If you ever have a chance to visit Dunhuang—an oasis city in northwestern China—don’t think twice. Just go. This place is mind-blowing, and it also happens to be where the F in my book, The Alphabet from Space, is located.

One of the main reasons we went was to explore the incredible trove of ancient Buddhist art in Dunhuang’s Mogao Caves, or Thousand Buddha Grottoes. Over the centuries, hundreds of shrines were carved into a sandstone ridge in a remote part of the desert and decorated with Buddhist murals and sculptures. My wife, an abstract painter, has wanted to visit the caves for years because they are a major influence on her work.


But the caves and the art were just the beginning. For somebody like me who writes about Earth science as my day job and studied geology as an undergraduate, Dunhuang’s astounding megadunes were also a highlight. Imagine jogging up a massive pyramid-shaped pile of sand that was completely devoid of vegetation and watching the wind whip a stream of seemingly liquid sand up and over a perfect v-shaped ridge, and then watching that sand cascade down the other side like a waterfall.

Imagine peering down on a crescent-shaped lake flanked by a burst of green amidst a barren valley of sand. Then, suddenly, dozens of two-humped Bactrian camels (which are quite rare) leisurely wander into view. For somebody like me, who grew up in the relatively lush and green landscape of western Massachusetts, the entire experience was surreal. Dunghuang’s arid terrain was as exotic and otherworldly as any I can imagine. I felt like I was on Tatooine.


Climbing up one of these dunes to watch the sun set was something I will never forget. From the top, Katherine (my wife) and Calvin (my son) ogled the view, posed for pictures, and had a quite a time sliding and tumbling down the steep side of the dunes. It took Calvin some time to realize that the dune was far better for sliding than any of the plastic slides he has encountered at playgrounds so far. But once he did, he was off to the races, and there was no slowing him down. He was soon zipping down the slope with the abandon of a fearless Olympic luger.

In the Landsat 8 satellite image above, I have labeled the location of the dune we were on. Crescent Lake  appears as just a tiny black smudge to the west of that dune, but I still love the broad perspective that this image offers. It helps you see how close the dunes are to the city (the gray-purple area in the upper right of the image). The broad perspective also makes it easier to imagine the movement of the entire dune field, which is being pushed eastward by winds blowing in from the northwest. (If you are interested in seeing our dune and Crescent Lake in more detail, check the area out on Google maps, which has more detailed imagery.) Unfortunately, I couldn’t see the solar farm that makes up the F from the summit of the dune. I was quite tempted to hire one of the paragliders or helicopters that were available to rent to get a proper view of the solar farm, but I restrained myself and we ended up opting for a camel ride (a more affordable and safer form of transportation) instead.


While I posing for photos with the book at the top of the dune, it occurred to me that it would be fantastic if I could somehow travel to each location featured in the book and take photos from the ground. The A, I could definitely pull off—the Susquehanna Water Gaps are just a few hundred miles from my home in Washington, DC. The P (a dried oxbow on the Colorado River) and the R (a sharp bend in the San Juan River in Utah) also seem manageable. But there are also some pretty far-flung destinations in the mix as well: Antarctica (the I), Zambia (the M), and Greenland (the H and K).

I do love to travel, but I could really use your help if I am ever to pull this off. If you happen to live in any of the places highlighted in the book or know you will be traveling to one of them, and you would be willing to pose with that page of the book out in front of, say, the salt ponds in Namibia (the L), Mount Herbert (the O), the farmland in Paraguay (the T), I would be eternally grateful. In fact, I would be so grateful that I would happily send you a signed copy of the book and a labeled Landsat satellite image of your house (or some other location of your choice).

To get you started, I have listed the latitude and longitude for the locations of all 26 letters below. Note that a few of them  (the I, G, W, and X) are locations over water, so you might need access to either a boat or plane for those. If you think you can get photos from one (or more) of these places, please email me at or tweet me at @avoiland, and we can work out the details about how to get you the book and the personalized satellite image. Note: you don’t need to get photos of the exact feature that makes up the letter, any part of the scene would be fine. Thank you in advance and happy travels!  IMG_7856

A: 40.546532, -76.973717 (Buffalo Township, Pennsylvania, USA)
B: 34.927929, 53.364791 (Semnan, Iran)
C: (Fars, Iran)
D: 70.758290, -51.787311 (Uummanaq Fjord, Greenland)
E: 62.644470, -163.569429 (Nanvaranak Lake, Alaska, United States)
F: 40.105704, 94.479371 (Dunhuang, China)
G: 50.937317, -178.123706 (North Pacific Ocean)
H: 63.777167, -41.552391 (Sermersooq, Greenland)
I: -68.633333,70.583333 (McKenzie Bay, Antarctica)
J: -12.834317, 143.847137 (Bligh Reef, Australia)
K: 66.635645, -36.638346 (Sermersooq, Greenland)
L: -23.026402, 14.448990 (Erongo, Namibia)
M: -11.183523, 29.991393 (Chilibu Island, Zambia)
N: 41.436924, -82.368553 (Lake Erie)
O: 52.750229, -170.117121 (Herbert Island, Alaska, USA)
P: 37.300058, -110.797563 (San Juan County, Utah, USA)
Q: 51.384408, -68.698931 (René-Levasseur Island, Canada)
R: 37.218331, -109.745688 (San Juan County, Utah, USA)
S: -17.277327, 78.181193 (Indian Ocean)
T: -23.639351, -59.757941 (Presidente Hayes Department, Paraguay)
U: 51.484631, -0.014287 (Thames River, London, United Kingdom)
V: 40.030718, 78.209610 (Artux, Xinjiang, China)
W: -44.020983, 173.508044 (South Pacific, Near New Zealand)
X: 28.736667,-88.386944 (Gulf of Mexico)
Y: 37.762502, 119.157620 (Yellow River Delta, China)
Z: 28.882155, -9.665079 (Guelmim, Morocco)


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


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.


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

Though blizzards and cold snaps may have made you forget the news from last week, 2015 was the warmest year in NASA’s global temperature record, which dates back to 1880. During a January 2016 press conference (see the slides here), Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, explained that 2015 was 0.87 degrees C (1.57°F) above the 1951-80 average in the GISS surface temperature analysis (GISTEMP), one of four widely-cited global temperature analyses.

Read the full story at
Huffington Post, January 2016

Image mosaic by Daily Mail.

Image mosaic by Daily Mail.

A few years ago, while working on a story about wildfires, a V appeared to me in a satellite image of a smoke plume over Canada. That image made me wonder: could I track down all 26 letters of the English alphabet using only NASA satellite imagery and astronaut photography?

With the help of readers and colleagues, I started to collect images of ephemeral features like clouds, phytoplankton blooms, and dust clouds that formed shapes reminiscent of letters. Some letters, like O and C, were easy to find. Others—A, B, and R—were maddeningly difficult.

Read the full story at
NASA Earth Observatory, December 2015