Earth Matters

Help Earth Observatory Choose Our All-Time Best Image

March 3rd, 2020 by Mike Carlowicz

Since its launch on the web in April 1999, NASA Earth Observatory has published more than 15,500 image-driven stories about our planet. In celebration of our 20th anniversary — as well as the 50th anniversary of Earth Day — we want you to help us choose our all-time best image.

For now, we need you to help us brainstorm: what images or stories would you nominate as the best in the Earth Observatory collection? Do you go for the most beautiful and iconic view of our home? the most newsworthy? the most scientifically important? the most inspiring?

Search our site and then post the URLs of your favorite Earth images in the comments section below. Please send your ideas by March 17.

In late March 2020, we will include some of your selections in Tournament Earth, a head-to-head contest to vote for the best of the best from our archives. Each week, readers will pick from pairs of images as we narrow down the field from 32 nominees to one champion. 

The all-time best Earth Observatory image will be announced on April 29, 2020, the end of our anniversary year.

If you want some inspiration as you begin your search, take a look at the galleries listed below. Or use our search tool (top left) to find your favorite places, images, and events.

Top 10 Images from 1999-2009

Earth at Night / Night Lights

EO On This Day  

Earth: A Photo Essay  

World of Change  

The Blue Marble Collection

Earth from Afar  

National Parks from Space

Global Maps

Applied Sciences  

Step Up Close to the “Labrador Traps”

February 28th, 2020 by Kathryn Hansen

The striking patterns in northeastern Canada’s flood basalts tell a story of continental collisions that played out almost two billion years ago. The large-scale patterns are visible from space—a wide view that provides a sweeping perspective on the region’s steps and folds cut by faults. But look closer, and then closer again, and other patterns and details emerge. 

Deanne van Rooyen, a geologist at Cape Breton University, and David Corrigan of the Geological Survey of Canada, have been doing field work in the region to better understand the details of how the flood basalts evolved. They provided the following photos as examples of some of the details that become visible when viewed close up.

Photo by D. Corrigan, Geological Survey of Canada.

As described in detail in the Image of the Day, successive layers of flood basalt eroded and formed step-like features known as “traps.” The cliff face of each flow (or series of flows) represents a step, each standing about 50 to 70 meters (160 to 230 feet) tall. The steps were later folded as ancient, stable parts of Earth’s crust collided. The steps visible in the photograph above, shot from a helicopter, show some of these step-like features amid the central part of a folded structure. 

Photo by D. Corrigan, Geological Survey of Canada.

A closer look at the steps (above) reveals hexagonal columns in the flood basalts. These structures are known as “columnar jointing,” and form when layers of basalt cool and contract. They occur elsewhere around the planet too; a well-known example is the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland.

Photo by Deanne van Rooyen, Cape Breton University.

This photograph shows an even closer look at the column tops. Notice the hexagonal shape of the basalt. Corrigan and Van Rooyen are working on a detailed study of these basalts, which they refer to as the “Labrador Traps.” 

February EO Satellite Puzzler

February 4th, 2020 by Mike Carlowicz

Every month on Earth Matters, we offer a puzzling satellite image. The February 2020 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!

Source: Astronaut photograph ISS061-E-138244 / Earth Observatory

On January 12-13, 2020, Taal Volcano erupted for the first time in more than four decades. On January 22, ash plumes again emanated from Taal—but, this time, not from an eruption (seen above). According to the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (PHIVOLCS), strong low-level winds lifted previously deposited ash lying around the volcano to heights of 5,800 meters (19,000 feet).

“Resuspension of volcanic ash is more likely at higher wind speeds, if the ash is dry and if ash particles are small,” said Simon Carn, volcanologist at Michigan Tech. “The ash deposits at Taal may have initially been quite wet, so the fact that ash resuspension is now occurring may indicate that the deposits have dried out.” The Philippines is currently in its dry season.

This time it was resuspended ash, but officials are cautious about a potential eruption again. Since its initial eruption, Taal remains on a level 4 alert, with a hazardous eruption still possible. Data show that SO₂ emissions, one of the key parameters for monitoring active volcanoes, have been present, but low, since the initial eruption. Carn said this indicates magma is most likely intruding into the main portion of the volcano, but predicting whether the magma will ultimately erupt is challenging.

If the volcano erupts again, it could look different than the early January event. During that “wet” eruption, water from the nearby crater lake covered the ash particles with water droplets. Wetter eruptions tend to produce finer ash particles. However, nearly all of the water in the main crater is now gone. According to Carn, the lake could have vaporized from the heat of the emanating magma; some could have been physically ejected by the previous eruption; and some could have drained through fractures or fissures in the volcano. In the absence of water, this volcano could produce a “dry” eruption, which would make comparatively larger ash particles.

Tweeting the Extreme Summer Down Under

January 16th, 2020 by Adam Voiland
Credit: NASA/Christina Koch

Baked by heat and drought, deluged by rain and floods, scorched by wildfire, and blanketed by dust, Australia has faced several months of extreme weather.

Some of the latest jaw-dropping images come from NASA astronaut Christina Koch. “Australia. Our hearts and thoughts are with you,” she tweeted, along with images of a massive dust storm making its way across the continent and smoke streaming from bushfires in southeastern Australia.

Meanwhile, Jean-Paul Vernier, a senior scientist at the National Institute of Aerospace at NASA Langley Research Center and the lead of a NASA disasters team responding to the fires, has been using data from the CALIPSO satellite to measure something impossible to discern from an aerial photograph, even one taken from space—the height of the smoke. As we reported earlier, the fires are so intense that they have lifted smoke all the way to the stratosphere, something wildfires do only occasionally. (Usually, volcanoes lift plumes to such heights.)

On January 6, 2020, the smoke had reached 19 kilometers (12 miles). Interestingly, it kept rising. By January 13, it was up to 21 kilometers.

“The radiative heating from the soot particles within the smoke makes wildfire plumes particularly buoyant, meaning they will reach higher altitudes in the stratosphere and stay there longer than material from a volcanic eruption that reaches the same initial altitude,” Vernier explained.

Smoky Australian Skies

January 10th, 2020 by Adam Voiland
Credit: GLOBE Observer/Site 55HDA890077


As satellites track Australian wildfire smoke from above, GLOBE Observer citizen scientists have been keeping tabs on hazy skies from the ground.

The photograph above shows smoke blanketing Horseshoe Lagoon in New South Wales on January 6, 2020, a day when clouds limited what sensors on Terra, Aqua, and Suomi NPP could observe as they passed over.

The video below, based on photographs taken by GLOBE citizen scientist Glenn Evans, juxtaposes satellite images and photographs taken of the sky at roughly the same place and time. The contrasting perspectives underscore how easy it can be to miss the forest for the trees — or, rather, the smoke plume for the clouds — if you aren’t careful. Kristen Weaver, the deputy coordinator for GLOBE Observer, compiled the photos and matched them with the corresponding MODIS satellite images.


Victoria and New South Wales are in the midst of one of the most severe fire seasons either state has seen in decades. After months of unusually hot, dry weather, hundreds of fires have charred an area larger than West Virginia, destroying thousands of homes and resulting in dozens of deaths.

GLOBE Observer is a citizen science project that is part of the Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) Program. Through a free app for their mobile device, anyone in participating countries can make environmental observations of clouds, trees, land cover, and mosquito habitats that complement NASA satellite observations.

January Puzzler

January 7th, 2020 by Kasha Patel

Every month on Earth Matters, we offer a puzzling satellite image. The January 2020 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 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.

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!

See our “Iceland’s Volcanic Glacier” Image of the Day for the answer. Congratulations to Holger Wille for being the first reader to identify the location and offer a detailed explanation for what makes the area interesting.

December Puzzler

December 23rd, 2019 by Adam Voiland

Every month on Earth Matters, we offer a puzzling satellite image. The December 2019 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 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.

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!

See our “Peninsula of Pocosin” Image of the Day for the answer. Congratulations to Suryakant Verma and Sander Clement for being the first readers to identify the location and offer a detailed explanation for what makes the area interesting.

Terra Turns Twenty

December 18th, 2019 by Adam Voiland

More than 20 years ago, NASA scientist Ralph Kahn authored a column for the Los Angeles Times anticipating the launch of a new satellite — and ultimately a whole fleet of satellites — that would study Earth.

Image: Los Angeles Times/Ralph Kahn

“We want a picture of Earth that is more specific about what is happening to the climate, which after all is what makes the planet habitable,” he wrote. And that picture needed to be rich with detail. “Precisely where are deserts encroaching on grasslands? In what regions is it raining more than usual? Exactly how much are glaciers shrinking, and at what rate is the sea level rising?” he asked.

The first satellite, Terra (originally named EOS-AM), roared into space on December 18, 1999, began collecting data in February and March 2000, and collected its first complete day of MODIS data on April 19, 2000.

Image: NASA/Global Climate Change

“About every seven weeks, the satellite archives will receive as much data from EOS-AM as are held in all the volumes of the Library of Congress. And the EOS-AM satellite alone is supposed to keep pouring numbers down from the sky, relentlessly, for at least six years,” Kahn wrote.

Amazingly, all those numbers from Terra continue to pour down 20 years later. Over time, the flood of data from Terra and several other satellites has turned into scientific discoveries. Bit by bit, the questions Kahn initially posed in his column have been answered.

Image: NASA Earth Observatory based on data from Chen et al.

We can say now that sea level is rising at 3.3 millimeters (.13 inches) per year. We can show you a map of where exactly green vegetation has become more common and where it has faded. We can point you to a long-term dataset that will show you precisely where rain has fallen over the past two decades. And we can give you a tour of the world’s glaciers that shows you where they are and many examples of where they are shrinking.

The question to grapple with now: what do we with all this information?

A Second Look at Susquehanna Sediment

December 6th, 2019 by Adam Voiland
A MODIS image of the mid-Atlantic on November 6, 2019. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory

In November 2019, we highlighted this Landsat 8 image showing a glut of sediment flowing down the Susquehanna River into Chesapeake Bay. It was a striking, timely image, but one of the realities of publishing new content every day is that sometimes good information comes in after a deadline has passed.

In this case, Mark Trice, a water quality expert with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, pointed out a few things about Susquehanna sediment after our story was out that seem worth passing on.

Mark Trice in his Maryland DNR office. The body of water on the map behind his left shoulder is Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. Image courtesy of Mark Trice.

Among them: a link to a recent report that synthesizes and summarizes what scientists have learned about the ecological effects of high sediment flows on the Susquehanna River and the role of the Conowingo Dam. While the dam trapped most sediment and associated nutrient pollution (nitrogen and phosphorus) when it was first built, enough material has piled up behind the dam now that significant amounts of sediment and nutrients now flow past it during storms. A University of Maryland press release summarized the findings this way:

Most sediment and particulate nutrient impacts to the Bay occur during high-flow events, such as during major storms, which occur less than 10 percent of the time. Loads delivered to the upper Chesapeake Bay during low flows have decreased since the late 1970s, while loads during large storm events have increased. Most of these materials are retained within the upper Bay but some can be transported to the mid-Bay during major storm events, where their nutrients could become bioavailable.

The potential impact of reservoir sediments to Bay water quality are limited due to the low reactivity of scoured material, which decreases the impact of total nutrient loading even in extreme storms. Most of this material would deposit in the low salinity waters of the upper Bay, where rates of nitrogen and phosphorus release from sediments into the water are low.

“While storm events can have major short-term impacts, the Bay is actually really resilient, which is remarkable,” said the study’s lead author Cindy Palinkas, associate professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. “If we are doing all of the right things, it can handle the occasional big input of sediment.”

Trice’s colleagues at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) underscored the Bay’s resiliency to sediment as well when I asked about the recent event. “Although these high flow events routinely occur, the Bay is resilient and continues to show improvement due to the commitment by the Bay watershed partners to have all pollution reduction strategies implemented by 2025 to have a healthy Chesapeake Bay,” said Bruce Michael of Maryland DNR.

Also worth mentioning: the 2019 water year (October 1, 2018, to September 30, 2019) brought a record-breaking flow of freshwater into the Bay, Trice noted. “The annual average freshwater flow into the Chesapeake Bay during water year 2019 was 130,750 cubic feet per second, which is the highest annual amount since 1937, the first year for which data are available,” the U.S Geological Survey said.

Chart credit: U.S. Geological Survey

Finally, thank you to Virginia Tech geology professor Brian Romans (@clasticdetritus) for pointing out something about the image that is unrelated to sediment but fascinating: the line of cities and suburbs running from Baltimore, Md., to Richmond, Va., marks the boundary between two key geologic zones: the flat Coastal Plain to the east and the more rugged Piedmont to the west. Interestingly, many cities are located along this “fall line” because rapids prevented boats from traveling any farther upstream when they were first settled.