Earth Matters

March Puzzler

March 15th, 2022 by Kathryn Hansen


Update on March 22, 2022: This puzzler image shows Iceberg D-30A drifting amid sea ice in Antarctica’s Weddell Sea. The false-color image was created by blending data from the Landsat 8 satellite’s satellite’s Operational Land Imager (for detail and texture) and its Thermal Infrared Sensor (TIRS). The warmest areas (yellow, orange, and red) depict open water and thin, newly formed sea ice. The coldest areas (blue and white) are older, thicker ice, including the icebergs and broken ice rubble in their paths. Congratulations to Jan Lieser who correctly identified the iceberg and various sea ice types. Honorable mention goes to Sergio Vidal-Luengo and Veronica Zapata for correctly identifying the thermal component of the image. Read more in the related Image of the Day.

Every month on Earth Matters, we offer a puzzling satellite image. The March 2022 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.

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 a 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 have 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!

EO January 2022 Puzzler

January 25th, 2022 by Mike Carlowicz

Every month on Earth Matters, we offer a puzzling satellite image. The January 2022 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.

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 a 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 have 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!

February 1 update: The answer is suspended sediment in the Gulf of Khambhat, off the northwest coast of India. Congratulations to K Suraj, who correctly identified the Gujarat region of India and the Arabian Sea coast. Read more in this Image of the Day.

NASA To Launch Four Earth Science Missions in 2022

December 30th, 2021 by Alison Gold, NASA’s Earth Science News Team

NASA will launch four Earth science missions in 2022 to provide scientists with more information about fundamental climate systems and processes including extreme storms, surface water and oceans, and atmospheric dust. Scientists will discuss the upcoming missions at the American Geophysical Union’s (AGU) 2021 Fall Meeting, hosted in New Orleans between Dec. 13 and 17.

NASA has a unique view of our planet from space. NASA’s fleet of Earth-observing satellites provides high-quality data on Earth’s interconnected environment, from air quality to sea ice. These four missions will enhance the ability to monitor our changing planet:

  • TROPICS will use six small satellites to provide improved and rapid measurements of tropical cyclones.
  • EMIT will trace the origin and composition of mineral dust that can affect climate, ecosystems, air quality, and human health with an imaging spectrometer aboard the International Space Station.
  • NOAA’s JPSS-2 will help scientists predict extreme weather conditions including floods, wildfires, volcanoes and more.
  • SWOT will evaluate the world’s oceans and their role in climate change, as well as monitor lakes, rivers, and other surface waters.

Measuring Tropical CyclonesTime-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats (TROPICS)

NASA’s TROPICS mission aims to improve observations of tropical cyclones. Six TROPICS satellites will work in concert to provide microwave observations of a storm’s precipitation, temperature, and humidity as quickly as every 50 minutes. Scientists expect the data will help them understand the factors driving tropical cyclone intensification and will contribute to weather forecasting models.

In June 2021, the first pathfinder, or proof of concept satellite of the constellation started collecting data, including from Hurricane Ida in August 2021. The TROPICS satellites will be deployed in pairs of two over three different launches, expected to be completed by July 31, 2022.

The Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on the Suomi NPP satellite acquired this nighttime view of Hurricane Ida on August 30, 2021. Image Credit: NASA Earth Observatory

Each satellite is about the size of a loaf of bread and carries a miniaturized microwave radiometer instrument. Traveling in pairs in three different orbits, they will collectively observe Earth’s surface more frequently than current weather satellites making similar measurements, greatly increasing the data available for near real-time weather forecasts.

The TROPICS team is led by Principal Investigator Dr. William Blackwell at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington, Massachusetts, and includes researchers from NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and several universities and commercial partners. NASA’s Launch Services Program, based at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, will manage the launch service.

“The coolest part of this program is its impact on helping society,” Blackwell said. “These storms affect a lot of people. The higher frequency observations provided by TROPICS have the potential to support weather forecasting that may help people get to safety sooner.”

Studying Mineral Dust — Earth Surface Mineral Dust Source Investigation (EMIT)

Winds kick up dust from Earth’s arid regions and transport the mineral particles around the world. The dust can influence the radiative forcing   or the balance between the energy that comes toward Earth from the Sun, and the energy that Earth reflects back out into space  hence the temperature of the planet’s surface and atmosphere. Darker, iron-laden minerals tend to absorb energy, which leads to heating of the environment, while brighter, clay-containing particles scatter light in a way that may lead to cooling. In addition to affecting regional and global warming of the atmosphere, dust can affect air quality and the health of people worldwide, and when deposited in the ocean, can also trigger blooms of microscopic algae.

In June 2020, the “Godzilla” dust storm traveled from the Sahara desert across the Atlantic Ocean, as seen in this true-color satellite imagery from the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) aboard the NASA-NOAA Suomi NPP satellite and the NOAA-20 satellite. Image Credit: NASA / Scientific Visualization Studio

The goal of the Earth Surface Mineral Dust Source Investigation (EMIT) mission is to map where the dust originates and estimate its composition so that scientists can better understand how it affects the planet. Targeted to launch in 2022, EMIT has a prime mission of one year and will be installed on the International Space Station. EMIT will use an instrument called an imaging spectrometer that measures visible and infrared light reflecting from surfaces below. This data can reveal the distinct light-absorbing signatures of the minerals in the dust that helps to determine their composition.

“EMIT will close a gap in our knowledge about arid land regions of our planet and answer key questions about how mineral dust interacts with the Earth system,” said Dr. Robert Green, EMIT principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Observing Earth’s Storms — Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS)

Forecasting extreme storms many days in advance requires capturing precise measurements of the temperature and moisture in our atmosphere, along with ocean surface temperatures. The NOAA/NASA Joint Polar Satellite System satellites provide this critical data, which is used by forecasters and first responders. The satellites also tell us about floods, wildfires, volcanoes, smog, dust storms, and sea ice.

“JPSS satellites are a vital component of the global backbone of numerical weather prediction,” said JPSS Program Science Adviser Dr. Satya Kalluri. 

An illustration of the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS). JPSS is a collaborative program between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA. JPSS-2 is NOAA’s next-generation operational Earth observation program that acquires and distributes global environmental data primarily from multiple polar-orbiting satellites. Image Credit: Orbital ATK/Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems

The JPSS satellites circle Earth from the North to the South Pole, taking data and images as they fly. As Earth rotates under these satellites, they observe every part of the planet at least twice a day. 

The Suomi-NPP (National Polar orbiting-Partnership) and NOAA-20 satellites are currently in orbit. The JPSS-2 satellite is targeted to launch in 2022 from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. Three more satellites will launch in the coming years, providing data well into the 2030s. NASA’s Launch Services Program, based at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, will manage the launch service.

Surveying Earth’s Surface Water and Oceans – Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT)

The Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) mission will help researchers determine how much water Earth’s oceans, lakes, and rivers contain. This will aid scientists in understanding the effects of climate change on freshwater bodies and the ocean’s ability to absorb excess heat and greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide.

NASA’s Launch Services Program, based at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, will manage the launch service, which is targeted for November 2022. SWOT will launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.

SWOT will collect data across a 75-mile (120-kilometer) wide swath, with a gap in the center for an altimetry track. This animation shows the collection of data over the state of Florida, which is rich with rivers, lakes, and wetlands. Globally, measurements will be taken both over the ocean and over freshwater areas. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The SUV-size satellite will measure the height of water using its Ka-band Radar Interferometer, a new instrument that bounces radar pulses off the water’s surface and receives the return signals with two different antennas at the same time. This measurement technique allows scientists to precisely calculate the height of the water. The data will help with tasks like tracking regional shifts in sea level, monitoring changes in river flows and how much water lakes store, as well as determining how much freshwater is available to communities around the world.

“SWOT will address the ocean’s leading role in our changing weather and climate and the consequences on the availability of freshwater on land,” said Dr. Lee-Lueng Fu, SWOT project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The mission is a collaboration between NASA and the French space agency Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales, with contributions from the Canadian Space Agency and the United Kingdom Space Agency.

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.

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.

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.

EO February 2021 Puzzler

February 16th, 2021 by Andi Brinn Thomas
EO’s February 2021 Puzzler

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

Help Us Choose the Best Photos

February 6th, 2021 by Mike Carlowicz

For more than 20 years, astronauts have been shooting photographs of Earth from the International Space Station. Before that, they looked down from Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, the Space Shuttles, and MIR. They have brought us unique views of our home planet in all of its wonder, beauty, and ferocity. They have also made some interesting and timely science observations along the way.

More than 1,000 of those photos have been published here on NASA Earth Observatory. We would like you to help us choose the best in our archives. In early March, we will launch Tournament Earth: Astronaut Photography, and we want you to be part of the selection committee.

From now through February 19, 2021, search our archives and point out the best photos shot by the astronauts. Post the URLs of your favorite photos in the comments section below.

Please choose images from these collections:

EO Astronaut Photography Collection

Visible Earth: Astronaut Photography

Please note that there are 30+ pages of images to scroll through — an internet rabbit hole of incredible beauty.

In March 2021, 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 Tournament Earth champion will be announced in early April.

So get browsing and get choosing. Then post your favorite URLs in the comments section by February 19.

If you want to learn more about how and why astronauts shoot photos of our planet — and the special training involved — check out our video series “Picturing Earth.”
Astronaut Photography in Focus

Window on the World

Behind the Scenes

EO November 2020 Puzzler

November 3rd, 2020 by Mike Carlowicz
EO’s November 2020 puzzler

Every month on Earth Matters, we offer a puzzling satellite image. The November 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. A few days 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 on November 9 — The answer is a phytoplankton bloom near the Jason Islands, an archipelago off of the Falkland (Malvinas) Islands. Read more about it here. Evzen Schulc quickly identified that it was an ocean bloom, though no one managed to identify the location.

Pathfinder for COVID-19

June 8th, 2020 by Cynthia Hall

To counter the rapid spread of COVID-19 in the winter and spring of 2020, quarantines and social distancing measures were implemented around the world. Air traffic nearly ceased; non-essential businesses were closed; and the number of vehicles on the road fell well below normal. 

Remote sensing scientists have started looking at potential changes in the environment due to these changes in human behavior. They are looking for signs of how environmental factors such as humidity, temperature, and ultraviolet radiation might play a role in the behavior of the virus. Some may also look for data related to access to water resources, which can be critical to the spread or prevention of certain diseases.

NASA’s Earth Science Data Systems program has developed a new web-based tool, the COVID-19 Data Pathfinder, which provides links to datasets that can be used to research changing environmental impacts from modified human behavior patterns, the possibility of seasonal trends in virus transmission, and water availability. The COVID-19 Data Pathfinder is also a resource for participants in NASA’s Space Apps COVID-19 Challenge, providing an intuitive means for new users to find and use NASA data.

Web view of the COVID-19 Data Pathfinder page

Explore the COVID-19 Data Pathfinder