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Earth Matters

Tour Earth’s Clouds from Space

May 1st, 2017 by Kathryn Hansen

You want to know what is better than a “Celebration of Clouds” (our recent photo essay)?  A slideshow of clouds set to music. A slideshow you can use to hook your friends and family on Earth science.

So sit back, push play, and take a tour of Earth’s elegant atmosphere. Then share the beauty.

Our focus at Earth Observatory has long been still imagery and data-intensive maps. But lately we have been supplementing some stories with video and animations. For instance, check out this narrated video about the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. It’s a relatively new direction for us, so please let us know what you think.

On top of all the great science they make possible, satellites often produce imagery that is simply beautiful.

This image of Turnabout Glacier on Canada’s Ellesmere Island is a case in point. It shows a classic piedmont glacier that looks almost like pancake batter spilling over a frozen landscape. Piedmont glaciers form when steep valley glaciers spill out into relatively flat plains. Unchained from the constraints of the terrain, the ice flows freely in all directions.

Image Credit: NASA Earth Observatory/ASTER/Jesse Allen

The Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emissions and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) instrument on NASA’s Terra satellite acquired an image of the glacier and its surroundings on July 26, 2009. The summertime image shows the glacier free of overlying snow from the previous winter. Banding in the surface of the ice shows different years in which the ice was laid down on the glacier.

Image Credit: NASA Earth Observatory/ASTER/Jesse Allen

In the wider view, you can see glaciers drain out of ice caps between mountain peaks and ridgelines. Many features, including Turnabout, were first formally cataloged in 1957 and 1958 as part of the first International Geophysical Year (IGY). This area is so far north and the weather so cold much of the year that there has been little in the way of human footprints on the landscape. Hence, features had no official names within the scientific community before the IGY.

Humans have, though, made one visible impact on this image. The line on the top left is a contrail from a plane. Contrails form when water-rich exhaust from jet engines freezes into tiny ice crystals at high altitude.

Compare Turnabout to Eugène Glacier in the wider view. Both are classic piedmont glaciers, but Turnabout exits the mountain pass into the Hazen Plain with some obstacles that cause it to twist and turn before ending and draining into the Turnabout River. Eugène Glacier has no such obstacles and spreads out more evenly.

This false-color image was made by combining observations of near infrared, red, and green light. Red indicates vegetation; the chlorophyll in plants reflects much more strongly in the near infrared than other wavelengths.

An Optimistic View For Earth Day

April 21st, 2017 by Adam Voiland

By removing natural and stray light sources, researchers have provided a clearer picture of the human footprint on Earth. Learn more about this image. (NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens, using Suomi NPP VIIRS data from Miguel Román, NASA GSFC.)

As we arrive at Earth Day 2017, reporting on Earth science can sometimes feel like a gloomy affair. Global temperatures are at record highs. Arctic sea ice is in pretty bad shape. Bleaching events are taking a toll on coral reefs. And as an interesting article in EOS recently noted, humanity is affecting the very shape of Earth’s surface in unprecedented ways.

“We have altered flood patterns, created barriers to runoff and erosion, funneled sedimentation into specific areas, flattened mountains, piled hills, dredged land from the sea, and even triggered seismic activity,” the authors wrote. (Read our stories about land reclamation in China, mining in Canada, gas and oil infrastructure in Texas, the growing Wax Lake Delta in Louisiana, and the retreat of the Aral Sea to see changes of this nature.)

In spite of the challenges in a changing world, there are reasons to be optimistic. The world has come together to confront global problems before. Levels of protective ozone are stabilizing because of the Montreal Protocol. In the United States and Europe, better technology and regulations have led to drastic reductions in air pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide. There are signs that efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay are making a difference.

NASA’s operating Earth science missions as of March 31, 2017. (Image Credit: NASA’s Earth Observing Project Science Office.)

Some of the environmental challenges we face are daunting and can seem intractable, but there are some good reasons to feel reassured by the tools and expertise that the scientific community brings to the table. Americans live in a country where the number of deaths due to hurricanes, landslides, floods, droughts, tornadoes, blizzards, and other weather hazards have plummeted over the past century, and that is largely due to better understanding and to appropriate hazards warning systems that Earth scientists have developed.

Computers and instruments that used to take up whole rooms now fit snugly onto autonomous aircraft, satellites, and robots. At this moment, 1,459 satellites orbit Earth—including 19 that are part of the NASA fleet keeping a watchful eye on this dynamic, fragile planet. The authors of the EOS article note that a unified, global, high-resolution 3-D map of the human fingerprint on Earth is within reach due to the remarkable lidar instruments, aerial photogrammetry, and satellite observations that are now available.


NASA invites people around the world to help us celebrate Earth Day 2017 by “adopting” one of 64,000 individual pieces of Earth as seen from space. Learn more. (Image Credit: NASA)

To get a sense of the sophistication and breadth of the information satellites now collect, just navigate to your home town with NASA’s Worldview browser or take a look at the Earth Observations (NEO) data archive. You will find information on everything from plant health to particulate aerosol levels to fires to city lights.

As you look, keep in mind that NASA isn’t just collecting that data for data’s sake. The Applied Sciences program is focused on making that data useful to citizens, resource managers, and civic planners in ways that make life better here on Earth. So if you plan to celebrate Earth Day by cleaning up trash in your neighborhood or adopting a piece of the planet with NASA, rest assured that you are not alone in working to make the planet just a little bit more livable.


SMAP! Goes The Memory

April 7th, 2017 by Pola Lem

Scientists have long known that moisture content in the thin, top layers of soil plays an important role in global water processes. Recent findings published in Nature Geoscience show that roughly 14 percent of all rainfall remains in the uppermost soil layer for as long as three days after a storm. According to data from NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive mission (SMAP), that’s especially true for Earth’s driest regions.

Soil moisture varied widely in this image, which uses data gathered between May 27–31, 2015. Image by Joshua Stevens/NASA Earth Observatory.

“It’s sitting at a very critical zone at the surface of the land, and plays a disproportionately critical role in the cycling of water,” said Dara Entekhabi, a professor at MIT and author of the study, in a press release. “It plays a significant role in moderating climate on seasonal and annual timescales.”

The top 2 inches (5 centimeters) of surface soil contains a sort of “memory”—even several days after a heavy rainfall, the soil will contain a fraction of that moisture. Such memory can affect weather, farming, the spread of vector-borne diseases and the length of droughts and floods.

For more on SMAP, check out some of these NASA Earth Observatory stories:

+Soil Moisture in the United States
+Soggy Soil in the Eastern United States

NASA News Roundup: March 2017

March 31st, 2017 by Pola Lem

Here’s a roundup of some of the latest Earth science news from NASA.

The number of days with lethal dehydration risk rises in a future scenario where the Earth warms by 7 degrees Fahrenheit. Credit: NASA


Longer, more intense, and more frequent heatwaves threaten U.S. songbirds, according to a recent study. In a scenario where temperatures increase by 4 degrees Celsius (7 degrees Fahrenheit), five species of songbirds will become more prone to mass die-offs due to dehydration. Researchers used data from the North American Land Data Assimilation System (NLDAS) and physiological data in the study. Read more here.


This spring, scientists descended into ice caves below Mount Erebus—the entrance to the underworld, according to the ancient Greeks. Aaron Curtis, a postdoctoral scholar at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, used the icy environment to test robots, a drill, and computer-aided mapping technology. The tests were intended to explore and simulate how these tools might perform on icy planets.  Read more here.


How thick is the Earth’s ozone layer now, after years of depletion, regulation, and recovery? The Stratospheric Aerosol and Gas Experiment (SAGE) III instrument is set to monitor “the Earth’s sunscreen,” as well as other gases and particles, from the International Space Station. Following its installation in March 2017, SAGE will keep a pulse on ozone, water vapor, and aerosols in our atmosphere.

Read more about SAGE III here and here.

Video Roundup: Snow, Snow Everywhere

March 16th, 2017 by Pola Lem

Editor’s note: Here’s a roundup of the latest eye-catching earth science videos from NASA and beyond. In March, snow emerged as a theme.

Where there is snow, there is water. Scientists trudged through thick white powder in Grand Mesa and the Senator Beck Basin to measure the depth of snow and its water content for the SnowEx campaign.


A scientist with the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) mission explains why snowflakes look the way they do.


Did you know that 60 million Americans rely on snowmelt as their main source of water?

And if you’re not completely buried in white stuff, check out a National Geographic short documentary on a Colorado man who has been taking daily snow measurements for decades.


Photon Jump” tells the story of an exuberant photon. Follow this miniature light particle as s/he is spat out of a satellite sensor in Earth’s orbit. A team of students at Georgia’s Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) created the film for the upcoming ICESat-2 mission, which will measure snow and ice on Earth.



From an Atmospheric River to a River of Sediment

February 21st, 2017 by Adam Voiland

Credit: NASA Earth Observatory/VIIRS/Jesse Allen. More details about the image here.

In the past two months, weather reports in California, Oregon, and Washington have been filled with news of “atmospheric rivers” bringing copious amounts of rain and snow to the western United States. Atmospheric rivers are long, thin fingers of moisture that develop in the tropics and flow into higher latitudes. If one of them makes landfall, huge of amounts of rain and snow can fall in a short period.

Much of this moisture, of course, eventually finds its way back to the sea through rivers. When waterways are swollen and flowing rapidly, they also become rivers of suspended sediment, full of clay, mud, sand, and other debris. Though the flooding from atmospheric river events can be devastating, the enormous amount of sediment they send rushing into the sea can also be surprisingly beautiful.

For instance, on February 11, 2017, the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on Suomi NPP acquired this remarkable view of rivers and streams spewing sediment into the Pacific Ocean. Close to the outlets of streams and rivers, sediment-rich waters appear brown. As the sediment dissipates and mixes into the ocean, the water appears teal.

Duane Waliser, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, recently tallied just how damaging atmospheric rivers can be for coastal areas. In a study published in Nature Geoscience, Waliser and a colleague showed that atmospheric rivers are among the most damaging storm types in the middle latitudes. Of the very wettest and windiest storms (those ranked in the top 2 percent), atmospheric rivers were associated with nearly half of them. Waliser and colleagues also found that atmospheric rivers were associated with a doubling of the typical wind speed compared to all storm conditions.

Image originally published by NOAA.

Satellite Images We Love

February 14th, 2017 by Adam Voiland

Image Credit: NASA Earth Observatory/Joshua Stevens

In celebration of Valentine’s Day, the NASA Earth Observatory staff took some time to look through our archives to find a few images that we absolutely love. You will find eight of our favorite scenes below: the islands of Mergui Archipelago, tea-colored water in James Bay, a snowy scene of Long Island, the intricate waterways of Musa Bay, an eddy of phytoplankton near South Africa, the Nardo racing ring in Italy, sea ice and icebergs in Antarctica, and a meandering river in the Amazon. Each staff member wrote a short note explaining why they chose the image.

Do you have a crush on NASA, earth science, and satellite imagery like we do? Get in on the fun by finding your favorite image from our archives and posting the link to the comment thread (and your social media sites of choice) with a few words explaining why you love the image. If you have trouble finding the perfect match by blindly searching our archives, you can also go to this page and sort by category, year, and month. You can also try our Visible Earth archive, where the images are conveniently categorized by what they show and which satellite sensor acquired them.

Image credit: NASA Earth Observatory/Landsat 5/TM. More details here.

This image is full of fantastic reminders about our planet and the science of Earth observation. Sediment flows, forests, and human settlement can all be seen in gorgeous color. But what’s more — the image was acquired by Landsat 5 back in 2004. We are currently two generations further in the Landsat constellation; this image is a vivid reminder of the quality and depth of that legacy. — Joshua Stevens, data visualizer


Image credit: NASA Earth Observatory/Landsat 8/OLI. More details here.

If you’ve ever read the blog FYFD or even spent time looking carefully at cream swirling around in your coffee, you’ll know why I love this image. There are times that fluids just going about their mundane business of mixing and flowing make patterns that are insanely beautiful. Check out our original story for a more detailed view of the von Kármán vortices swirling away from the small island in the middle of the Bay to see what I mean.  — Adam Voiland, science writer


Image credit: NASA Earth Observatory/Landsat 8/OLI. More info here.

Home is where the heart lies. In my case, that’s New York City and Long Island — my two homes. I grew up in both of these places, and love them both. This image shows dense snow that covered New York in February 2015. If Landsat 8’s Operational Land Imager (OLI) could zoom in farther, you might see my mom and me cross-country skiing on the beach, or my dog bounding through the hills of snow.  I still remember the enormous ice floes in Long Island Sound, which you can see in this image. — Pola Lem, science writer


Image Credit: NASA Earth Observtory/EO-1/ALI. More info here.

There’s a lot to this image I really like. The dendritic pattern of waterways and the sharp contrast that has against the strong straight linear features of man-made structures is quite striking. Also, the way that the warm, reddish-browns and the cool-toned blues and greens weave together is really compelling. Finally, I like the backstory of how we found this image: it was an accidental discovery made possible only because the satellite — Earth Observing-1 — produces a small number of images each day, making reading the entire list of images acquired (not just known objects of interest) possible for serendipitous discoveries like this. — Jesse Allen, data visualizer


Image credit: NASA Earth Observatory/Terra/MODIS. More info here.

After 6.5 years and 2500+ images since I joined EO, I have a hard time calling any image a favorite. But I thought of this one today because it pulls together many strands of my life. I have worked with scientists studying the Earth from space and with those studying the ocean from ships. I have long enjoyed learning and writing about the macrocosm and the microcosm — seeing things on both the grandest and the smallest of scales. And I have always preferred nonfiction, photography, and realism to abstract and impressionistic art. This phytoplankton bloom, which is tracing out the vortices of an eddy, looks like a blue rose in the sea. And while it looks like a painting, it is completely natural. It was created by the tiniest of organisms — phytoplankton — and by unseen, potent forces — deep ocean currents. It’s another day when reality is just as beautiful as any art. — Michael Carlowicz, managing editor


Image credit: NASA/International Space Station/Expedition 14. More info here.

Being an automotive enthusiast, as well as an amateur racer, I’ve always loved images of the Nardo Ring.  This racing circuit is a perfect circle, and massive in order to be used for vehicle testing.  Highways, city girds, and other roadways are often prominent features in astronaut photography, but the scale and precision of the Nardo Ring are impressive when set against the Italian farm fields.  It’s easy to see, even from up there, the impact the racing and automotive culture has on Italy, and the rest of the world.  — Paul Przyborski, programmer/dba/designer


Image credit: NASA Earth Observatory/EO-1/ALI. More info here.

I really like this image because of the variety of blue and white hues. There is young ice, old ice, icebergs that are trapped in sea ice, and all of it is accentuated by an oblique sun angle casting shadows and highlighting texture. — Kevin Ward, team leader

Image Credit: NASA Earth Observatory/Landsat 8/OLI. More info here.

If I’m not mountain biking, you will probably find me kayaking—a hobby partly inspired by regularly seeing incredible views of Earth’s rivers from space at work. What I love most about this image of Rio Mamoré in the Amazon Basin is how you can see how much the rivers meander and migrate over time. Interestingly, researchers studying rivers in this region found that the greater the amount of sediment from external sources (glacial, volcanic, or human activity), the more likely the rivers were to meander. — Kathryn Hansen, science writer


Using Satellites to Size Up the Severity of Crop Fires in Northern India

February 8th, 2017 by Adam Voiland with Hiren Jethva

NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using VIIRS data from the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership and the Fire Information for Resource Management System (FIRMS). The map shows fires detected on November 2, 2016.

When I was writing about the crop fires in northern India last fall, it was obvious that 2016 was a pretty severe burning season. For several weeks, large plumes of smoke from Punjab and Haryana blotted out towns and cities along the Indo-Gangetic plain in satellite images.

But I didn’t realize just how severe the fires were until Hiren Jethva, an atmospheric scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, crunched the numbers. By analyzing satellite records of fire activity, he found that the 2016 fires were the most severe the region has seen since 2002 in regards to the number of fire hot spots satellites detected. In regards to the amount of smoke detected, the 2016 burning was the most severe observed since 2004. He used data from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) sensor on Aqua and the Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI) on Aura to reach his conclusions.

Smoke and fire in northern India have become common in October and November during the last three decades because farmers increasingly use combines to harvest rice and wheat. Since these machines leave stems and other plant residue behind, farmers have started to use fire to clear the leftover debris away in preparation for the next planting.

For more details about how 2016 compared to past years, see the charts below, which Jethva prepared. His explanation for each chart is in italics.

Aqua Detected More Fires in 2016 Than During Any Year Since 2002

Chart by Hiren Jethva based on MODIS data.

The satellite-based sensor MODIS can detect the signal of fire hot spots, also called thermal anomalies, because the signal measured by the sensor in space in the thermal infrared bands appears to be an anomaly compared to the signal emanated from the background land. Since its launch in 2002, the MODIS on NASA’s Aqua satellite has detected thermal anomalies such as wildfires, agricultural fires, and gas flares on a daily basis.

The yearly evolution of total number of fires and Fire Radiative Power (FRP) — the heat energy produced from these fires — detected over Punjab and Haryana showed 2016 to be an anomalous year, with the highest number of crop residue fires (18,707) and the highest FRP in relation to the fires in all other years over the region. In comparison to 2015, the total number of fire hot spots detected over the region in 2016 was 43 percent higher; the difference is 25 percent if the hot spot counts are averaged over the last five years, i.e., 2011-2015. A careful look at the time-evolution of fire counts also reveals an increasing trend in the total number of fires over the region.

Punjab Skies Were Unusually Smoky 

Chart by Hiren Jethva based on OMI data.

These fires produced huge amounts of fine aerosol particles and trace gases, which can potentially impact the climate and degrade air quality drastically at ground level. NASA’s A-train sensors such as the Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI) on the Aura satellite and the MODIS on Aqua offer capabilities to measure the total amounts of airborne particles. The UV Aerosol Index (UV-AI), which is an excellent indicator of the column amounts of light-absorbing particles in clear as well as cloudy atmospheres, showed 2016 was the smokiest season on record since 2004.


Greener Fields and Larger Harvests Lead to More Fires

Many studies have shown that satellite measurements of the “greenness” of  crop fields prior to harvest and crop yield after the harvest are strongly correlated. The normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI), which is derived from satellite measurements of radiation at the red and near-infrared light, is one useful measure of greenness. As seen in the charts above, there seems to be a one-to-one relationship in NDVI measured by the MODIS sensor on Aqua prior to harvest (September) and the total number of fire hot spots observed during harvest season (Oct-Nov). This suggest that the increase in the number of fires is likely related to increasing crop yields.

February Puzzler

February 6th, 2017 by Pola Lem

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

How to answer. Your answer can be a few words or several paragraphs. (Try to keep it shorter than 200 words). You might simply tell us what part of the world an image shows. Or you can dig deeper and explain what satellite and instrument produced the image, what spectral bands were used to create it, or what is compelling about some obscure speck in the far corner of an image. If you think something is interesting or noteworthy, tell us about it.

The prize. We can’t offer prize money 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 person who was first to correctly ID the image at the bottom of this blog post. We may also recognize certain readers who offer the most interesting tidbits of information about the geological, meteorological, or human processes that have played a role in molding the landscape. Please include your preferred name or alias with your comment. If you work for or attend an institution that you want us to recognize, please mention that as well.

Recent winners. If you’ve won the puzzler in the last few months or work in geospatial imaging, please sit on your hands for at least a day to give others a chance to play.

Releasing Comments. Savvy readers have solved some of our puzzlers after only a few minutes or hours. To give more people a chance to play, we may wait between 24-48 hours before posting the answers we receive in the comment thread.

Good luck!

Editor’s Note: Congratulations to Gareth Renowden for being the first reader to solve the puzzler on the Earth Observatory site, and to Mark Baumgartner for answering first on Facebook. See a labeled version of the February puzzler here.