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In 1968, Charles Ichoku was a skinny nine-year-old scouring the jungle in southern Nigeria—a refugee looking for his next meal. A bloody civil war had forced Ichoku’s family to flee their home in Zaria, a city in northern Nigeria, for Nawfia, a village in the south where his parents were born and raised.

For three years, Ichoku, his parents, and five brothers and sisters holed up in remote schools that had been converted into refugee camps. The forest cover around the camps and villages was dense enough to ward off advancing ground troops; it did not necessarily deter aircraft or missiles. Life was strange. Schools were closed; food was almost always scarce.

In the midst of war, Ichoku took solace in the natural world. “I was attracted to the order I found in nature,” he said. “Things fit together in a way that made sense.”

Nearly 50 years later, Ichoku still finds himself looking for order and sense in nature, though for very different reasons and from a very different perspective. As a senior scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Ichoku uses satellites to study fires. His latest project has brought him back to the region where he grew up, a place where more fires burn per square kilometer than virtually anywhere on Earth.

Read the full story at
NASA Earth Observatory, August 2016

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Note: This is the first story of a multi-part series exploring the natural splendor and environmental issues of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.
Read about the Bay headwaters here.

People who track water quality issues in the Chesapeake Bay are accustomed to bad news. But lately some glimmers of hope have begun to emerge amidst the polluted streams, dead zones, fish kills, and algae blooms.

In April 2016, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Sciences published its annual Chesapeake Bay report card and found clearer water, lower levels of algae, and a resurgence of sea grasses. In the same month, the Maryland Department of Environment announced that it had mapped 53,000 acres of submerged aquatic vegetation—a record amount and a clear sign of the ecosystem’s improving health. In July 2016, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources reported that the size of the dead zone in the Bay in late June was the second smallest since 1985.

Other data sets also show progress. U.S. Geological Survey measurements of water quality in several rivers that flow into the Bay show improvements over the previous three decades. And the late-summer dead zone in the Bay seems to be shrinking, even as the early-summer dead zone remains stubbornly large.

“The big-picture trends are moving in the right direction,” said Mark Dubin, a University of Maryland Extension scientist who focuses on how agricultural practices affect water quality. “But this is a large and complex watershed. If you focus on certain areas and watersheds, we still see plenty of indicators going in the wrong direction, such as increasing urban growth and storm water runoff, and persistent areas of high soil phosphorus.”

Read the full story at
NASA Earth Observatory, August 2016

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Note: This is the first story of a multi-part series exploring the natural splendor and environmental issues of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.
Read about farms and the Bay here.

In The Leatherstocking Tales, a series of historical novels set in the 18th century frontier of New York state, James Fenimore Cooper called Otsego Lake the Glimmerglass. He described “a bed of pure mountain atmosphere compressed into a setting of hills and woods.” It was a fitting description for the pristine, narrow lake which, despite some development around its shores, remains clean enough for swimming, for drinking, and for sheltering a wide array of fish. That’s not the case for every body of water in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

After pooling in the Glimmerglass for a time, a droplet of rain that falls in upstate New York will eventually make its way into a small, winding stream that drains the southern end of the lake. These are the headwaters of the Susquehanna River and the beginning of an epic journey toward the sea. The Susquehanna flows across 464 miles (747 kilometers) and three states—New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland—before emptying into the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.

Read the full story at
NASA Earth Observatory, July 2016

My new book will be out in June 2016! Read more about it here and here.

isbn9781786481290


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In April 2016, I participated in Carbon 12, an artist residency in Jaipur, India. I wrote the essay below after spending about a week in Jaipur. Openings will be held at the Hotel Diggi Palace and The Egg Art Studio.

It was the absurd extremes of geology that first drew me to it. Geology is a field of science that take human conceptions of time, grinds them into pulp, and buries them under layers of sand. I am someone who finds peace in knowing that there are fossilized fish on Mount Everest. Think about that: creatures of the sea stranded on Earth’s highest point.

Geology is a science that crams continents together like puzzle pieces and then systematically tears them apart. It is a science that mashes beaches into mountains, rams them thousands of meters into the air, and then fastidiously dissembles them grain by precious grain. It is a science that takes small wobbles in Earth’s orbit and turns them into ice ages, a science that can hold all of human history in a few handfuls of sand.

The absurdity and incomprehensibility of time is the thread that unifies geology. If you took Earth’s 4.6 billion years and represented all of that time as a 24 hour day, the first people emerge at about 11:58 pm. We know this date because of carbon, an element forged in the bowels of stars where temperatures soar above 100,000,000 degrees Kelvin.

There are three types of carbon that occur naturally: Carbon-12, Carbon-13, and Carbon-14. Carbon-14, which has 14 neutrons, forms when cosmic rays — high energy particles from beyond the solar system — bombard Earth’s atmosphere. Living plants and animals constantly absorb Carbon-14, but they stop absorbing it when they die. Since Carbon-14 is radioactive and unstable, it immediately begins to decay into Carbon-12. Whatever the creature, the rate of decay is always the same. After 5,730 years, half of the Carbon-14 in any tooth, any strand of hair, any piece of wood, anything with carbon in it becomes Carbon-12. So by comparing the ratio of Carbon-14 to 12, geologists can tell you exactly how old something is.

The centrality of carbon to our world is astounding. Nothing that we consider living lacks carbon. When we head to the forest for quiet, we surround ourselves with carbon. When we heat our homes and fuel our cars, we burn carbon. When we paint and draw, we often smear carbon on canvas. When we marry, we attach chunks of carbon to our wedding rings. When we burn wood, we fill the air with tiny bits of blackened carbon.

There are two characteristics of carbon that make it such a flexible, ubiquitous, and essential element. First, it has a remarkable ability to bond with other elements, even those that are quite different. Second, carbon often arranges itself into long, flexible chains when it bonds.

These same features are built into the structure of Carbon-12, the Jaipur-based painting residency that inspired the work you see presented here. Just as I was drawn to geology for its extremes, I was drawn to Carbon-12 for its affinity for difference. The group includes artists from Iran (Roya Delkhosh), the United States (Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann), Lithuania (Audrius Grazys, Giedr? Riškut?, Dovile Norkute), Mexico (Margarita Chacon Bache), South Korea (Bo-Suk Lee), France (Melanie Challe), Norway (Grete Marstein), Chile (Joan Belmar), India (Premila Singh), and the Ivory Coast (Claudie Tit. Dimbeng). The works range from the abstract to the realistic, from the colorful to the colorless, from the intimate to the grandiose.

There is little doubt that in some ways our differences are profound. Vast gulfs in culture and experience meant the artists could assume little about the others when they began this collaboration. During the two weeks spent in Jaipur at the Hotel Diggi Palace making art, sometimes even basic communication was a challenge. We occasionally stumbled in conversations while we tried to remember some word or some place in a foreign language or country. We puzzled over our different habits, our different tastes, our different religions, and the different systems of government in our home countries.

Yet, despite our differences, we also found that we shared common unspoken languages as well: a fascination with light and color, with paint and paper, and with the city of Jaipur. We bonded over pulp and fiber at a handmade paper factory and stood agape as a local master painted elephants on a grain of rice.

Every atom of carbon has four empty spaces in it that electrons from elements of other types can fill. In fact, it’s these empty spaces that make it possible for carbon to bond so easily into seemingly unrelated things: coal, diamond, graphite, oil, soot, bone, leaf, blood, smoke, bark — all of these things are made of carbon but arranged in different ways or bonded with a different set of neighbors. The same spirit of exchange and transformation defines painting and infused the Carbon 12 residency.

I found myself drawn to Jaipur for the same reason I was drawn to geology — the absurdity of the extremes. Jaipur is a city where simple rickshaws and bicycles share the roads with luxury cars. It is a place where the stunning beauty of its textiles, its jewels, its palaces coexist with the realities of poverty. It is a place where the serenity of its temples and gardens compete with the acoustic inferno of its traffic horns, a place where the pleasant scents of curry — thousands of years of wisdom stewed to perfection — mingle in the streets with jasmine and the acrid scent of soot and sweat.

As a science writer for the NASA Earth Observatory, I spend many of my waking hours observing Earth from above. Over the last half century, the scientific community has lofted hundreds of satellites into orbit. Some are large, the size of buses; some are tiny, the size of a loaf of bread. Some are designed to study ice, others clouds, others the ocean, others forests, and others the particles of smoke and haze that drift in the atmosphere.

From space, we see vast transformations with these satellites. We see huge bands of fire where fires would never occur if people had not lit them. We see massive fields of once white glacial ice becoming brown and gray as winds paint them with soot and dust. We see oceans that were once clear swirling with explosive blooms of algae that thrive in polluted waters. We see once brimming lakes going dry.

I sometimes leave my office feeling pessimistic about the future. When you consider how drastically our planet has changed in the last few hundred years and how drastically it appears poised to continue changing, the problems can seem insurmountable. However, coming to northern India, meeting the Carbon 12 artists, and watching the care that went into the creation of each piece has reminded me that we have no choice but to confront these problems. There is simply too much at stake — too much history, too much beauty, too much about our planet that is irreplaceable for us to look the other way.

I am sure viewers of Carbon 12 will have other responses when they see these paintings — and they should — but I do hope that the overriding reaction is a complete inability to look away. Each painting is both a problem and a solution, a beginning and an end, an answer and a question. Every single one of them, like our home planet, is the product of cycles of creation and destruction. Every single one of them, like Jaipur, is a celebration of extremes.

Screen Shot 2016-04-24 at 8.04.00 AMNote on images: Satellite images captured the MODIS sensor on NASA’s Aqua satellite. Learn more about them here. Photographs taken by Adam Voiland.

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For a chemical compound that shows up nearly everywhere on the planet, methane still surprises us. It is one of the most potent greenhouse gases, and yet the reasons for why and where it shows up are often a mystery. What we know for sure is that a lot more methane (CH4) has made its way into the atmosphere since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Less understood is why the ebb and flow of this gas has changed in recent decades.

You can find the odorless, transparent gas miles below Earth’s surface and miles above it. Methane bubbles up from swamps and rivers, belches from volcanoes, rises from wildfires, and seeps from the guts of cows and termites (where is it made by microbes). Human settlements are awash with the gas. Methane leaks silently from natural gas and oil wells and pipelines, as well as coal mines. It stews in landfills, sewage treatment plants, and rice paddies.

Read the full story at
NASA Earth Observatory, March 2016