icecaps, glaciers, and permanent snow; another 1.7 percent is stored in groundwater, lakes, rivers, streams, and soil.

Only .001 percent of the water on Earth exists as water vapor in the atmosphere. But that tiny fraction is what GPM sees the best. To get a sense of the data GPM is collecting on a routine basis, see this story about the devastating rains that struck South Carolina in October 2015.

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October Puzzler

October 20th, 2015 by Adam Voiland

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Every month on Earth Matters, we offer a puzzling satellite image. The October 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!

Some Insight on the Color of the Ocean

September 28th, 2015 by Mike Carlowicz

For nearly 20 years, Jim Acker, a contract support scientist at the NASA Goddard Earth Science Data and Information Services Center (GES DISC), has helped oceanographers compile and study data collected by satellites. A chemical oceanographer by training, he has been involved in the study of ocean color as viewed from space. He recently wrote a book for NASA about the history of the subject. He is also scheduled to deliver the NASA Goddard Science Colloquium on September 30 at 3:30 p.m. His talk is entitled: “Rise of the Machines: Computational Power and the History of NASA’s Ocean Color Missions.” He gave us a preview of the book and the talk this week.

NASA Earth Observatory: Most of us think of the ocean as blue; in some places, it looks green. So what do scientists mean when they refer to “ocean color?”

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Jim Acker: Well, it’s blue and green and brown, and occasionally a few other related hues. Ocean color refers to the science of using satellite sensors to measure the light emanating from the ocean and determining what is in the water based on those light measurements. The main things that change the color of the ocean are phytoplankton—the floating plants at the base of the ocean food chain—dissolved colored substances, and different kinds of sediments.

EO: What are some of the things we have learned by looking at the ocean from satellites?

Acker: One of the main things done with global observations has been estimating how much carbon is produced by the growth of phytoplankton. Ocean color observations have shown how much this can vary, particularly with events like El Niño or La Niña in the Pacific Ocean.

The satellite view also can show how much variation there is over relatively short distances. A ship could be sitting in nice clear water, and just a few tens of kilometers away there could be a strong phytoplankton bloom that they would never know about without observations from space.

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The observations also have helped understand phytoplankton patterns in hard-to-reach places like the polar seas and the Red Sea or Arabian Sea. The interaction of the land and ocean, with weather patterns and river inflows, has also been better observed.

EO: Have there been any big surprises?

Acker: Definitely. One of the biggest surprises from the Coastal Zone Color Scanner, the first NASA ocean color mission, was truly how much the ocean varied over small distances. Where oceanographers used to draw simple lines, they realized there were swirls and spirals and curlicues and loops and jets and rings. It was much more complicated.

Another surprise when SeaWiFS and MODIS started making global observations was how cloudy it is over the oceans.  It takes really impressive data processing to get accurate values because of that.

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And because the satellites make continuous observations, they have observed many different features that weren’t where we expected them to be or they happened more often than we thought.

EO: What provoked you to write a book?

Acker: NASA wanted to have some histories of NASA science, and I wanted to tell the history of ocean color because it’s been so successful. It’s like a well-trained, elite athlete:  they make what they do look easy, though a lot of hard effort and training makes that possible.

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Ocean color measurements are very difficult to make, but because the missions have been so successful, the public and even most scientists have just seen the beautiful results and have not realized the dedicated, behind-the-scenes work that made them possible. It isn’t just about seeing images from space on a computer monitor. To be sure the data is accurate, there have been some true high-seas adventures. I was able to get a lot of real-life experiences from the scientists and engineers into the book.

EO: What is your favorite book about science?  And your favorite writer?

Acker: My favorite book that was sort of about science was The Map that Changed the World by Simon Winchester; I also enjoyed his book about the eruption of Krakatoa. My favorite writers are Pat Conroy and J.R.R. Tolkien. The late Stephen Jay Gould wrote a lot of things about science I liked.  And I have to mention that I just read Andy Weir’s The Martian and was quite impressed. I’m looking forward to seeing the movie.

 

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September Puzzler

September 22nd, 2015 by Kathryn Hansen

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Every month on Earth Matters, we offer a puzzling satellite image. The September 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!

August Puzzler Answer: Bloom in the Baltic Sea

August 26th, 2015 by Kathryn Hansen

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When I first saw the image for the August puzzler, I was struck by its beauty. The blue-green swirls look like they could be the brush strokes of an impressionist painting. Instead, this false-color scene was acquired by the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8.

Without any land visible in the scene, I thought it would be at least a day or two before receiving a correct guess. I was wrong. Congratulations to Helen Macintyre who was the first to correctly post a correct answer to the blog on August 18, just 94 minutes after the puzzler was posted.

Macintyre wrote, “Initially I thought hurricane, but the strands in the upper left seem too sharp and thin. I think this is an algal bloom swirling in ocean currents. The line near the top I think is a large ocean liner cutting through this, leaving a darker colored wake.”

Indeed, the scene shows a phytoplankton bloom. This particular bloom contains cyanobacteria—an ancient type of marine bacteria that, like other phytoplankton, capture and store solar energy through photosynthesis.

Later that same day, Kari Nöjd posted a comment and became the first to correctly guess the phenomenon and its location. In fact, Nöjd was the only participant to correctly place this bloom in the Baltic Sea. Excellent work!

Nöjd wrote, “My guess is that this picture shows sea surface where algae is blooming. The line is from the boat, which is driving through the sea surface. Picture could have been taken from the Baltic Sea where has been big algae blooming fields forming for the past month … Unfortunately this is also effect of a human behavior. Nutrients from fields and waste waters increase the algae blooming.”

According to NASA oceanographer Norman Kuring, major cyanobacteria blooms like this one appear in the Baltic Sea nearly every summer, “and they always look like this in the satellite data.” Physical measurements from an expert in the field, however, were required to confirm that the bloom was cyanobacteria.

As for the line cutting through the scene? Yes, that’s the result of a ship cruising through the bloom. There are other ships too, as well as an airplane, visible in the zoomed-out version posted in our August 23, 2015, Image of the Day.

On Facebook, Scot Hoffman was the first to guess algae bloom. In fact, a lot of comments on Facebook noted that the scene was a bloom, but the location remained elusive. Many thought it might be Lake Erie—a good guess because blooms are visible during the summer in that lake as well.