Archives for category: NASA

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.

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NASA Earth Observatory, December 2015

 

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(Photo by Martin Wooster.)

In September and October 2015, tens of thousands of fires sent clouds of toxic gas and particulate matter into the air over Indonesia. Despite the moist climate of tropical Asia, fire is not unusual at this time of year. For the past few decades, people have used fire to clear land for farming and to burn away leftover crop debris. What was unusual in 2015 was how many fires burned and how many escaped their handlers and went uncontrolled for weeks and even months.

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NASA Earth Observatory, March 2015

IDL TIFF file

 

Though it has been quiet during recent decades, Mauna Loa has a long history of volcanic activity. Geologists estimate that the hotspot that feeds Mauna Loa first started to erupt about one million to 700,000 years ago. After underwater eruptions built up a seamount for hundreds of thousands of years, lava emerged above the Pacific surface about 400,000 years ago.

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NASA Earth Observatory, November 2015

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Ten thousand River Commissions, with the mines of the world at their back, can not tame that lawless stream, can not curb it or confine it, can not say to it, Go here or Go there, and make it obey. —Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi

Twain’s pessimism has done little to deter the Mississippi River Commission. Since it was created in 1879, this division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has waged a prolonged campaign to control the river. Their weapons in the battle are levees, dams, spillways, dikes, weirs and other pieces of infrastructure. Their mission is to prevent the river from abandoning its current course.

Left alone, nature would probably send the Lower Mississippi River whipping back and forth across a 200-mile arc every few thousand years. Like “a pianist playing with one hand,” is how John McPhee described the river’s restlessness in a story for The New Yorker. With the main channel flowing unusually far to the east in its current configuration, the Mississippi is primed to snap back toward the west. Such a change would send most of the Mississippi’s flow into the Atchafalaya River, a distributory (the opposite of a tributary) of the Mississippi and Red Rivers. Such a change would pose an existential crisis for port cities like New Orleans and Baton Rouge, starving them of the water that has come to define them.

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The NASA Earth Observatory, March 2015

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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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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.