Archives for category: NASA

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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.

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NASA Earth Observatory, August 2016

chesapeake_reference_map
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.”

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NASA Earth Observatory, August 2016

chesapeake_locator_map
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.

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NASA Earth Observatory, July 2016

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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.

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NASA Earth Observatory, March 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.

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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