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Earth Matters

January Puzzler

January 25th, 2016 by Adam Voiland


Every month on Earth Matters, we offer a puzzling satellite image. The January 2016 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!

Update: The answer is posted here. The winners and more details are highlighted here.


(Image by NASA Earth Observatory)

Though blizzards and cold snaps may have made you forget the news from last week, 2015 was the warmest year in NASA’s global temperature record, which dates back to 1880. During a January 2016 press conference (see the slides here), Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, explained that 2015 was 0.87 degrees C (1.57°F) above the 1951-80 average in the GISS surface temperature analysis (GISTEMP), one of four widely-cited global temperature analyses.

The statistical record is notable, but keep in mind that this year is just part of a much longer story about the climate. If you want to learn more about climate science as a whole rather than just the latest headlines, here are a few resources that you may find informative. The list is not comprehensive (and we are open to more suggestions), but it is a useful starting point for understanding climate science.

Screen Shot 2016-01-20 at 5.41.02 AM

(Image by Eric Roston and Blacki Migliozzi for Bloomberg Business)

The plot above comes from an interactive graphic called “What’s Really Warming the World?” Put together by Eric Roston and Blacki Migliozzi of Bloomberg News (with assistance from NASA climatologists Gavin Schmidt and Kate Marvel), the chart does an excellent job of breaking down the various factors (greenhouse gases, aerosols, solar activity, orbital variations, etc.) that affect climate. It parses out visually how much each factor contributes. The bottom line: greenhouse gases are absolutely central to explaining global temperature trends since 1880. The screenshot above hints at what the interactive looks like, but I highly recommend heading over to Bloomberg to see the full graphic.

Another invaluable graphic for understanding climate change is the “radiative forcing bar chart” below. (You can read an interesting post by Schmidt that explains how these charts have evolved over the decades). At first glance, the chart from the fifth assessment report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change may seem technical and difficult to understand. It is. But it is well worth looking up the technical terms.


(Image by the IPCC for the WG1AR5 Summary for Policy Makers)

In short, you are looking at a balance sheet of the major types of emissions that have either a warming or cooling effect on climate. Bars that extend to the left of the 0 signify a cooling effect; bars that extend to the right signify warming. The longer the bar, the more warming or cooling a given type of emissions contributes. What becomes immediately obvious is that carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) have the biggest warming influence by far. The other well-mixed greenhouse gases — halocarbons, nitrous oxide (N20), chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) play a much smaller role.

The situation gets messy when you look at the role that short-lived gases and aerosols play. Some gases like carbon monoxide (CO) and the non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOC) — such as benzene, ethanol, formaldehyde — contribute to warming, but not much. Others like NOx actually slightly cool the climate overall if you consider how these gases interact with other substances in the atmosphere. Things get even messier if you look at aerosols. Mineral dust, sulfate, nitrate, and organic carbon have a cooling effect. On the other hand, black carbon causes warming. Albedo changes due to land use and changes in solar irradiance are minor in comparison to the other factors.

That’s a lot of variables, but one reason I like this chart is the error bars and the “level of confidence” column. The error bars give you a sense of how much uncertainty there is when it comes to the effects of various emissions. Look at the aerosol section, for instance, and you will see that the error bars are quite large and there is still some uncertainty about how aerosols affect clouds. The level of confidence column offers further clues to what scientists understand well and which areas they are less confident about. VH stands for very high confidence; H stands for high confidence; M stands for medium confidence; and L stands for low confidence.

What is striking is that even when you account for the error bars, there is little doubt that carbon dioxide and methane are warming the climate.


(Image by the NASA Global Climate Change website)

A third graphic, produced by NASA but based on data described here, is particularly compelling. Based on atmospheric information preserved in air bubbles in ancient ice cores, the plot offers a view of carbon dioxide levels in Earth’s atmosphere for the past 400,000 years. As this graph makes obvious, it has been a long time since carbon dioxide levels have been anywhere near where they are now.

For a much more recent view of carbon dioxide levels, the animation above is useful. Produced by NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio, the video shows a time-series of the distribution and concentration of carbon dioxide in the mid-troposphere, as observed by the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) on the Aqua spacecraft. For comparison, the fluctuations in AIRS data is overlain by a graph of the seasonal variation and interannual increase of carbon dioxide observed at the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii. You can clearly see seasonal variations in carbon dioxide levels, but notice also that the mid-tropospheric carbon dioxide shows a steady increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations over time. That increase is because of human activity.

Image by Harvard University Press.

(Image by Harvard University Press)

My last recommendation will take longer for you to get through, but it is an invaluable resource. Physicist Spencer Weart offers a detailed but understandable account of the history of climate science research in his book The Discovery of Global Warming. You can read an extended version of book online on the American Institute of Physics’ website. If you make it all the way through, you will know far more than most people about the climate.

Sunrise to Sunset

January 15th, 2016 by Adam Voiland



Photographs by Scott Kelly/NASA. Sunrise (upper); sunset (lower).

My colleagues and I spend most of our time looking for stories, images, and data related to the latest and greatest remote sensing science at NASA and beyond. This often leads us to rather technical scientific journals and obscure websites that are hardly known for their artistry.

But every now and then during the course of a workday, we stumble across an image that is simply so gorgeous that we can not resist sharing it. The first image above, tweeted from the International Space Station by astronaut Scott Kelly on January 13, captures the intense, raw beauty of a sunrise with an unforgettable gradient of yellow to red. About eight hours later, he tweeted the second image. “Day 292. Colors of #sunset. #GoodNight from @space_station! #YearInSpace,” Kelly said of the orange, teal, and blue horizontal lines that fade to black.

This was probably not Kelly’s only chance to capture a spectacular sunset and sunrise on January 13. The International Space Station travels at about 17,100 miles per hour, and orbits Earth about every 90 minutes—enough for astronauts to witness 16 sunrises and 16 sunsets each day.

“The sun truly ‘comes up like thunder,’ and it sets just as fast,” said Joseph Allen, an astronaut who logged more than 300 hours in space on the Space Shuttle in the 1980s. “Each sunrise and sunset lasts only a few seconds. But in that time you see at least eight different bands of color come and go, from a brilliant red to the brightest and deepest blue.”

Curious to see more sunsets and sunrises from space? In the image below, see how a sunset reveals different layers of the atmosphere. Learn more about the image here. See several more of Kelly’s sunrise and sunset photographs featured by The Atlantic here. And if you still want more space sunrises and sunsets, check out our archives.




The maps above, featured in our January 9, 2016 Image of the Day, show soil composition across the United States (bottom) and the space available for water to reside within those soil types (top). Douglas Miller—a soil, informatics, and remote sensing expert at Penn State—compiled the dataset on which the map is based (soil characteristics for the conterminous United States, or CONUS-Soil.) By combining information about soil type with current, satellite-derived estimates of soil moisture, scientists can better predict events such as flooding, drought, and severe storms. Miller answered some of questions about soil composition, water storage, and why such things matter via email.

We have all heard about soil since we were kids, but what is it actually made of?
Soil contains many different things, but the most basic elements that soil scientists would talk about include various particle sizes (sand, silt, and clay), rock fragments, open pores, roots and live organisms, water, and air. Depending upon the exact combination of all of these things, there can be more (or less) space available for water to reside. The image below shows a soil texture triangle that’s very colorful and is a handy way of thinking about soil particle composition.

blog_soil triangle

Image courtesy Douglas Miller, from the CONUS-Soil web site.

Soils that have more sand in them will not tend to hold water for a very long time. Think of what happened when you were a kid at the beach with your bucket and you tried to keep water in the castle’s moat! Soils that are heavy with clay will tend to hold water longer and not drain as quickly. Soils that have more silt in them will tend to be intermediate in drainage properties. All told, the ideal soil would have nearly equal amounts of the three major textures (somewhere in the middle of the soil triangle).

Why does soil composition matter?
Farmers, gardeners–essentially anyone interested in growing plants in soil–would be interested in knowing soil composition. Thinking back to the soil triangle mentioned above, one would ideally love to have a medium textured soil from near the middle of the soil triangle. By being aware of the soil texture that you have and the capacity of that soil to hold water (along with the water requirements of the plants that you wish to grow), you can manage your landscape. If I have too much clay in my soil, I would want to work in materials (like leaves, peat moss, etc.) to moderate the texture and open more space in the soil profile for water. Years ago, my back yard garden was mostly clay soil. For three years I chopped up all of my leaves and put them in the garden. This helped to add organic matter and nutrients, but also made the soil texture closer to middle of the triangle.

Can knowledge about soil composition and soil moisture tell you something that wouldn’t be known by looking at just one or the other?
Yes! The interesting thing about soils is that they’re closely connected to weather through soil moisture. Satellites like SMAP and SMOS, flying overhead, give us near-real time estimates of soil moisture. When combined with soil properties, we can improve our ability to predict things like flooding, drought relief, and even severe storm generation. There’s a strong connection between soil moisture at the land surface and severe storms (thunderstorms, tornados, derechos, etc.). Soil moisture near the surface is available to be easily evaporated in to the atmosphere. With the proper atmospheric conditions, rapid evaporation can lead to strong storm development. Using a combination of weather data, SMOS/SMAP data, and land surface properties (soils, vegetation, and topography), we can develop improved models that more accurately predict when and where storms and consequent flooding, damage, etc. will occur.

What have been the developments in this area of research since the dataset was compiled?
Since we compiled CONUS-Soil from the USDA National Resources Conservation Service database in the mid-1990s, USDA has now completed SSURGO–detailed soil surveys that are conducted on a county-level basis for the entire continental U.S. As compared to CONUS-Soil (1 kilometer resolution grid cells), SSURGO can be gridded at 10 meters in most places. This provides a tremendous amount of detail. I believe the entire U.S. dataset for SSURGO gridded at 10 meters is about 16GB. It’s a huge dataset.

However, a real challenge still exists in creating a standardized dataset (like CONUS-Soil) that has the same number of layers for each grid cell, anywhere in the U.S. What makes our product still unique, after all these years, are the standardized layers that a climate or hydrology model can count on being the same, from cell-to-cell. The monthly downloads that we still get for CONUS-Soil indicate that its 1-kilometer resolution is still valuable for regional climate and hydrology models. We are investigating what it will take to create a new CONUS-Soil from SSURGO (with standard layers). We believe that will require the use of a significantly sized supercomputer!

Read more in our Image of the Day, Soil Composition Across the U.S., and in our feature story, A Little Bit of Water, A Lot of Impact.