Earth Matters

EO December Puzzler

December 21st, 2021 by Mike Carlowicz

Happy Solstice Day!

Every month on Earth Matters, we offer a puzzling satellite image. The December 2021 puzzler is shown above. Your challenge is to use the comments section to tell us where it is, what we are looking at, and why it is interesting. In particular this month, what is the golden line/streak across the image?

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 offer details about what satellite and instrument produced the image, what spectral bands were used to create it, or what is compelling about some obscure feature. If you think something is interesting or noteworthy, tell us about it.

The prize. We cannot offer prize money or a trip on the International Space Station, but we can promise you credit and glory. Well, maybe just credit. Within 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. 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.

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

Update: The answer is the Sápmi region of Finland (formerly known as Lapland), not far from Oulanka National Park. You can read more here. Tom Franco correctly noted the low Sun angle (but it is not a sunset), while Frank correctly noted the proximity to the Arctic Circle.

NASA-Sponsored GLOBE Education Program Wins Award

December 17th, 2021 by Alison Gold, NASA Earth Science News Team

The NASA-sponsored Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) Program has received the American Geophysical Union (AGU) 2021 Excellence in Earth and Space Science Education Award. According to AGU, the annual award honors an individual, group, or team committed to promoting excellent geophysical education.

Through GLOBE, people around the world learn how to document and share useful information about their local environment with scientists. Launched on Earth Day in 1995, GLOBE connects scientists, teachers, and students in 126 countries with hands-on scientific activities.

“GLOBE is a phenomenal program that has a special place at NASA,” said Dr. Allison Leidner, program manager for education and communication in the Earth Science Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “Enabling students and citizen scientists to investigate our home planet gives them a greater appreciation of our environment, ignites their interest in science-related careers, and connects them to the international Earth science community. We are so happy to see AGU recognize GLOBE with this award.”

Through teachers that have been trained in GLOBE protocols, students learn how to conduct scientific investigations and collect data in their community. GLOBE science protocols were developed with Earth scientists and many protocols have connections to NASA’s satellite missions. So far, GLOBE participants have gathered and shared more than 200 million Earth science observations.

“The GLOBE Program has made outstanding achievements and contributions by pushing the frontiers of our science forward,” said AGU President Susan Lozier in a statement, on behalf of the AGU Earth and space science community. “GLOBE has also embodied AGU’s shared vision of a thriving, sustainable and equitable future for all, powered by discovery, innovation, and action. And you did this with integrity, respect, diversity, and collaboration while creating deep engagement in education and outreach.”

In addition to being sponsored by NASA, GLOBE is supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the U.S. Department of State.

Dr. Tony Murphy, GLOBE Implementation Office director, and Dr. Caryn Long, middle school science teacher at Montverde Academy (Florida), share more about the program and its recent recognition. Their responses have been edited for clarity.

What sets GLOBE apart from other education programs?

Tony Murphy: GLOBE has a strong community of citizen scientists, students, and teachers all over the world who are eager to contribute to Earth system science research. GLOBE allows people to contribute to data collection and submission, to understand the scientific research process and the work of scientists, and to see how their local environment fits into the regional and global environment.

Caryn Long: I have used GLOBE in my classroom for five years now. GLOBE is different from other science education programs because it educates students while also immersing them in the practical and applied nature of science. Knowing they are contributing to real research with NASA scientists is a powerful motivational tool to get them to practice the skills of observation, data collection, and analysis in a real and meaningful way. They want to practice the skills they are developing because what they are doing is valued.

How do your students contribute to GLOBE, and what do they most enjoy about it?

Long: Our classroom participates in the Cloud, Aerosols and Hydrology Protocols and the Surface Temperature Field Campaign at the lake behind our school. We are adding more protocols each year. Each time I share with my students that we are learning a new protocol to add to their toolbox, they are excited to get started. What my students have enjoyed most about GLOBE is meeting some of the scientists that are involved with the program. Another highlight for them is gathering the cloud data because it involves NASA satellites. Receiving the email matches with the satellites is exciting to the kids because they love comparing what they saw from a ground level to what the satellite has viewed.

What are some highlights from your time as director of the GLOBE Implementation Office?

Murphy: Seeing students communicate their research at meetings, and especially at the two GLOBE Learning Expeditions I have attended, has been truly amazing. GLOBE Learning Expeditions are week-long, student-focused events held every few years at sites around the world. I gave a scientific presentation at a national science competition in Ireland when I was in middle school. That experience had a major influence on my life, so it’s incredible to see so many GLOBE participants have a similar opportunity.

What is most exciting about the AGU award?

Murphy: The GLOBE community has grown tremendously from a small number of countries in 1995 to 126 countries today with a database of over 200 million measurements for use in research by students and scientists. New technology advancements including the GLOBE Program’s app, GLOBE Observer, have impacted the ways in which the program is implemented and enables citizen scientists to participate. The GLOBE community worldwide, including students, country coordinators, teachers, program support staff, government officials, and program sponsors, have allowed GLOBE to earn this recognition.

Hitch a Virtual Ride on a Sounding Rocket

December 10th, 2021 by Keith Koehler, NASA Wallops Flight Facility

What does Earth look like from 98 miles up? A project developed by Colorado community college students is providing the opportunity for the public to see Earth from the perspective of a small rocket in flight.

The 360-degree camera experiment flew on a Terrier-Improved Malemute suborbital sounding rocket in August 2021 from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. The camera experiment was flown as part of the RockSat-X mission, a NASA education program in partnership with the Colorado Space Grant Consortium. Participating schools in the project included Arapahoe Community College in Littleton, Colorado, and Red Rocks Community College in Lakewood, Colorado.

“The goal of the project was to produce a video of a sounding rocket flight away from the body of the vehicle,” said Giovanni Rosanova, chief of the NASA sounding programs office at Wallops. “In addition to the educational and public outreach values of the project, the technology may also be used on NASA sounding rocket flights to observe science or technology instrument deployments during flight.”

“Over 50 community college students participated in the project,” said Chris Koehler, director of the Colorado Space Grant Consortium. “Developed over a two-year period, the project provided the students with many challenges, including how to get the camera away from the rocket and then protecting it from re-entry then impact in the ocean.”

“The students met the challenges, during a pandemic, and the camera system provided a spectacular and immersive view from space,” Koehler said.

Sounding rockets fly a parabolic or arc trajectory.  Flying from 75 to 800 miles altitude, these rockets are used to conduct science, pursue technology development, and provide educational opportunities for students. They do not place experiments or satellites into orbit.

November Puzzler

November 16th, 2021 by Kathryn Hansen



Every month on Earth Matters, we offer a puzzling satellite image. The November 2021 puzzler is above. Your challenge is to use the comments section to tell us what we are looking at, where it is, and why it 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. If you think something is interesting or noteworthy, tell us about it.

The prize. We cannot 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.

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

Update: The answer is sea ice in the Weddell Sea, off Antarctica’s Ronne Ice Shelf. Congratulations to Colin, who correctly identified the feature as sea ice, and to Katie Gerber who correctly identified the feature and location. Read more in this Image of the Day.

October Puzzler

October 26th, 2021 by Adam Voiland

UPDATE — This image shows the terrain in Sleepy Hollow, New York, the setting for The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. See the full image and story in our October 31 Image of Image of the Day. Congratulations to Chris Pollard for being the first reader to solve the puzzler.

Every month on Earth Matters, we offer a puzzling satellite image. The October 2021 puzzler is above. Your challenge is to use the comments section to tell us what we are looking at, where it is, and why it 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. If you think something is interesting or noteworthy, tell us about it.

The prize. We cannot 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.

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

SeaHawk Mission Proves CubeSats are Viable for Collecting Scientific Data

August 31st, 2021 by Joseph M. Smith, NASA EOSDIS Science Writer

“Not bad for a shoebox.”

This quip, uttered by an engineer at NASA’s Wallops Island Near Earth Network (NEN) receiving station on March 22, 2019, is something NASA oceanographer Gene Carl Feldman will never forget.

The comment came in response to the successful downlink and processing of the first image from the HawkEye imager aboard the University of North Carolina-Wilmington’s SeaHawk CubeSat, currently in low-Earth orbit approximately 575 kilometers above the surface. 

SeaHawk observed algal slicks off Qingdao, China, in June 2021.

The goal of the SeaHawk mission was to prove a concept: that it is possible to collect scientifically credible ocean color data comparable to that of previous ocean color satellite missions from a 3U (or unit) CubeSat, a small, cube-shaped satellite (also known as a nanosatellite) measuring just 10-centimeters x 10-centimeters x 30-centimeters. The first successful download of an image from HawkEye proved it was. 

“The mission could have ended at that moment, and we could have declared 100 percent success,” said Feldman, who specializes in ocean color remote sensing. “This was the first X-band downlink from a CubeSat that NASA had ever done. The data came down, it was processed flawlessly through the system — it was amazing! Everything worked. Here you have this 11-meter dish collecting data from something you can hold in one hand.”

The mission could have ended at that time, but, of course, it didn’t. Although pursued as a proof-of-concept, Feldman admits he had bigger plans for SeaHawk from the start.

In June 2021, HawkEye acquired this view of Uluru and Kata-Tjuta, famous rock formations in Australia’s Northern Territory.

“I didn’t think it would be worth NASA’s investment to do a one-off, get one image, prove the concept, and go home,” he said. “My goal from the beginning was to integrate this mission into the infrastructure that we have built over the past 25 years to support ocean color satellites, and to demonstrate that a CubeSat can be treated like a normal, credible scientific mission.”

Click here to read more about the origins, development, and performance of SeaHawk and HawkEye.

August Puzzler

August 24th, 2021 by Adam Voiland

UPDATE — This image shows part of Wadi Rum in Jordan, a popular place for filming movies set on Mars. See the full image and story in our August 28 Image of the Day. Congratulations to Dr. Nadia Asad and Holger Wille for being some of the first readers to solve the puzzler.

Every month on Earth Matters, we offer a puzzling satellite image. The August 2021 puzzler is above. Your challenge is to use the comments section to tell us what we are looking at, where it is, and why it 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. If you think something is interesting or noteworthy, tell us about it.

The prize. We cannot 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.

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

July Puzzler

July 13th, 2021 by Adam Voiland

UPDATE — This puzzling image shows an abundance of agriculture in Andhra Pradesh. See the full image and story in our Image of the Day, published on July 17. 

Every month on Earth Matters, we offer a puzzling satellite image. The July 2021 puzzler is above. Your challenge is to use the comments section to tell us what we are looking at, where it is, and why it 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. If you think something is interesting or noteworthy, tell us about it.

The prize. We cannot 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.

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

NASA Supports Drought Resilience in the American West

July 13th, 2021 by By Amber Jenkins, NASA's Western Water Applications Office

The American West is in the grip of an exceptional drought. Following one of the planet’s hottest years on record — and with rainfall and snowfall in the western U.S. well below average — water managers, policymakers, government agencies, and scientists are facing strapped water supplies and anticipating potentially devastating wildfires. 

The USDA-NASA Crop-CASMA product shows soil moisture anomalies — where moisture was above
or below normal — across the continental U.S. in early June 2021.

Using its satellites, aircraft, and computer models, NASA is helping water managers respond. NASA’s drought resource page details how the agency is helping farmers, reservoir managers, and decision makers track and monitor the ongoing droughtpredict how much water will be available, and help improve how we use the water we have. The site will be updated throughout the year.

Underpinning all of this is NASA’s expertise in water scienceour partnerships with water managers across the country, and our leadership in space and remote-sensing technology. 

Learn more at the drought resource page.

Earth’s Radiation Budget is Out of Balance

June 22nd, 2021 by Joseph Atkinson, NASA Langley Research Center

Researchers have found that Earth’s energy imbalance approximately doubled during the 14-year period from 2005 to 2019.

Earth’s climate is determined by a delicate balance between how much of the Sun’s radiative energy is absorbed in the atmosphere and at the surface and how much thermal infrared radiation Earth emits to space. A positive energy imbalance means the Earth system is gaining energy, causing the planet to heat up. The doubling of the energy imbalance is the topic of a recent study published June 15 in Geophysical Research Letters.

Scientists at NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration compared data from two independent sets of measurements. NASA’s Clouds and the Earth’s Radiant Energy System (CERES) satellite sensors measure how much energy enters and leaves Earth’s system. A global array of ocean floats, called Argo, provide data to enable an accurate estimate of the rate at which the world’s oceans are warming. Since approximately 90 percent of the excess energy from an energy imbalance ends up in the ocean, the overall trends of incoming and outgoing radiation should broadly agree with changes in ocean heat content.

“The two very independent ways of looking at changes in Earth’s energy imbalance are in really, really good agreement, and they’re both showing this very large trend, which gives us a lot of confidence that what we’re seeing is a real phenomenon and not just an instrumental artifact,” said Norman Loeb, lead author for the study and principal investigator for CERES at NASA’s Langley Research Center. “The trends we found were quite alarming in a sense.”

For two decades, CERES instruments have measured longwave radiation emitted by Earth.

“It’s likely a mix of anthropogenic forcing and internal variability,” said Loeb. “And over this period they’re both causing warming, which leads to a fairly large change in Earth’s energy imbalance. The magnitude of the increase is unprecedented.”

Increases in emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane trap heat in the atmosphere, capturing outgoing radiation that would otherwise escape into space. The warming drives other changes, such as the melting of snow and ice, increased water vapor, and cloud changes that can further enhance the warming. Earth’s energy imbalance is the net effect of all these factors.

In order to determine the factors driving the imbalance, the investigators examined changes in clouds, water vapor, trace gases, the output of light from the Sun, Earth’s surface albedo (the amount of light reflected by the surface), atmospheric aerosols, and changes in surface and atmospheric temperature distributions.

The scientists found that the doubling of the energy imbalance is partially the result an increase in greenhouse gases from human activity, also known as anthropogenic forcing. It can also be attributed to increases in water vapor, which traps more outgoing longwave radiation and further contributes to Earth’s energy imbalance. The related decrease in clouds and sea ice also lead to more absorption of solar energy.

CERES also measures incoming radiation from the Sun.

The authors also found that a flip of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) from a cool phase to a warm phase likely played a major role in the intensification of the energy imbalance. The PDO is a pattern of Pacific climate variability in which a massive wedge of water in the eastern Pacific goes through cool and warm phases. This naturally occurring internal variability in the ocean can have far-reaching effects on weather and climate. An intensely warm PDO phase that began around 2014 and continued until 2020 caused a widespread reduction in cloud coverage over the ocean and a corresponding increase in the absorption of solar radiation.

“The lengthening and highly complementary records from Argo and CERES have allowed us both to pin down Earth’s energy imbalance with increasing accuracy, and to study its variations and trends with increasing insight, as time goes on,” said Gregory Johnson, co-author on the study and physical oceanographer at NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory. “Observing the magnitude and variations of this energy imbalance are vital to understanding Earth’s changing climate.”

Loeb cautions that the study is only a snapshot relative to long-term climate change, and that it is not possible to predict with any certainty what the coming decades might look like for Earth’s energy budget. The study does conclude, however, that unless the rate of heat uptake subsides, greater changes in climate should be expected.