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Earth Matters

December Puzzler: The Scrabble/Words with Friends Edition

December 24th, 2015 by Mike Carlowicz

Images by NASA Earth Observatory. Mosaic by the Daily Mail.

Each month at the Earth Observatory, we publish a new satellite puzzler to challenge your remote sensing and image interpretation skills. But this December, a bit of mirth and mischief got into us. (“I could say ‘Elves,’ but it’s not elves really…”)

See, we have this great new image gallery — Reading the ABCs from Space — and between all of the letters and the festive holiday season, it got us to thinking about games. Then word games. Then ways to challenge and torment entertain our readers.

Your challenge this month is inspired by Scrabble or Words with Friends, depending on your age and your affinity for old-school versus electronic games. Over the next two weeks, we will publish seven satellite-observed letters as Images of the Day (IOTD). Your task is to keep track of those seven letters and to assemble them into words.

Recognition will be given to the reader who:

  • assembles the highest scoring Scrabble/Words with Friends word
  • assembles the highest scoring word with a connection to Earth science
  • assembles the most words with connection to Earth science

We all know you can find word-building tools on the Internet, but what fun would that be? Do it the old-fashioned way…with your brain and a writing tool.

Reminder: Our satellite gallery is here, but we are not using the full alphabet. Wait for the letters to be released as IOTDs between December 23 and January 3. To see which letters have been published as IOTDs check here. Submit your answers as comments on this blog post.


November Puzzler Answer: The Mackenzie River

December 11th, 2015 by Kathryn Hansen


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
photo 1

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.

photo 3

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.


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

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.


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.