On February 12, 1809, Charles Robert Darwin was born in England in the town of Shrewsbury. The famed naturalist, geologist, and biologist is best known for his 19th century expedition to the Galápagos Islands, which inspired revolutionary insights about evolution and natural selection. Lesser known is that the expedition to the Galápagos was just one part of a much longer journey. The Second Voyage of the HMS Beagle brought Darwin and his fellow travelers to South America, Australia, Africa, and several islands in between. Here are a few interesting places where the HMSBeagle stopped that we have covered in earlier stories.
January 1832: The Dusty Canary Islands, Tenerife
The crew of the Beagle was denied landing on Tenerife because of fears they might be carrying cholera. The Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8 acquired this image of the island on January 25, 2016.
Darwin was struck by the intensity of the dust in this area. “The atmosphere is generally very hazy, chiefly due to an impalpable dust, which is constantly falling, even on vessels far out at sea,” he wrote. “It is produced, as I believe, from the wear and tear of volcanic rocks, and must come from the coast of Africa.”
Christmas 1832: Cape Horn, South America
Southwest of Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America, the ocean floor rises sharply. Along with the potent westerly winds that swirl around the Furious Fifties, this pushes up massive waves with frightening regularity. Add in frigid water temperatures, rocky coastal shoals, and stray icebergs—which drift north from Antarctica across the Drake Passage—and it is easy to see why the area is known as a graveyard for ships. In his journal, Darwin described the harrowing journey as the explorers tried to round the Horn just before Christmas.
September 1835: The Galapagos
The Galapagos archipelago includes more than 125 islands, islets, and rocks populated by a diversity of wildlife. Charles Darwin’s book, The Voyage of the Beagle, cast a spotlight on the Galapagos, which he called “a little world within itself, or rather a satellite attached to America, whence it has derived a few stray colonists.” It was this little world that would revolutionize scientific understanding of biology and lead to Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, which would come to be known as the foundation of evolution.
November 1835: The Coral Reefs of Tahiti
On this stopover, Darwin had a chance to explore coral reef.
“We paddled for some time about the reef admiring the pretty branching Corals,” he wrote. “It is my opinion, that besides the avowed ignorance concerning the tiny architects of each individual species, little is yet known, in spite of the much which has been written, of the structure and origin of the Coral Islands and reefs.”
The Enhanced Thematic Mapper Plus on the Landsat 7 satellite captured this natural-color image of Tahiti on July 11, 2001. This island is part of a volcanic chain formed by the northwestward movement of the Pacific Plate over a fixed hotspot.
1836: Pondering Phytoplankton Near Australia
All the sea travel offered plenty of time to observe and ponder the intricacies of phytoplankton.
“My attention was called to a reddish-brown appearance in the sea. The whole surface of the water, as it appeared under a weak lens, seemed as if covered by chopped bits of hay, with their ends jagged,” he wrote. “These are minute cylindrical, in bundles or rafts of from twenty to sixty in each…Their numbers must be infinite: the ship passed through several bands of them, one of which was about ten yards wide, and, judging from the mud-like color of the water, at least two and a half miles.”
On August 9, 2011, the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on the Aqua satellite captured this image of a similar band of brown between the Great Barrier Reef and the Queensland shore. Though it’s impossible to identify the species from satellite imagery, such red-brown streamers are usually trichodesmium. Sailors have long called these brown streamers “sea sawdust.”
A few days after we published a Landsat 8 image of a deadly dam collapse and flood in Brazil, astronauts photographed the scene from the International Space Station on February 2, 2019.
The tailings pond label points to the source of the mine waste. When an earthen dam on the southwestern edge of that pond collapsed on January 25, it sent a torrent of sludge pouring down a valley toward the Paraopeba River. Over a distance of roughly 8 kilometers (5 miles), the mine sludge overran the mine’s headquarters, a hotel, and a residential area. Videos published by news agencies and AGU’s Landslide Blog offer a remarkable view of the dam collapsing and sludge rushing forward at roughly 120 kilometers (75 miles) per hour.
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!
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.
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.
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).
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.
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 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.”
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.
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.
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.