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Earth Matters

The Telstar satellite (left) and the 1974 Telstar Durlast, the official ball of the 1974 World Cup. Image Credit: Bell Labs/Shine 2010

Goooooooal!!!! The 2018 FIFA World Cup kicked off on June 14, 2018.

Here’s a bit of Cup trivia you may not know. In 1962, NASA launched a small, spherical communications satellite called Telstar that ended up altering the look of the balls used in the World Cup.

Telstar was the first active communications satellite and the first commercial payload in space. By sending television signals, telephone calls, and fax images from space, the 3-foot-long satellite kicked off a whole new era in telecommunications—and soccer ball design.

There’s a direct line between the distinctive black and white patterning of Telstar’s hull and solar panels and the Adidas ball used as the official ball of the 1970 World Cup in Mexico and the 1974 World Cup in West Germany. While earlier generations of soccer balls were brown and did not show up well on television, the 1970 and 1974 balls featured the now iconic 32-panel design of alternating white hexagons and black pentagons, a pattern that closely resembled Telstar. Fittingly, that first ball was called Telstar Elast; the official ball in 2018, a nod to the 1970 ball, is called the Telstar 18.

To celebrate the World Cup, Earth Observatory is planning to dig into its archives. For key games, we’ll grab one image for each of the two countries going head to head. Can you guess which image goes with which country? Just click on the images below to find out. Enjoy the tournament!

June 14:
Russia  5  — 0  Saudi Arabia

 

June 15
Uruguay  1 — 0 Egypt

 

Iran 1 — 0  Morocco

 

Portugal 3 — 3 Spain

 

June 16
France 2 — 1 Australia

 

Iceland 1 — 1 Argentina

Peru 0 — 1 Denmark

 

Croatia 2 — 0 Nigeria

June 17
Costa Rica 0 — 1 Serbia

Brazil 1 — 1 Switzerland

Mexico 1 — 0 Germany

 

June 18
Sweden vs. Korea Republic

 

Belgium vs. Panama

Tunisia vs. England

November 2017 Puzzler

November 28th, 2017 by Mike Carlowicz

Every month on Earth Matters, we offer a puzzling satellite image. The November 2017 puzzler is above. Your challenge is to use the comments section to tell us what we are looking at, when the image was acquired, and why the scene is interesting.

How to answer. You can use a few words or several paragraphs. You might simply tell us the location. 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 feature in the image. If you think something is interesting or noteworthy, tell us about it.

The prize. We can’t offer prize money or a trip to Mars, 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. After we post the answer, we will acknowledge the first person to correctly identify the image at the bottom of this blog post. We also may recognize readers who offer the most interesting tidbits of information about the geological, meteorological, or human processes that have shaped the landscape. Please include your preferred name or alias with your comment. If you work for or attend an institution that you would like to recognize, please mention that as well.

Recent winners. If you’ve won the puzzler in the past few months or if you work in geospatial imaging, please hold your answer for at least a day to give less experienced readers a chance to play.

Releasing Comments. Savvy readers have solved some puzzlers after a few minutes. To give more people a chance to play, we may wait between 24 to 48 hours before posting comments.

Good luck!

What A Wonderful World: Pinacate Peaks

November 10th, 2017 by jallen

In this satellite image, the prominent Pinacate Peaks stick out above the sand dune landscape of the Gran Desierto de Altar in Mexico’s Sonoran Province. The peaks are located just south of the Mexico-United States border. The Gran Desierto de Altar is one section of the broader Soronan Desert which covers much of northwestern Mexico and reaches into Arizona and California.

Steady, consistent winds in the area have shifted low-lying sand into dune fields in intriguing regular patterns. These same patterns of sand dune fields appear around the world in desert areas.

The volcanic peaks and cinder cones are believed to have formed from volcanic activity that first started roughly 4 million years ago — most likely due to the plate tectonics that also formed the Gulf of California around the same time. The most recent activity was perhaps 11,000 years ago. During the late 1960s, NASA trained astronauts in field geology at a number of sites around the world, including Pinacate Peaks, as preparation for the lunar landings.

The natural color image here is from the Landsat 8 satellite using its Operational Line Imager (OLI) instrument. The image was acquired on October 3, 2017. The volcanic cinder cone field stains the landscape of bright sand and tall dunes in the El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve.

 

NOTE: In a previous version of this post, I featured the EO-1 ALI image below, and an astute reader pointed out that these peaks, while in the Biosphere Reserve, are not Pinacate Peaks, but rather the Sierra de Rosario range nearby. I am geographically and tectonically embarassed…

The natural color image here is from the now-defunct Earth Observing 1 (EO-1) satellite using its Advanced Land Imager (ALI). The image was acquired on December 16, 2012. This late-year scene was just days before the solstice (the farthest south the Sun appears in the sky), so the tallest sand dunes and the volcanic peaks cast unusually long shadows across the ground.

EO-1 was launched in November 2000 as an engineering testbed for new sensor technology; in particular, the ALI instrument was a predecessor for the Landsat 8 Operational Land Imager. The EO-1 mission was so successful that it was extended past its original 18-month mission, and was only recently retired after 17 years of operation.

Roundtable: The Greenland Wildfire

August 10th, 2017 by Adam Voiland

NASA Earth Observatory image by Jesse Allen, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey. The image was captured on August 3, 2017, by the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8.

Scientists around the world have been using satellites to monitor a wildfire in Greenland. In a place better known for ice, just how unusual is this fire? NASA Earth Observatory checked with Earth science experts Ruth Mottram, Jessica McCarty, and Stef Lhermitte to find out. Mottram is a climate scientist at the Danish Meteorological Institute; Lhermitte is remote sensing scientist at Delft University of Technology; and McCarty is a geographer at Miami University.

How unusual is this fire?

Mottram: Many of my colleagues at the Danish Meteorological Institute (DMI) were a bit surprised at first, but it was clear talking to both the Greenland weather forecasters (they do three month rotations to the airport at Kangerlussuaq) and to some of the older guys that fires do happen reasonably regularly, particularly in the west and south. However, they are not always reported either officially or in the news unless the fire is close to a settlement or affecting shipping or flights. This fire seems to be a fairly large one, but there has been no systematic attempt to gather evidence or data on Greenland’s fires – at least not at DMI. I have never heard of anyone else in Denmark doing it either, so it is a bit hard to be more precise than that.

McCarty: This is a hard question to answer, and I keep telling media reporters the same thing: we need to have the wildfire history analyzed before we know how unusual this is. I can tell you from the global wildfire science community that I am a part of, we would have never thought the we would need to make a wildfire history to understand the fire regime in Greenland. So that part is unusual.

Lhermitte: I completely agree with Jessica. I used to be a wildfire remote sensing scientist (finished my PhD on African wildfires in 2008), but I have shifted since then to the cryosphere community (including some work on Greenland’s ice). It was a big surprise to me to see both worlds combined on Monday when I first noticed a Greenland fire tweet. Now it is clear that fires have occurred before, but that we basically lack a good record. MODIS gives us a glimpse, but the sensor cannot detect fires through clouds, and the record is short. Based on what I have seen, the 2017 fire is the biggest one on the MODIS record, but the record is sparse and incomplete.

I know you have done some looking through MODIS and Landsat satellite data for evidence of past fires in Greenland. What have you found?

Lhermitte: I looked back at the record of MODIS active fire detections since 2002 and made a quick overview map. In the map below, fire detections are marked with circles. Higher confidence fires are red; lower confidence fires are yellow. In most years, the satellite flags about 5 pixels as having active fires. In 2015, it flagged about 20 pixels. There were over 40 pixels flagged in 2017, so this year has been exceptional. Note: Most of these detections are probably campfires or false detections—not uncontrolled wildfires. There have been two big wildfires: the one happening now and one in August of 2015.

 


McCarty: Overall, 2017 appears to be a larger fire season than any year since 2001. But from a remote sensing point of view, this is a difficult place to study the fire regime using satellite-based active fire detections (because of cloudiness and other factors). The Landsat/Sentinel-2/Deimos, etc. burn scar images will be more helpful.

Mottram: I have not looked into any of the specific data, but I have heard anecdotes about fires in Narsarsuaq close to the DMI ice service reconnaissance station in the south of Greenland, in the Kobbefjord close to Nuuk, and just to the north of Sisimiut near this one. There was also a large fire in 2008 near Eqi, close to Ilulissat, which the Greenland press reported was caused by a tourist burning rubbish but failing to put the fire out.

One of you said on social media that you think the fire may be burning through peat. Are you sure? How can you tell?

McCarty: The fire line has not moved much in comparison to a wildfire in a grassland or forest. However, Stef made an awesome Sentinel-2 animation that shows the fire line moving some. I still think it is peat with a mix of grasses and moss (given the Google Earth Pro and Deimos imagery), but how deep the peat is difficult to ascertain. A recent study in the Qaanaaq region (north of where these wildfires are) found five times more peat in the soil distribution and soil content than previously reported. Also, historically, peat houses were constructed in this area of Greenland, which means there are peat deposits nearby. Short grasses with underlying peat is my working hypothesis for now since we are onto day 11 of the fire.

Mottram: I am not really a soils expert, and Greenland really suffers from having little detailed mapping of this kind. Also, Greenland is pretty diverse from north to south and east to west. There are high rocky mountains and permafrost. The south has sheep pasture and even some areas of forest; the north has large areas with low vegetation cover. However, there are also extensive areas of peat cite in the scientific literature.

Do you think this fire was triggered by human activity or lightning? Do we know what triggers most fires in Greenland?

McCarty: I still can’t find any indication that this was lightning, so it must be human activity. Greenlandic/Danish news reports are reporting that hikers and tourists should stay from this area, so I would assume that humans are on the landscape there.

Mottram: I can’t really say for sure. Lightning is not impossible, but neither is human activity. It is the middle of the hunting/fishing/berry-picking/hiking season, and this area is known for reindeer. In fact, the Greenland press had an interview with a reindeer hunter who had to turn back from visiting because of the smoke in the fjord. Actually, the hunter wanted the fire put out by the authorities, so he could go hunting there.

What has the weather been like in Greenland during the last few months? Has it been unusually hot or dry where this fire is burning?

Mottram: It has been a very dry summer in the south but also quite dry in this region, and the fire was preceded by some relatively high temperatures. My climatologist colleague John Cappelen tells me that the DMI station at Sisimiut measured an precipitation anomaly of -30.0 millimeters for June and -20.7 millimeters for July compared to the mean precipitation of 1981-2010. In other words, there was almost no rain in June and a bit more than half the usual rainfall in July. There have also been some warm days in Sisimiut (or at least at the airport where the weather station is), particularly towards the end of the month. The monthly average temperature was 7.1 Celsius compared to a 1961-1990 average of 6.3 Celsius in July. The trend has continued into August as well.

This fire got me wondering why there are ice-free areas along Greenland’s coast where vegetation grows. Are these relatively new features? How do you think they got there?

Lhermitte: These ice free coastal areas are mainly the result of the bedrock topography, where the coastal Greenland areas are much more elevated than the interior of Greenland. Since the last glacial maximum, the ice sheet has partly retreated and exposed more land.  If the ice sheet would retreat further, we would see more of the inner, lower land exposed.

Mottram: The ice sheet is more or less in equilibrium with the climate, so it is where it is because that is where the glaciers can flow. During the last glacial maximum, the ice sheet extended far out onto the continental shelf and connected (in the north west) with the Laurentide ice sheet in North America. Then, with warming after the last glacial period, the ice sheet retreated. (That is, more ice was melting and calving away than was being replenished by snowfall.) The ice sheet has been more or less stable in its present extent for about the last 10,000 years (with some smaller advances and retreats responding to more local climate variability).

NASA EO Goes to the Beach

July 3rd, 2017 by Kathryn Hansen

Summer is beach season in the northern hemisphere. But even if you’re a regular at your local swimming hole, you probably haven’t seen too many beaches from this perspective. This video from NASA Earth Observatory shows the satellite and space-station view of various shorelines across the United States. No sunblock necessary.

What A Wonderful World: Miyar Glacier

June 6th, 2017 by jallen

It takes a certain amount of devotion to reach Miyar Glacier. The glacier sits high in the Indian Himalayas, well away from towns and roads, but it rewards explorers with stunning scenery and mountain peaks that rise above 6,000 meters (20,000 feet).  Many of the peaks have little or no record of previous ascents. Satellites, however, can explore with considerably greater ease.

The Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8 acquired this image on October 19, 2016. Summer warmth had melted off snow from the previous winter, leaving only the permanent snow and ice cover. Notice the debris field spread across the width of the glacier. The landslide that left it predates this image by some time; we know this because the debris has been carried downstream by the flow of the ice.

A little exploring with the Google Earth Engine timelapse tool shows Landsat 8’s high dynamic range — that is, its ability to discern both dim and bright features. In images prior to 2013, much of the glacier is featureless and white because it was too bright for the older Thematic Mapper (Landsat 5) and Enhanced Thematic Mapper Plus (Landsat 7) instruments to make out details. Images from 2013 onwards, which use the newer OLI data, show more detail. Still, it is fairly clear that there was no landslide feature as recently as 2007, and the slide definitely had taken place by 2010. Indian researchers used other satellite resources to pin the landslide date down to some time in 2009.

The Miyar Glacier has a relatively smooth surface in this image, with long linear streaks through the center of the glacier. These are medial moraines, features that form when two or more glaciers merge. The confluence of the tributary and the glacier shows how new material gets carried in to create medial moraines.

The tributary merging from the east (in the image above) shows choppy features from the confluence all the way upstream. This very rough surface is an icefall, a feature somewhat akin to rapids or a waterfall in a river. The glacier at the bend is roughly 700 meters (2,100 feet) higher than at the Miyar confluence (approximately 5,200 meters and 4,500 meters above sea level respectively). The ice is flowing over a rough and steep rock surface, causing matching rippling in the ice surface.

The wider image shows the terminus of the Miyar Glacier as well as a number of other tributary glaciers. The names shown here are based on the American Alpine Journal (2009), which notes that many of these glaciers have different names in trekking journals and maps.

Rivers on Earth, Titan, and Mars

May 31st, 2017 by Adam Voiland

Rivers on three planetary bodies: the dry Parana Valles on Mars (left), the Nile River on Earth (middle), and Vid Flumina on Titan (right). Image by Benjamin Black using NASA data.

One of the more distinctive things about Earth among the planets is that we have plate tectonics. In other words, the hard, outer shell of the planet (called the lithosphere) is divided into several cool, rigid plates that float atop a hotter, more fluid layer of rock (the asthenosphere). These rigid surface plates do not float placidly: their grinding, colliding, shifting, and diving causes earthquakes, fuels volcanoes, builds mountains, tears open oceans, and constantly remodels and resurfaces the planet.

That is a far cry from what is happening on Mars and Titan, according to a recent study published in Science. Researchers came to that conclusion by carefully analyzing the way rivers cut through each of these planetary bodies. On Earth, countless rivers and streams snake their way across the surface. On Mars, rivers dried up long ago, but evidence of their presence remains etched into the arid surface. On Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, rivers of liquid ethane and methane still flow into lakes.

Artist’s cross section illustrating the main types of plate boundaries on Earth. (Cross section by José F. Vigil from This Dynamic Planet—a wall map produced jointly by the U.S. Geological Survey, the Smithsonian Institution, and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.)

By comparing imagery and data from all three planetary bodies, researchers noticed distinctive bends in the courses of rivers on Earth; these were formed as rivers were forced to wind around mountain ranges. These bends were absent in river networks on Mars and Titan. In an MIT press release, Benjamin Black, a geologist at the City College of New York, explained:

“Titan might have broad-scale highs and lows, which might have formed some time ago, and the rivers have been eroding into that topography ever since, as opposed to having new mountain ranges popping up all the time, with rivers constantly fighting against them.”

Read more about the study from New Scientist, Space.com, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Read the full study in Science. Read this NASA Earth Observatory story to learn more about how scientists are using satellites to study river width on Earth.

In the triptych at the top of the page, the image of Parana Valles on Mars was acquired by the Viking 1 orbiter on September 13, 1976. The image of the Nile was captured by NASA’s Terra satellite on August 10, 2000. NASA’s Cassini spacecraft captured the image of Vid Flumina on Titan on September 26, 2012.

While water does not flow on Titan, rivers of methane and ethane flow into lakes near the moon’s northern pole. Learn more about this image from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory Photojournal.

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Diesel Fumes Take a Toll on Health

May 26th, 2017 by Adam Voiland

Figure by the ICCT based on data from Anenberg et al. 2017.

It is no secret that many diesel cars and trucks emit more pollution under real-world driving conditions than during laboratory certification testing. Many lab tests, for instance, are run with perfectly maintained vehicles on flat surfaces in ideal conditions. In the real world, drivers chug up hills or sit in traffic in bad weather in vehicles well past their prime.

Until this month, nobody had tallied the health effects of all the excess diesel air pollution entering the atmosphere through real-world driving conditions. According to a new study published in Nature, vehicles in eleven major markets (Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Europe, India, Japan, Mexico, Russia, South Korea, and the United States) emitted about 4.6 million more tons of nitrogen oxides (NOx) in 2015 than official laboratory tests suggested they would. NOx contributes to the accumulation of both ground-level ozone (O3) and fine particulate matter (PM2.5) in the atmosphere.

According to the research team, nearly one-third of heavy-duty diesel vehicle emissions and over half of light-duty diesel vehicle emissions are above the certification limits. On average, light-duty diesel vehicles produce 2.3 times more NOx than the limit; heavy-duty diesel vehicles emit more than 1.45 times the limit.

The authors of the study calculated the health effects for current and future levels of this excess diesel NOx by running a global atmospheric chemistry model that simulates the distribution of PM2.5 and O3. The bottom line: excess NOx caused 38,000 premature deaths in 2015. It could cause as many as 183,600 premature deaths by 2040 as the use of diesel increases.

“We estimate that excess diesel NOx emissions from on-road trucks, buses, and cars leads to upwards of 1,100 premature deaths per year in the U.S.,” said Daven Henze, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Colorado and member of NASA’s Health and Air Quality Applied Sciences Team.

Other key findings from the study:

  • China suffered the largest health burden from diesel NOx emissions—31,400 deaths, of which 10,700 are attributed to excess NOx—followed by the European Union (28,500 total; 11,500 excess) and India (26,700 total; 9,400 excess).
  • Light-duty diesel vehicles in the European Union accounted for 6 out of every 10 deaths related to excess diesel NOx.
  • In the United States, heavy-duty diesel vehicles caused 10 times the impact of light-duty diesel cars.

For more information, read a press release and fact sheet from the International Council on Clean Transportation, a press release from the University of Colorado, and a press release from the University of York. To find out more about global air pollution trends, read A Clearer View of Hazy Skies from NASA Earth Observatory.

This map, based on previous research, shows a model estimate of the average number of deaths per 1,000 square kilometers (386 square miles) per year due to fine particulate matter (PM2.5), a type of outdoor air pollution. Pollution from diesel exhaust is one contributer to PM2.5. Earth Observatory image by Robert Simmon based on data provided by Jason West. Learn more about this map here.

 

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Haze over northeastern China on January 14, 2013. Image by NASA Earth Observatory, using data Terra MODIS data from LANCE MODIS Rapid Response.

In the winter of 2013, thick haze enveloped northern China for several weeks. On January 12, 2013, the peak of that bad-air episode, the air quality index (AQI) rose to a staggering 775—off the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency scale—according to a U.S. air quality sensor in Beijing.

Extra pollution from cars, homes, and factories in the winter often sets the stage for outbreaks of air pollution in China. But a March 2017 study in Science Advances suggests that a loss of Arctic sea ice in 2012 and increased Eurasian snowfall the winter before may have helped fuel the extreme event.

Snow and ice cover can affect weather patterns because both affect albedo, a measure of how much solar radiation the surface reflects in comparison to how much incoming solar radiation it receives. In September 2012, sea ice covered less area than at any other time since 1979. Meanwhile, Eurasia had unusually high snow cover in December 2012, the second most on a record that dates back to 1967.

Normally, winds blow air pollution away from eastern China, which is home to Beijing and several other large cities. But in January 2013, winds died down to a whisper and air pollution piled up. By analyzing decades of data collected by ground-based weather stations, 15 years of satellite data on aerosols, and computer simulations of the atmosphere, the researchers concluded that unusual sea ice and snow conditions triggered a shift in China’s winter monsoon, stilling the winds that normally ventilate Beijing.

A press release from Georgia Tech explained the connection in more detail:

“The reductions in sea ice and increases in snowfall have the effect of damping the climatological pressure ridge structure over China,” explained Yuhang Wang. “That flattens the temperature and pressure gradients and moves the East Asian Winter Monsoon to the east, decreasing wind speeds and creating an atmospheric circulation that makes the air in China more stagnant.”

If correct, this might explain why efforts to reduce air pollution in recent years have not stopped extreme haze events from happening. “Emissions in China have been decreasing over the last four years, but the severe winter haze is not getting better,” said Wang. “Mostly, that’s because of a very rapid change in the high polar regions.”

This is not the first study that connects changes in the Arctic to severe haze in China. Research published in August 2015 in Atmospheric Oceanic Science Letters argued that a decline in Arctic sea ice intensifies haze in eastern China. And a study published in Nature Climate Change in April 2017 came to a similar conclusion. The latter study projected a 50 percent increase in the frequency of extreme haze events and an 80 percent increase in their persistence in the near future.

In 2012, Arctic sea ice extent was unusually low in September. New research suggests that may have contributed to a bad haze outbreak in eastern China the next winter. (NASA Earth Observatory graph by Joshua Stevens, based on data from the National Snow and Ice Data Center.)

Methane Mystery Gets More Muddled

May 5th, 2017 by Adam Voiland

Model simulation of the hydroxyl radical concentration in the atmosphere. Image by Angharad Stell, University of Bristol.

A mystery about global methane trends just got more muddled. Two studies published in April 2017 suggest that recent increases in atmospheric concentrations of methane may not be caused by increasing emissions. Instead, the culprit may be the reduced availability of highly reactive “detergent” molecules called hydroxyl radicals (OH) that break methane down.

Understanding how globally-averaged methane concentrations have fluctuated in the past few decades—and particularly why they have increased significantly since 2007—has proven puzzling to researchers. As we reported last year:

“If you focus on just the past five decades—when modern scientific tools have been available to detect atmospheric methane—there have been fluctuations in methane levels that are harder to explain. Since 2007, methane has been on the rise, and no one is quite sure why. Some scientists think tropical wetlands have gotten a bit wetter and are releasing more gas. Others point to the natural gas fracking boom in North America and its sometimes leaky infrastructure. Others wonder if changes in agriculture may be playing a role.”

The new studies suggest that such theories may be off the mark. Both of them find that OH levels may have decreased by 7 to 8 percent since the early 2000s. That is enough to make methane concentrations increase by simply leaving the gas to linger in the atmosphere longer than before.

Atmospheric methane has continued to increase, though the rate of the increase has varied considerably over time and puzzled experts. (NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens, using data from NOAA. Learn more about the image.)

As a press release from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) noted: “Think of the atmosphere like a kitchen sink with the faucet running,” said Christian Frankenberg, an associate professor of environmental science and engineering at Caltech and a JPL researcher. “When the water level inside the sink rises, that can mean that you’ve opened up the faucet more. Or it can mean that the drain is blocking up. You have to look at both.”

Unfortunately, neither of the new studies is definitive. The authors of both papers caution that high degrees of uncertainty remain, and future work is required to reduce those uncertainties. “Basically these studies are opening a new can of worms, and there was no shortage of worms,” Stefan Schwietzke, a NOAA atmospheric scientist, told Science News.

You can find the full studies here and here. The University of Bristol has also published a press release.

Methane emissions related to human activity are on the rise. (NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens, using data from CDIAC. Learn more.)