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Earth Matters

January Puzzler

January 26th, 2015 by Kathryn Hansen


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

Why So Many Global Temperature Records?

January 21st, 2015 by Adam Voiland


If you follow Earth and climate science closely, you may have noticed that the media is abuzz every December and January with stories about how the past year ranked in terms of global temperatures. Was this the hottest year on record? In fact, it was. The Japanese Meteorological Agency released data on January 5, 2015, that showed 2014 was the warmest year on its record. NASA and NOAA made a similar announcement on January 16. The UK Met Office, which maintains the fourth major global temperature record, ranked 2014 as tied with 2010 for being the hottest year on record on January 26.

Astute readers then ask a deeper question: why do different institutions come up with slightly different numbers for the same planet? Although all four science institutions have strong similarities in how they track and analyze temperatures, there are subtle differences. As shown in the chart above, the NASA record tends to run slightly higher than the Japanese record, while the Met Office and NOAA records are usually in the middle.

There are good reasons for these differences, small as they are. Getting an accurate measurement of air temperature across the entire planet is not simple. Ideally, scientists would like to have thousands of standardized weather stations spaced evenly all around Earth’s surface. The trouble is that while there are plenty of weather stations on land, there are some pretty big gaps over the oceans, the polar regions, and even parts of Africa and South America.

The four research groups mentioned above deal with those gaps in slightly different ways. The Japanese group leaves areas without plenty of temperature stations out of their analysis, so its analysis covers about 85 percent of the globe. The Met Office makes similar choices, meaning its record covers about 86 percent of Earth’s surface. NOAA takes a different approach to the gaps, using nearby stations to interpolate temperatures in some areas that lack stations, giving the NOAA analysis 93 percent coverage of the globe. The group at NASA interpolates even more aggressively—areas with gaps are interpolated from the nearest station up to 1,200 kilometers away—and offers 99 percent coverage.

See the chart below to get a sense of where the gaps are in the various records. Areas not included in the analysis are shown in gray. JMA is Japan Meteorological Agency data, GISTEMP is the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies data, HadCrut4 is the Met Office data, UAH is a satellite-based record maintained by the University of Alabama Huntsville (more on that below), NCDC is the NOAA data, and NCEP/NCAR is a reanalysis of weather model data from the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

If you’re a real data hound, you may have heard about other institutions that maintain global temperature records. In the last few years, a group at UC Berkeley — a group that was initially skeptical of the findings of the other groups — developed yet another approach that involved using data from even more temperature stations (37,000 stations as opposed to the 5,000-7,000 used by the other groups). For 2014, the Berkeley group came to the same conclusion: the past year was the warmest year on record, though their analysis has 2014 in a virtual tie with 2005 and 2010.

Rather than coming up with a way to fill the gaps, a few other groups have tried using a completely different approach. A group from the University of Alabama-Huntsville maintains a record of temperatures based on microwave sounders on satellites. The satellite-based record dates back 36 years, and the University of Alabama group has ranked 2014 as the third warmest on that record, though only by a very small margin. Another research group from Remote Sensing Systems maintains a similar record based on microwave sounders on satellites, although there are a few differences in the way the Remote Sensing Systems and University of Alabama teams handle gaps in the record and correct for differences between sensors. Remote Sensing Systems has 2014 as the 6th warmest on its record.

But let’s get back to the original question: why are there so many temperature records? One of the hallmarks of good science is that observations should be independently confirmed by separate research groups using separate methods when possible. And in the case of global temperatures, that’s exactly what is happening. Despite some differences in the year-to-year rankings, the trends observed by all the groups are roughly the same. They all show warming. They all find the most recent decade to be warmer than previous decades.

You may observe some hand-wringing and contrarian arguments about how one group’s ranking is slightly different than another and about how scientists cannot agree on the “hottest year” or the temperature trend. Before you get caught up in that, know this: the difference between the hottest and the second hottest or the 10th hottest and 11th hottest year on any of these records is vanishingly small. The more carefully you look at graph at the top of this page, the more you’ll start to appreciate that the individual ranking of a given year hardly even matters. It’s the longer term trends that matter. And, as you can see in that chart, all of the records are in remarkably good agreement.

That said, if you are still interested in the minutia of how these these data sets are compiled and analyzed, as well as how they compare to one other, wade through the links below. Some of the sites will even explain how you can access the data and calculate the trends yourself.

+ UCAR’s Global Temperature Data Sets Overview and Comparison page.


+ NOAA’s Global Temperature Analysis page.

+ Met Office’s Hadley Center Temperature page.

+ Japan Meteorological Agency’s Global Average Surface Temperature Anomalies page.

+ University of Alabama Huntsville Temperature page.

+Remote Sensing Systems Climate Analysis, Upper Air Temperature, and The Recent Slowing in the Rise of Global Temperatures pages.

+ Berkley Earth’s Data Overview page.

+ Moyhu’s list of climate data portals.

+ Skeptical Science’s Comparing All the Temperature Records, The Japan Meteorological Agency Temperature Records, Satellite Measurements of the Warming in the Troposphere, GISTEMP: Cool or Uncool, and Temperature Trend Calculator posts.

+ Tamino’s comparing Temperature Data Sets post.

+NOAA/NASA 2014 Warmest Year on Record powerpoint.

+James Hansen’s Global Temperature in 2014 and 2015 update posted on his Columbia University page.

+The Carbon Brief’s How Do Scientists Measure Global Temperature?

+Yale’s A Deeper Look: 2014’s Warming Record and the Continued Trend Upwards post.

2014 Temperatures From A Regional Perspective

January 16th, 2015 by Adam Voiland

Screen Shot 2015-01-16 at 2.37.18 PM

NASA and NOAA announced today that 2014 brought the warmest global temperatures in the modern instrumental record. But what did the year look like on a more regional scale?

According to the Met Office, the United Kingdom experienced it warmest year since 1659. Despite the record-breaking temperatures, however, no month was extremely warm. Instead, each month (with the exception of August) was consistently warm. The UK was not alone. Eighteen other countries in Europe experienced their hottest year on record, according to Vox.

The contiguous United States, meanwhile, only experienced the 34th warmest year since 1895, according to a NOAA analysis. The Midwest and the Mississippi Valley were particularly cool, while unusually warm conditions gripped the West. California, for instance, went through its hottest year on record. Meanwhile, temperatures in Alaska were unusually warm; in Anchorage, temperatures never dropped below 0 degrees Fahrenheit. 

James Hansen, a retired NASA scientist, underscored this point in an update on his Columbia University website: “Residents of the eastern two-thirds of the United States and Canada might be surprised that 2014 was the warmest year, as they happened to reside in an area with the largest negative temperature anomaly on the planet, except for a region in Antarctica.”

According to Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology, 2014 was the third warmest year on record in that country. “Much of Australia experienced temperatures very much above average in 2014, with mean temperatures 0.91°C above the long-term average,” said the bureau’s assistant director of climate information services.

The map at the top of this page depicts global temperature anomalies in 2014. It does not show absolute temperatures, but instead shows how much warmer or cooler the Earth was compared to a baseline average from 1951 to 1980.  Areas that experienced unusually warm temperatures are shown in red; unusually cool temperatures are shown in blue.

Up Close with the Plume in the Strait of Georgia

January 12th, 2015 by Kathryn Hansen

Last week, an Earth Observatory Image of the Day featured a sediment plume from the Fraser River where it enters the Strait of Georgia. That photograph was taken by an astronaut on the International Space Station on September 6, 2014. After we posted the image on Facebook, researcher Ed Wiebe responded by sharing some close-up views of the plume.


The photo above was taken by Kevin Bartlett of Ocean Networks Canada on May 4, 2013, from the deck of the Canadian Coast Guard research ship John P. Tully during an expedition in the Strait. According to Bartlett, the photo was taken during operations with a remotely operated vehicle (ROV), so the location would have been over the central or east node of the VENUS undersea network.

front between Fraser River water and Straight of Georgia water

Wiebe, who works at the University of Victoria, shot the second photo from the deck of a ferry in May 2007. According to Wiebe’s Facebook post: “The spring flood brings very intense loading of the surface water with sharp boundaries. The ferry between Vancouver Island and Vancouver crosses this boundary, providing a great opportunity to observe the river outflow floating on top of the saline water in the Strait of Georgia.”

Thanks to Ed and Kevin for sharing these terrific images!

The Hottest Volcano of Them All

January 9th, 2015 by Adam Voiland


What is the hottest volcano of them all? It depends on how you define “hottest,” but a fascinating new analysis crunches the numbers in a few different ways, using satellite observations of 95 of Earth’s most active volcanoes since 2000.

In terms of total energy radiated, the prize goes to Hawaii’s Kilauea (shown above), which has been spilling lava continuously throughout the study period.  Thanks to its lava lake, Nyiragongo (Democratic Republic of Congo) came in a close second.  Africa’s most active volcano — and Nyiragongo’s neighbor — Nyamuragira came in third for overall energy radiated. For a full ranking of all 95 volcanoes, see the chart at the bottom of the bottom of this page.

Note that the volcanoes emitting the most heat do not necessarily emit it explosively. In fact, most of the top heat producers were shield volcanoes that released mafic lava slowly.

If you ignore the steady, continuous heat produced by volcanoes and look simply at the “extra” heat produced during eruptions, then the rankings look different. Iceland’s ongoing Holuhraun eruption has radiated the most heat for an event. At the time that the study was published, Holuhraun had radiated about one-third more thermal energy than the 2012-2013 eruption of Russia’s Tolbachik, which itself radiated about 50 percent more energy than the 2011-2012 eruption of Nyamuragira.

The study, led by Robert Wright of the Hawaii Institute of Geophysics and Planetology, was based on data acquired by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometers on NASA’s Aqua and Terra satellites. 


The Answers Are Still Blowing in from Wind

January 7th, 2015 by Mike Carlowicz

It’s human nature to get excited by novelty in science…to gravitate to the sexy headlines and the tales of new discoveries and the flashy imagery. But so much of science is a slow slog, an anonymous labor in ordinary looking labs and cinderblock office buildings. Most scientists know that the fundamental advances do not often come in “Eureka!” moments or get announced at press conferences. They get made in the background by the unsung worker bees, both human and technological.

And so it is for NASA’s Wind spacecraft. You probably have never heard of it. Most of my colleagues around NASA have never heard of it. And yet it has quietly made fundamental contributions to our understanding of the electric space around Earth.


Wind studies a dark and mostly desolate netherworld between Earth and the Sun, a region that doesn’t quite fit into solar science (heliophysics) nor does it have a home in Earth science. The Wind spacecraft has no cameras and its data are rarely turned into images for public consumption. With particle counters and antennas and magnetometers, it studies how Earth’s sphere of space — geospace — interacts with the energy and particles Sun flying off of the Sun. The field is often referred to as space weather, but the analogies sort of fall apart when you learn that the most potent solar wind couldn’t ruffle the hair on your head. (It could wipe out your satellite, though.)

This solar wind, the namesake of the spacecraft, stretches and pulls the Earth’s magnetic aura (the magnetosphere) like a windsock. The magnetic field occasionally snaps back to energize the Van Allen radiation belts and to create the cascade of atmospheric particles that we know as aurora borealis and aurora australis (the northern and southern lights). Click on this link to a 1997 vintage computer model showing how the solar wind stirs up the magnetosphere. (Seventeen year-old GIFs below, with credit to Ramon Lopez, Chuck Goodrich, and their former science team at the University of Maryland).


In November 2014, Wind celebrated its 20th birthday in space. After observing our magnetic and plasma environment from several angles, it has moved back to where it started its work at the L1 Lagrange point, where the gravitational pull of the Earth and Sun cancel each other out and provide a stable orbit. Engineers say there is enough fuel to keep the spacecraft there until 2074, so Wind will keep working until the batteries or money run out.

I have a special affection for Wind, as it is one of the missions that first brought me to work at NASA. In 1997, the scientists leading the International Solar Terrestrial Physics program and the Global Geospace Science hired a young science writer to help them tell their story, and I am grateful to have had the chance. If you want to spy a bit of ancient history on the web, take a look at this old web site.

My colleague in NASA’s heliophysics division, Karen Fox, has written a great roundup of where Wind has been and all that has been accomplished with this mostly anonymous spacecraft. Go here to read her article.  If you want to dig through nearly 3,000 scholarly references to Wind data, click here.