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Few images are as beautiful and as terrifying as a satellite view of a hurricane about to make landfall. On October 29, 2012, the Suomi NPP satellite captured an ominous nighttime view of Sandy—an enormous hybrid storm that was part hurricane, part Nor‘easter—churning off the coast of New Jersey.

The string of city lights that stretches from Washington to Boston was mostly gone, blanketed by thick, ghostly storm clouds. One of the most brightly lit cities in the world, New York, was little more than a faint smudge through Sandy’s clouds.

In a matter of hours, that smudge of light would go dark. Large swaths of Manhattan were under water. The Rockaways were on fire. Rooftops along the New Jersey shore became temporary islands for people escaping a wall of seawater that surged inland.

Was Superstorm Sandy an expression of a “new normal” for our weather? Was it a storm pumped up by global warming?

“If you look at the unique set of circumstances in which Sandy emerged and you know something about meteorology and climate,” says Marshall Shepherd, director of the atmospheric sciences program at the University of Georgia, “it’s hard not to ask yourself these kinds of questions.”

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NASA Earth Observatory, March  2013

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When astronauts talk about viewing Earth from space, the conversation often turns to the planet’s mesmerizing beauty. They describe views of aquamarine coral reefs glimmering amidst the deep blue ocean; of armies of sand dunes marching across deserts; of clouds and lightning flashes dancing through the atmosphere.

For many, the view is deeply humbling. “For the first time in my life, I saw the horizon as a curved line. It was accentuated by a thin seam of dark blue light: the atmosphere,” said Ulf Merbold, a German astronaut who flew on Space Shuttle Columbia in 1983. “This was not the ‘ocean’ of air I had been told it was…I was terrified by its fragile appearance.”

For some astronauts, that thin blue line has appeared quite vulnerable. Many have noticed palls of haze lingering over parts of the world, the result of millions of tiny particles drifting in the atmosphere. Aerosol particles, which can be either liquid or solid, obstruct sunlight and cause distinct and vibrant features to blend into a hazy, featureless mélange of gray.

The particles that affect visibility have many sources, some of them natural. For instance, winds blow bits of dust and dried soil aloft; volcanoes occasionally belch thick plumes of ash; forest fires produce smoke; even vegetation and plankton can emit substances that contribute to haze.

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NASA Earth Observatory, June 2014

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Eight thousand is a perfectly arbitrary number. Yet, no other number looms larger for mountain climbers.

Fourteen mountain peaks stand taller than 8,000 meters (26,247 feet). There could have been many more of these “eight-thousanders” if the French commission that established the length of the meter (in 1793) had made it just a bit shorter; there would be hardly any if they had made the meter longer. The decision to make a meter equivalent to one ten-millionth of the distance between the equator and the North Pole left the world with fourteen 8K peaks. All of them are found in either the Karakoram or Himalayan mountain ranges of central Asia.

Fourteen is a number that pushes climbers to the point of obsession. It’s big enough that only the most ambitious consider climbing all of them, but small enough that doing so over a lifetime still seems possible. Even in the United States, a country where most people shun metric measurements, climbers dream of ascending the eight-thousanders. The “twenty-six-thousand, two-hundred-and-forty-seven-footers” hardly has the same ring.

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I’m in the parking lot of the visitor’s center at Harper’s Ferry National Historical Park in West Virginia, the first of four parks I’ll traverse today, waiting for the start of the Freedom’s Run Marathon. In the half-light of October dawn, the scene is surreal.

There’s a golden glow on everything, from the sculpted Blue Ridge Mountains above to the winding waters of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers below. At the confluence of the two, water has sliced through two separate ridges, creating a distinctive notch in the mountains. Meanwhile, a few runners wearing garbage bags to keep warm wander past.

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Runner’s World, September, 2013

The atmosphere was electric at Providence Landing Park in Lompoc, California as the first stage of an Atlas 5 rocket ignited in the distance on February 11, 2013.

Cheers erupted at 10:02 a.m. from the hundreds of people gathered there as the rocket rose, gathered itself, then surged into a perfect blue sky over Vandenberg Air Force Base. As the cheers subsided, it was surprisingly quiet for a moment as awe sank in, save for the patter of scores of cameras clicking in unison.

A full 30-or-so seconds later, the sound arrived. You could feel the roar in the ground. The Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM), the latest satellite in the world’s longest-running series of Earth-observing satellites, was on its way to space.

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Earth Observatory, Earth Matters blog, February 2013


For more than a decade, scientists have observed “ship tracks” in natural-color satellite imagery of the ocean. These bright, linear trails amidst the cloud layers are created by particles and gases from ships. They are a visible manifestation of pollution from ship exhaust, and scientists can now see that ships have a more subtle, almost invisible, signature as well.

Data from the Dutch and Finnish-built Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI) on NASA’s Aura satellite show long tracks of elevated nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels along certain shipping routes. NO2, is among a group of highly-reactive oxides of nitrogen, known as NOx, that can lead to the production of fine particles and ozone that damage the human cardiovascular and respiratory systems. Combustion engines, such as those that propel ships and motor vehicles, are a major source of NO2 pollution.

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Earth Observatory, February 2013