June 18th, 2019 by Laura Rocchio, Landsat Communication and Public Engagement Team
The UK’s Antarctic Place-names Committee has agreed that seven ice features in western Antarctica should be named for Earth-observation satellites. One of them is Landsat Ice Steam.
The new designations were announced on June 7, 2019. The ice features are all located in Western Palmer Land on the southern Antarctic Peninsula.
The seven features ring George VI Sound like pearls on a necklace. The new names, as officially entered into the British Antarctic Territory Gazetteer, are (from west to east): Landsat Ice Steam, ALOS Ice Rumples, Sentinel Ice Stream, GRACE Ice Stream, Envisat Ice Stream, Cryosat Ice Stream, and ERS Ice Stream.
The UK has submitted the new names for the fast-moving ice features to Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR), which maintains a gazetteer or registry, of names officially adopted by individual nations. Under the Antarctic Treaty, signatory nations confer on geographic feature names, but each nation’s naming authority formally adopts new names. The U.S. Board on Geographic Names will meet in July and may discuss at that meeting whether the names adopted by the UK also will be adopted by the US. The question of using the term “glacier” for the ice features instead of “ice stream” is also part of each nation’s naming decision.
The new names were proposed by Anna Hogg, a glaciologist with the Center for Polar Observation and Modelling at the University of Leeds. In research published in 2017, Hogg found that glaciers draining from the Antarctic Peninsula were accelerating, thinning, and retreating, with implications for global sea level rise. The fast-moving glaciers that Hogg and colleagues tracked with radar and optical satellite imagery were unnamed. In her paper, the glaciers had to be designated by latitude and longitude.
Satellites had enabled Hogg and her team to clock the speed of these nameless ice features—some with rates faster than 1.5 meters/day. In tribute to the spaceborne instruments, Hogg came up with a way to describe the fast-moving ice features more succinctly—name them after the satellites that had helped her understand their behavior.
Hogg proposed to the U.K.’s Antarctic Place-names Committee that the features should be named for Landsat, Sentinel, ALOS PALSAR, ERS, GRACE, CryoSat, and Envisat. She was notified in early June that the committee had agreed to adopt the names, which provide a way to recognize international collaboration, as fifteen space agencies currently collaborate on Antarctic data collection.
“Satellites are the heroes in my science of glaciology,” Hogg told the BBC. “They’ve totally revolutionized our understanding, and I thought it would be brilliant to commemorate them in this way.”
Naming the glaciers after satellites is also a celebration of data fusion. “Our understanding of ice velocities and ice sheet mass balance has come from putting many different remote sensing data sets together—optical, radar, gravity, and laser altimetry,” said Jeff Masek, the NASA Landsat 9 Project Scientist. “Landsat has been a key piece in assembling that larger puzzle. Naming an ice stream after Landsat is a fitting way to recognize the value of long-term Earth Observation data for measuring changes in Earth’ polar regions.”
Read more from NASA’s Landsat science and outreach team, including the history of Antarctic observation with Landsat. Read more about all of the glaciers and their namesake satellites, as told by the European Space Agency. And read about the island discovered by and named for Landsat, and the woman who discovered it.
Correction, June 27, 2019: SCAR’s role in the Antarctic naming process was incorrectly described in the earlier version of this article. Updates were provided by Dr. Scott Borg, Deputy Assistant Director of the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Geosciences, and Peter West, the Outreach Program managers for NSF’s Office of Polar Programs, to correctly describe the naming process.
In the early 19th century, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led an ambitious expedition across the western United States. They greatly expanded our knowledge of the country’s geography and biological diversity through their specimen collection, mapping of the landscape, and detailed journal entries.
This year NASA and the National Park Service are encouraging the public to follow in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark through a new citizen science challenge. From June 1 to September 2, citizens are invited to use their smart phones and the NASA GLOBE Observer app to map land cover along the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail to assist scientists studying environmental changes.
Land cover–such as grass, pavement, or trees–influences the water and energy cycles and influences a community’s vulnerability to natural disasters. NASA studies land cover changes from space as part of its mission to better understand our planet and improve lives.
To participate in the “GO on a Trail” challenge, download the free GLOBE Observer app from the Apple App Store or Google Play. Use the Land Cover tool to make observations of the landscape. Any observation made along the 5,000-mile-long Lewis & Clark trail from Pittsburgh to the mouth of the Columbia River earns points. The top participants will receive recognition and GO on a Trail commemorative material.
A good place to get started is at an observation station marked with a large sticker (image above) at Lewis and Clark visitor centers and museums. To navigate to sites of interest along the trail, the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail and GLOBE Observer teams have provided an online map.
“We hope that by becoming involved with this project, people will care about the trail and become its stewards,” said Dan Wiley, chief of integrated resource stewardship for the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. Wiley notes that the challenge will both spark a general interest in science and show the public how it can be involved in collecting vital information for decision makers.
GLOBE Observer is an app-based citizen science program active in more than 120 countries. The program invites citizens to contribute land cover, cloud, mosquito, and tree height observations to NASA and the science community. NASA-funded scientists are eager to see citizen science observations of land cover along this trail because of its wide range of ecological regions. Data collected during the challenge could help improve satellite-based mapping of land cover across the continent.
“We are observing and monitoring our changing home planet from space to better understand how it is changing and what are the main drivers of change,” said Eric Brown de Colstoun, a scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. “The view from the ground provided by the challenge participants is one component that helps us verify the space-based data.”
Even if you are not able to visit the Lewis and Clark Trail this summer, you can still join the GO on a Trail challenge from any of the more than 120 countries where GLOBE Observer is active. Just get outdoors and map the land cover around you. The top participants from beyond the trail will also receive recognition and commemorative material.
“Lewis and Clark and their team were exploring a totally new environment to them,” said Brown de Colstoun. “We invite you to get out and explore, and document the places you know and care about. Go on a trail and do science along with us.”
NASA GLOBE Observer and Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail will provide regular updates about the GO on a Trail challenge via social media throughout the summer with the hashtag #GOonaTrail. Follow GLOBE Observer on Facebook @nasa.globeobserver or Twitter @NASAGO. Follow the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail on Facebook @lewisandclarknht, Twitter @lewisclarktrail, and Instagram @lewisandclarknht or visit the website at: https://www.nps.gov/lecl/index.htm.
On April 29, 1999, NASA Earth Observatory (EO) started delivering science stories and imagery to the public through the Internet. So much has changed in those 20 years…
+ In 1999, about 3 to 5 percent of the world had Internet access. About 41 percent of American adults used the World Wide Web, most often to look at the weather. Today an estimated 56 percent of the world’s population (4.3 billion people) are active on the Internet.
+ At the end of the 20th century, all EO readers came to us through a computer, mostly desktops. One third of them were connecting via dial-up modem. Today, about 40 percent of our audience arrives to the web site via mobile phones and tablets on public wifi and cellular networks. Yet even now, 65,000 of our most loyal followers subscribe to our newsletters. Many others subscribe to our RSS feeds.
+ In 1999, “social” media mostly consisted of chatrooms and newsgroups. Even by 2005, only 5 percent of Americans were using social media. Today about 69 percent of adults use social media, and people are just as likely to see Earth Observatory content on social platforms as on our web site. Ten million people follow EO and NASA Earth science on Facebook, with 1.3 million more on Twitter, and 500,000 on Instagram.
+ When EO launched, images from Earth science satellites were generally available about a month after acquisition. Public access to science data and imagery was extremely limited, highly filtered, and sometimes required a fee. Two decades later, many NASA Earth science observations are available freely on the web within hours of acquisition.
+ On our first day online, the site got 400 pageviews–most of them were likely colleagues and relatives. Today we get about 50,000 views per day.
+ In our first year, we published 35 “Images of the Week” and 9 feature stories. By 2001, we started delivering an Image of the Day. Since launch, we have published more than 6,900 Images of the Day, 8,300 natural hazards images, and 450 features and videos. Yes, more than 15,000 image-driven stories, and all of them are still available in our archive.
+ In 1999, two members of our staff were in elementary school and three were in high school. The readers of EO Kids were not born yet.
The technology of science and the Internet has changed in a generation, and our site has evolved and grown with the changes. But our core values have not changed. You find us on more platforms and with some new approaches, but you can still count on us to deliver beautiful, newsworthy, interesting, and scientifically important images and stories. Our editorial team has more than 110 years of experience in science communication and data visualization, and we bring that depth of knowledge to every story, 365 days a year.
None of this would be possible without the many scientists, engineers, communicators, data hounds, patrons, and friends inside and outside of NASA who review our work, tip us off to stories and images, share their scientific insights, and inspire and challenge us. Thank you.
As we celebrate our 20th year, we are going to share some looks back and some looks ahead. In the next twelve months, look for…
EO on This Day – a chance to see some of the most memorable Images released on each day of the calendar year
If you have been with us for many (or all) of our 20 years, thank you. We have some of the most engaged, challenging, and thoughtful readers on the planet, and we work hard to live up to your trust and interest. If you are new to the site, bring a friend. We have 15,000 stories about Earth to share, with more being added every day.
Join a mosquito mapping blitz for Citizen Science Day through GLOBE Observer.
Earth observations take place on many spatial scales. Some observations originate from sensors in space; others can happen with a mobile phone in the palm of your hand. GLOBE Observer is a free mobile app that connects an international network of citizen scientists with the broader scientific community in an effort to document and analyze changes taking place in Earth’s air, land, water, and life. The app is the centerpiece of a citizen science blitz now underway.
Both globalization and a changing climate have caused countless living creatures to adjust their range and distribution. For human health, one of the most concerning impacts of a changing climate is the range expansion of mosquitoes. These flying vectors of disease are responsible for illness in millions of people; they also cause more than 700,000 deaths each year.
The northern hemisphere is now greening up in response to changes in sunlight and temperatures, and mosquito season is either just beginning or underway in much of the contiguous United States. The map above indicates when the first appearance of mosquitoes can be expected based on past weather data. The actual time of first appearance in a region can vary by several weeks, depending on the weather and other variables.
The GLOBE Observer app has a new tool known as the Mosquito Habitat Mapper, which makes it possible for citizen scientists to observe, record, and share data about mosquito breeding sites using a mobile phone. The data are important to scientists trying to predict disease outbreaks and epidemics. Observations provided by citizen scientists, combined with satellite observations and models, can make it possible to track the range and spread of invasive mosquitoes.
With the Mosquito Habitat Mapper, citizen scientists can report active and potential breeding sites in their communities. And using a built-in taxonomic key, GLOBE Observers can help determine whether the mosquito larvae have the potential to transmit disease pathogens to humans.
GLOBE Observers also can have an immediate impact on health in their community. In the last step of Mosquito Habitat Mapper, users report whether they were able to remove a breeding site. This can be accomplished in most cases by simply tipping and tossing standing water that is found in containers, or by covering stored water with a net or a lid. For larger water bodies such as ponds, irrigation ditches, or swamps, the reports about breeding sites can be used by mosquito surveillance agencies.
In this way, GLOBE Observers are not only engaged scientifically, they can become agents of change in their community. The World Health Organization (WHO) identifies source reduction–the elimination of mosquito breeding sites–as the most effective way to protect human populations and reduce the threat of mosquito vector-borne disease.
On February 27, 2014, a Japanese rocket launched NASA’s latest satellite to advance how scientists study raindrops from space. The satellite, the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) Core Observatory, paints a picture of global precipitation every 30 minutes, with help from its other international satellite partners. It has provided innumerable insights into Earth’s precipitation patterns, severe storms, and into the rain and snow particles within clouds. It has also helped farmers trying to increase crop yields, and aided researchers predicting the spread of fires.
In honor of GPM’s fifth anniversary, we’re highlighting some of our favorite and most unique Earth Observatory stories, as made possible by measurements taken by GPM.
The Second Wettest
October in Texas Ever
In Fall 2018, storm after storm rolled through and dumped
record rainfall in parts of Texas. When Hurricane Willa hit Texas around
October 24, the ground was already soaked. One particularly potent cold front
in mid-October dropped more than a foot of rain in areas. By the end of the
month, October 2018 was the second wettest month in Texas on record.
GPM measured the total amount of rainfall over the region from October 1 to October 31, 2018. The brightest areas reflect the highest rainfall amounts, with many places receiving 25 to 45 centimeters (10 to 17 inches) or more during this period. The satellite imagery can also be seen from natural-color satellite imagery.
Observing Rivers in
With the GPM mission’s global vantage point, we can more
clearly see how weather systems form and connect with one another. In
this visualization from October 11-22, 2017, note the long, narrow
bands of moisture in the air, known as “atmospheric rivers.” These
streams are fairly common in the Pacific Northwest and frequently bring much of
the region’s heavy rains and snow in the fall and winter. But this atmospheric
river was unusual for its length—extending roughly 8,000 kilometers (5,000
miles) from Japan to Washington. That’s about two to three times the typical
length of an atmospheric river.
Since atmospheric rivers often bring strong winds, they can force moisture up and over mountain ranges and drop a lot of precipitation in the process. In this case, more than four inches of rain fell on the western slopes of the Olympic Mountains and the Cascade Range, while areas to the east of the mountains (in the rain shadow) generally saw less than one inch.
Increasing Crop Yield
for Farmers in Pakistan
Knowing how much precipitation is falling or has fallen is
useful for people around the world. Farmers, in particular, are interested in
knowing precipitation amounts so they can prevent overwatering or underwatering
The Sustainability, Satellites, Water, and Environment (SASWE) research group at the University of Washington has been working with the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR) to bring this kind of valuable information directly to the cell phones of farmers. A survey by the PCRWR found that farmers who used the text message alerts reported a 40 percent savings in water. Anecdotally, many farmers say their income has doubled because they got more crops by applying the correct amount of water.
The map above shows the forecast for evapotranspiration for October 16-22, 2018. Evapotranspiration is an indication of the amount of water vapor being removed by sunlight and wind from the soil and from plant leaves. It is calculated from data on temperature, humidity, wind speed, and solar radiation, as well as a global numerical weather model that assimilates NASA satellite data. The team also looks at maps of precipitation, temperature and wind speed to help determine crop conditions. Precipitation data comes from GPM that is combined with ground-based measurements from the Pakistan Meteorological Department.
Precipitation can drastically affect the spread of a fire. For
instance, if a region has not received normal precipitation for weeks or
months, the vegetation might be drier and more prone to catching fire.
NASA researchers recently created a model that analyzes various weather factors that lead to the formation and spread of fires. The Global Fire Weather Database (GFWED) accounts for local winds, temperatures, and humidity, while also being the first fire prediction model to include satellite–based precipitation measurements.
The animation above shows GFWED’s calculated fire danger around the world from 2015 to 2017. The model compiles and analyzes various data sets and produces a rating that indicates how likely and intense fire might become in a particular area. It is the same type of rating that many firefighting agencies use in their day–to–day operations. Historical data are available to understand the weather conditions under which fires have occurred in the past, and near–real–time data are available to gauge current fire danger.
In this mountainous country of Nepal, 60 to 80 percent of the annual precipitation falls during the monsoon (roughly June to August). That’s also when roughly 90 percent of Nepal’s landslide fatalities occur. NASA researchers have designed an automated system to identify potential landslides that might otherwise go undetected and unreported. This information could significantly improve landslide inventories, leading to better risk management.
The computer program works by scanning satellite imagery for signs that a landslide may have occurred recently, looking at topographical features such as hill slopes.
The left and middle images above were acquired by the Landsat 8 satellite on September 15, 2013, and September 18, 2014—before and after the Jure landslide in Nepal on August 2, 2014. The image on the right shows that 2014 Landsat image processed with computer program. The red areas show most of the traits of a landslide, while yellow areas exhibit a few of the proxy traits.
The program also uses data from GPM to help pin when each landslide occurred. The GPM core satellite measures rain and snow several times daily, allowing researchers to create maps of rain accumulation over 24-, 48-, and 72-hour periods for given areas of interest—a product they call Detecting Real-time Increased Precipitation, or DRIP. When a certain amount of rain has fallen in a region, an email can be sent to emergency responders and other interested parties.
The GPM Core
Observatory is a joint satellite project by NASA and the Japan Aerospace
Exploration Agency. The satellite is part of the larger GPM mission, which
consists of about a dozen international satellite partners to provide global
observations of rain and snow.
A new edition of The Earth Observer, a bi-monthly publication that covers the nuts-and-bolts of NASA’s Earth Observing System, is out. Here are a few excerpts, along with some musical headlines that may get you humming as you read. You can download the full issue here. Back issues here.
ICE ICE BABY
The Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System (ATLAS), the lone instrument on ICESat-2, successfully fired its laser on September 30 after the mission operations team completed testing of the spacecraft and opened the door protecting the optics. The primary science mission for ICESat-2 is to gather enough observations to estimate the annual height change of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets to within four millimeters. Hundreds of billions of tons of land ice melt into the ocean annually, raising sea levels worldwide. In recent years, meltwater from Greenland and Antarctica alone has raised global sea level by more than a millimeter a year, and the rate is increasing.
THIS LANDSAT IS YOUR LANDSAT
In January 2008, the U.S. Geological Survey and NASA decided to open the full Landsat image archive for public access on a non discriminatory, no-cost basis. This change in Landsat’s data policy ushered in a new era of Landsat data uses and applications while also revolutionizing the way Landsat has been woven into scientific discovery, economic prosperity, and public policy for management of land and water resources across a range of scales.
DEVELOPING SATELLITE SKILLS FOR 525,600 MINUTES (TIMES TWENTY)
From 1998 to the current 2018 fall term, the NASA DEVELOP National Program has engaged 4,671 participants who have conducted 931 projects. The program bridges the gap between science and society by demonstrating how NASA Earth Science data can be applied to environmental decision making. These projects have demonstrated the applications of NASA Earth observations to a wide variety of sectors, addressing topics such as drought monitoring, vector-borne disease risk, water-quality assessments, pre- and post-wildfire mapping, agriculture monitoring, and critical habitat identification.
I CAN SEE CLEARLY NOW
The first Earth Science Decadal Survey identified CLARREO as a Tier-1 (i.e., highest) priority mission for development. The CLARREO Pre-Formulation Mission, referred to herein as the “Full” CLARREO mission, was recommended to better understand climate change. The foundation of CLARREO is the ability to produce highly accurate climate records to test climate projections in order to improve models and enable sound policy decisions.
If there was ever a satellite that deserves an award for longevity, it’s Terra. Designed for a mission of 6 years (or 30,000 orbits), the bus-sized spacecraft continues to cruise 705 kilometers (438 miles) above Earth’s surface nearly 19 years after launch. The spacecraft officially surpassed 100,000 orbits on October 6, 2018. To celebrate, here are ten things to know about the intrepid Earth-observing satellite. Click on each image to find out more.
1. Terra had to be designed from scratch. Unlike many of the smaller satellites that preceded it, engineers couldn’t riff off of an existing design.
2. The bus-sized spacecraft carries five scientific sensors — MODIS, MOPITT, MISR, ASTER, and CERES. All of them continue to send back useful data.
3. The MODIS sensor captures stunning images of hurricanes, wildfires, volcanoes, dust storms, oil spills, and other hazards.
4. Using MOPITT, atmospheric scientists have tracked global trends in carbon monoxide for nearly two decades. The good news: concentrations of the toxic air pollutant are declining.
5. Likewise, they have used the CERES sensor to measure whether Earth’s reflectivity—or albedo—has changed. Despite some fluctuations, there does not appear to be a trend.
6. The MISR sensor can detect the height of volcanic plumes, smoke plumes, dust plumes, and other aerosols. This is key to understanding where plumes will go and whether they will pose a threat to people on the ground.
7. Terra orbits 705 kilometers (438 miles) above the surface, about the distance between Boston, MA, and Washington, D.C.
NASA has funded five new projects to develop tools and technology to make the agency’s massive Earth science datasets more accessible and user-friendly.
Wake up. Turn on laptop. Start processing airborne data of the Adirondack forests in New York. Make Coffee. Eat Breakfast. Fasten the open laptop’s seatbelt in the passenger seat as it continues to crunch numbers. Drive to work.
NASA Earth science datasets provide different perspectives and information on our planet, as seen here in this data visualization of observations of Hurricane Matthew in October 2016. Credits: NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio
That used to be Sara Lubkin’s morning routine as an early career scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Once at work, she would use her desktop computer, while her laptop diligently spent the next 12 hours processing airborne instrument data for the relevant information she needed to study invasive pests of hemlock trees.
“I’m not a computer scientist, I’m an Earth scientist,” said Lubkin, who now works as a program officer for NASA Earth Science Data Systems’ Advancing Collaborative Connections for Earth Systems Science, or ACCESS program. But her experience as a researcher is not unique.
Spending large chunks of time simply getting Earth science data into a usable form for analysis is a common situation for researchers working with the big datasets that come from NASA field, airborne and satellite missions. Downloading huge files, converting data formats, locating the same study areas in multiple datasets, writing code to distinguish different land types in a satellite image – these types of tasks eat into time scientists would rather be using to analyze the actual information in the data.
That’s where the ACCESS program comes in. Part of the Earth Science Data Systems division since 2005, ACCESS finds innovative ways to streamline that cumbersome processing time. The program funds two-year research projects to improve behind-the-scenes data management and provide ready-to-use datasets and services to scientists, Lubkin said.
Sara Lubkin worked with NASA’s big data sets studying invasive pests in Adirondack hemlock trees as part of NASA’s Applied Sciences DEVELOP program, which addresses environmental and public policy issues through interdisciplinary research projects that apply the lens of NASA Earth observations to community concerns around the globe. Credit: Sara Lubkin
In June, NASA selected five teams of NASA, university and commercial computer science researchers from the 2017 round of submissions in a range of projects that will use machine learning, cloud computing and advanced search capabilities to develop tools to improve the behind-the-scenes management for selected NASA datasets.
“We continually invest in development and evaluation of the newest technologies to improve science data systems,” said Kevin Murphy, program executive for NASA’s Earth Science Data Systems at NASA Headquarters in Washington. But more than that, they want to make sure that the tools and technology help real scientists address real problems.
Each ACCESS project has Earth scientists and computer scientists involved from beginning to end, Murphy said. “With the ACCESS program, we’re really trying to understand, for example, how ocean currents work, but we’re trying to do that now with data that’s so large that we need a team of experts who can work together to solve the big science and big data questions.”
The projects will complement data management, distribution and other services provided by the Earth Observing System Data and Information System (EOSDIS), which manages and stores NASA data collected from Earth-observing satellites, aircraft and field campaigns. EOSDIS has 12 interconnected data and archive centers located across the United States, which are organized by discipline. Currently, these centers host 26 petabytes of Earth datasets – that’s 26 million gigabytes, or enough data to need 52,000 computers each with 500 gigabytes of storage space. That number is expected to grow to 150 petabytes within five years with the launch of new satellites.
“Satellite data is big data,” said Jeff Walter, one of the ACCESS 2017 principal investigators and lead engineer for Science Data Services at the Atmospheric Science Data Center at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. “It’s very complex and sometimes difficult to use, even for expert users. In addition to the volume, which makes it difficult for users to acquire, store and manage, there’s also the complexity of both the format and content. Users often have to spend a lot of time understanding how the data is organized and what the various parameters represent.”
Walter’s project is one of three that will use cloud computing to alleviate download and storage issues for users. Starting with two atmospheric datasets, his team will also be developing a way to convert satellite data formats into those that can be read by commercial geospatial information system (GIS) software.
“Our project aims to lower the barrier to entry for a potential new user community who might find novel ways to use this data, and who are more familiar with GIS types of tools,” Walter said.
The two other cloud computing projects will be developing open source processing and analysis tools, including one designed for ocean datasets. A fourth project will use machine learning to detect changes over time in land observations, starting with the detection of landslides, floods and uplift caused by volcanic activity. The fifth project will develop an automated method for lining up datasets that observe the same location so researchers can combine more than one type of information about a place.
NASA has 26 Earth-observing satellites monitoring the vital signs of our home planet. Along with airborne and ground Earth science missions, their data is stored and managed by the Earth Observing System Data and Information System. Credit: NASA
Upon completion, the ACCESS researchers will work closely with EOSDIS teams to incorporate their advancements into the data centers’ day-to-day operations. Once those new tools are in place, that’s when the real power of open and freely available Earth science datasets can flourish, according to Murphy. Easy-to-use data means it gets into the hands of decision-makers, non-governmental organizations, scientists studying related applications and researchers in different fields that may have new uses for it.
“When you make these products open and accessible, you have a lot of unintended, good scientific consequences,” Murphy said, citing examples that include detecting groundwater movement from space, rapid wildfire detection and using night lights to study human energy use. “NASA has a lot of very valuable information, and the ACCESS program really tries to help scientists to not only address primary science questions but also help us understand our environment and plan for our future.”
Now imagine 19 sounds for 19 Earth-observing satellites — the murmur of ocean waves for a spacecraft that studies the oceans, or the howl of winds for one that studies hurricanes. Then swirl all of those sounds into a shell-shaped silver sculpture that looks like something from a sci-fi film.
Put the shell at the Huntington Library in southern California, walk inside, and you have Orbit Pavilion — an immersive piece of art and science communication designed to envelop people in sounds that represents the orbital movements of NASA’s fleet of Earth-observing satellites.
“The piece is in two parts, each with one sound following the path of a satellite. One section demonstrates the movement of the satellites by compressing a day’s worth of trajectory data into one minute, so listeners are enveloped by a symphony of 19 sounds swirling around them. The other section represents the real-time position of the spacecraft: each satellite currently in our hemisphere will “speak” in sequence, and when a sound is playing, if a listener points to the direction of the sound, they are pointing to the satellite orbiting hundreds of miles above us….These satellites are all part of Earth science missions, studying our atmosphere, oceans, and geology — they are helping us better understand how our planet is changing, and potentially how we can be better stewards of it. In that way I see them as kind of sentinels or protectors.”
The result, as Myrebeck had hoped, is both enveloping and comforting.
Information about the orbits of 17 satellites and two sensors on the International Space Station feed into the Orbit Pavilion. Image Credit: StudioKCA
The current fleet of Earth-observing satellites. Image Credit: NASA/EOSPSO
For a deeper dive into the diversity of the data these satellites collect, try searching a satellite’s name on Visible Earth. Or browse NASA Earth Observatory’s global maps sections and Image of the Day archive.
For instance, the map below helped me understand our planet a little bit better. It depicts more than a decade of cloudiness data as observed by the MODIS sensor. Blue shows areas where clouds were infrequent; white indicates areas where they were common.
Image Credit: NASA Earth Observatory, based on data from MODIS.
Hydrologist Matt Rodell of NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center has been living with first-of-its-kind data from the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) for 16 years. That data shows big changes of mass in specific spots on Earth, primarily the result of the movement of water and ice, but it doesn’t tell them what causes those changes. That’s where Matt and the GRACE team come in, painstakingly connecting these observed changes to the loss of ice sheets, depleting aquifers, and climate change. It’s a problem they’re still working on, getting closer every day. Matt explains the years-long process in his own words.
Ominous beginning: Garbage data from a new satellite
Six months after GRACE launched in March 2002, we got our first look at the data fields. They had these big vertical, pole-to-pole stripes that obscured everything. We’re like, holy cow this is garbage. All this work and it’s going to be useless.
But it didn’t take the science team long to realize that they could use some pretty common data filters to remove the noise, and after that they were able to clean up the fields and we could see quite a bit more of the signal. We definitely breathed a sigh of relief. Steadily over the course of the mission, the science team became better and better at processing the data, removing errors, and some of the features came into focus. Then it became clear that we could do useful things with it.
And then trends emerged
It only took a couple of years. By 2004, 2005, the science team working on mass changes in the Arctic and Antarctic could see the ice sheet depletion of Greenland and Antarctica. We’d never been able before to get the total mass change of ice being lost. It was always the elevation changes – there’s this much ice, we guess – but this was like wow, this is the real number.
Not long after that we started to see, maybe, that there were some trends on the land, although it’s a little harder on the land because with terrestrial water storage — the groundwater, soil moisture, snow, and everything. There’s inter-annual variability, so if you go from a drought one year to wet a couple years later, it will look like you’re gaining all this water, but really, it’s just natural variability.
By around 2006, there was a pretty clear trend over Northern India. At the GRACE science team meeting, it turned out another group had noticed that as well. We were friendly with them, so we decided to work on it separately. Our research ended up being published in 2009, a couple years after the trends had started to become apparent. By the time we looked at India, we knew that there were other trends around the world. Slowly not just our team but all sorts of teams, all different scientists around the world, were looking at different apparent trends and diagnosing them and trying to decide if they were real and what was causing them.
A world of big blobs of red and blue
I think the map, the global trends map, is the key. By 2010 we were getting the broad-brush outline, and I wanted to tell a story about what is happening in that map. For me the easiest way was to just look at the data around the continents and talk about the major blobs of red or blue that you see and explain each one of them and not worry about what country it’s in or placing it in a climate region or whatever. We can just draw an outline around these big blobs. Water is being gained or lost. The possible explanations are not that difficult to understand. It’s just trying to figure out which one is right.
Not everywhere you see as red or blue on the map is a real trend. It could be natural variability in part of the cycle where freshwater is increasing or decreasing. But some of the blobs were real trends. If it’s lined up in a place where we know that there’s a lot of agriculture, that they’re using a lot of water for irrigation, there’s a good chance it’s a decreasing trend that’s caused by human-induced groundwater depletion.
And then, there’s the question: are any of the changes related to climate change? There have been predictions of precipitation changes, that they’re going to get more precipitation in the high latitudes and more precipitation as rain as opposed to snow. Sometimes people say that the wet get wetter and the dry get dryer. That’s not always the case, but we’ve been looking for that sort of thing. These are large-scale features that are observed by a relatively new satellite system and we’re lucky enough to be some of the first to try and explain them.
What kept me up at night
The past couple years when I’d been working the most intensely on the map, the best parts of my time in the office were when I was working on it. Because I’m a lab chief, I spend about half my time on managerial and administrative things. But I love being able to do the science, and in particular this, looking at the GRACE data, trying to diagnose what’s happening, has been very enjoyable and fulfilling. We’ve been scrutinizing this map going on eight, nine years now, and I really do have a strong connection to it.
What kept me up at night was finding the right explanations and the evidence to support our hypotheses – or evidence to say that this hypothesis is wrong and we need to consider something else. In some cases, you have a strong feeling you know what’s happening but there’s no published paper or data that supports it. Or maybe there is anecdotal evidence or a map that corroborates what you think but is not enough to quantify it. So being able to come up with defendable explanations is what kept me up at night. I knew the reviewers, rightly, couldn’t let us just go and be completely speculative. We have to back up everything we say.
A tangled mix of answers
The world is a complicated place. I think it helped, in the end, that we categorized these changes as natural variability or as a direct human impact or a climate change related impact. But then there can be a mix of those – any of those three can be combined, and when they’re combined, that’s when it’s more difficult to disentangle them and say this one is dominant or whatever. It’s often not obvious. Because these are moving parts and particularly with the natural variability, you know it’s going to take another 15 years, probably the length of the GRACE Follow-On mission, before we become completely confident about some of these. So it’ll be interesting to return to this in 15 years and see which ones we got right and which ones we got wrong.