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Earth Matters

May Puzzler

May 26th, 2015 by Adam Voiland


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

April Puzzler Answer: Seaweed (and Oyster?) Farms

May 25th, 2015 by Adam Voiland


Congratulations to reader Suzi for being the first to answer our April puzzler. As Suzi noted, the image shows South Korea’s Sisan Island. While Suzi (and several other readers) thought the offshore grid pattern was evidence of oyster or fish farming, our research suggests it is mainly seaweed farming. Several sources cited the western part of South Korea’s south coast as the main area of seaweed production, and aerial imagery of seaweed farms match the general appearance of our satellite image.

However, Suzi’s comment did prompt me to look more closely at the distribution of oyster farms and other types of aquaculture in South Korea, and it does seem possible that some of the patterns in the puzzler could be evidence of oyster aquaculture. Are there aquaculture experts or South Koreans reading this who are willing to share their opinion? Is this all seaweed or a mixture of seaweed and other types of aquaculture?

I suspect it may not be possible distinguish between seaweed farming and other types of aquaculture at Landsat’s resolution, but I would love to see somebody with more expertise prove me wrong. In the meantime, you can read what we published about this area as our Image of the Day on April 25, 2015.

See One of the First Climate Models

May 21st, 2015 by Adam Voiland

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.


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.”