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NASA Earth Observatory
NASA images and stories about climate and the environment.
NASA images and stories about climate and the environment.

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Another View of Petermann Glacier’s New Crack

In early April, remote sensing scientist Stef Lhermitte examined Sentinel-2 satellite images and saw a new crack developing on Greenland’s Petermann Glacier. About two weeks later, Landsat 8 also got a look.

But the space-based view is not the only evidence of a new crack in the large glacier. NASA’s Operation IceBridge has been making science flights in the area this month, and scientists got a first-hand look. Kelly Brunt, a glaciologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, snapped this photograph from a window of a P-3 Orion research plane on April 14, 2017. The new crack is the feature running diagonal from the bottom-left of the photo toward the center.

“What’s interesting here is that the crack originated in the center of the glacier, not along the edges,” Brunt said. “When John Sonntag and I were looking for the new crack during the flight, we were looking for something substantial emanating from the edge. This totally surprised me!”

Most cracks start along a glacier’s edge, where a huge amount of strain is produced as the glacier slides along the walls of a fjord. That is especially true for Petermann—a narrow glacier that has previously rifted along the edges of its floating shelf.

Cracks that make their way across an ice shelf can eventually release icebergs. Petermann has launched two huge icebergs since 2010, so scientists are watching for additional retreat. It remains to be seen whether this crack will result in an iceberg. If the crack continues to lengthen, it could potentially meet the older rift at the edge of the glacier, visible near the top-center of the photo.

Read the full blog post:

Read more about the crack on Petermann:

Read a backgrounder about Operation IceBridge:

See more images of the crack and other icy phenomenon on the NASA Ice Flickr page:
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South Australia, Wet and Dry

An astronaut aboard the International Space Station captured these photographs of agricultural patterns in the Riverland region of South Australia. The use of a powerful lens makes it possible to see individual buildings in the small towns, a bridge joining the towns, and one of the many locks on the river.

Renmark is one of the major towns in a line of settlements along the Murray River. The first image shows the winding course of the Murray in a wide floodplain, with numerous small farm plots clustered along its banks. This heavily irrigated country is a mix of grapevines, almond groves, stone-fruit orchards (like peaches and apricots), and citrus orchards. More than half of South Australia’s famed wine production comes from this area.

The intensely farmed landscape contrasts with the arid landscape in the second image, which shows an area just 20 kilometers (12 miles) south of Renmark. A large, dry lake is crossed by a winding road. Rounded, ancient dunes stand south of the settlement of Taldra. The dry lake has been the site of growth trials for a salt-tolerant giant cane crop, according to local agriculture officials.

Surrounding the lake is sparser vegetation that allows the underlying linear dunes to remain visible from space. The surrounding fields show faint parallel lines that indicate a plowing pattern. These fields are part of a mixed farming agriculture in which crops (mainly wheat and barley) are grown for two years, after which the fields provide pasture for grazing livestock.

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Winter at Karazhanbas Oil Field

Kazakhstan has roughly 3 percent of the world’s crude oil reserves. With proven reserves of 30 billion barrels, the large, land-locked country has the second most in Eurasia and the twelfth most in the world, just behind the United States.

The oil is spread between 172 oil fields, mainly in the western part of the country. The Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8 captured this natural-color image of Karazhanbas oilfield in the Mangystau Province on February 4, 2017. At the time, a blanket of snow covered the oilfield, making the drilling wells, pipelines, roads, and other infrastructure stand out as if in three dimensions.

With 230 million barrels in reserves, Karazhanbas is not Kazakhstan’s largest oil field. The nearby offshore Kashagan field is thought to hold between 7 and 13 billion barrels of recoverable crude oil. The Tengiz field, which is located near the shores of the Caspian Sea as well, has reserves between 6 and 9 billion barrels.

Since Kazakhstan is land-locked, it relies on pipelines to distribute its oil. The Karazhanbas field is located near the Uzen-Atyrau-Samara pipeline, which conveys oil north and east toward Russia.

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Lava Glows Atop Nishinoshima

Once again, Nishinoshima Island promises to gain ground. Roughly 1,000 kilometers (more than 600 miles) south of Tokyo, the island has been growing steadily since 2013, when the volcano broke the water line.

This image of fresh lava was created on April 19, 2017 by combining data from the Thermal Infrared Sensor (TIRS) and Operational Land Imager (OLI) on the Landsat 8 satellite. Warmer areas—like lava—appear brighter. (Diagonal streaks in the background are caused by noise in the thermal band data.)

Aerial footage taken on April 21 and published by the Japanese paper The Asahi Shimbun shows chunks of rocks careening into the air and a thick plume of smoke emerging from the volcano. “Intensive volcanic activity will continue for a while,” Setsuya Nakada, a professor at the University of Tokyo’s Earthquake Research Institute, told the paper. “Lava will eventually reach to the sea.”


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An Optimistic View For Earth Day

As we arrive at Earth Day 2017, reporting on Earth science can sometimes feel like a gloomy affair. Global temperatures are at record highs. Arctic sea ice is in pretty bad shape. Bleaching events are taking a toll on coral reefs. And as an interesting article in EOS recently noted, humanity is affecting the very shape of Earth’s surface in unprecedented ways.

“We have altered flood patterns, created barriers to runoff and erosion, funneled sedimentation into specific areas, flattened mountains, piled hills, dredged land from the sea, and even triggered seismic activity,” the authors wrote. (Read our stories about land reclamation in China, mining in Canada, gas and oil infrastructure in Texas, the growing Wax Lake Delta in Louisiana, and the retreat of the Aral Sea to see changes of this nature.)

In spite of the challenges in a changing world, there are reasons to be optimistic. The world has come together to confront global problems before. Levels of protective ozone are stabilizing because of the Montreal Protocol. In the United States and Europe, better technology and regulations have led to drastic reductions in air pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide. There are signs that efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay are making a difference.

Some of the environmental challenges we face are daunting and can seem intractable, but there are some good reasons to feel reassured by the tools and expertise that the scientific community brings to the table. Americans live in a country where the number of deaths due to hurricanes, landslides, floods, droughts, tornadoes, blizzards, and other weather hazards have plummeted over the past century, and that is largely due to better understanding and to appropriate hazards warning systems that Earth scientists have developed.

Computers and instruments that used to take up whole rooms now fit snugly onto autonomous aircraft, satellites, and robots. At this moment, 1,459 satellites orbit Earth—including 19 that are part of the NASA fleet keeping a watchful eye on this dynamic, fragile planet. The authors of the EOS article note that a unified, global, high-resolution 3-D map of the human fingerprint on Earth is within reach due to the remarkable lidar instruments, aerial photogrammetry, and satellite observations that are now available.

To get a sense of the sophistication and breadth of the information satellites now collect, just navigate to your home town with NASA’s Worldview browser or take a look at the Earth Observations (NEO) data archive. You will find information on everything from plant health to particulate aerosol levels to fires to city lights.

As you look, keep in mind that NASA isn’t just collecting that data for data’s sake. The Applied Sciences program is focused on making that data useful to citizens, resource managers, and civic planners in ways that make life better here on Earth. So if you plan to celebrate Earth Day by cleaning up trash in your neighborhood or adopting a piece of the planet with NASA, rest assured that you are not alone in working to make the planet just a little bit more livable.

Read the full blog post:
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California Reservoirs Rise from Drought to Deluge

A five-year drought in California ended spectacularly this winter, with the state emerging from one of its driest periods on record by enduring one of its wettest. Reservoirs, lakes, and mountainsides are now brimming with water and snow, though scientists caution that the unseen reservoirs—underground aquifers—are a long way from having the same bounty that is visible on the land surface.

A steady stream of atmospheric river events brought 175 percent of the long-term average of rain and snow to California between October 2016 and April 2017, leading the state to declare an end to the official drought emergency in all but four counties. In its April 18 update, the U.S. Drought Monitor reported just 8 percent of the state was in some form of drought and 23 percent was abnormally dry (almost entirely in southern California). One year ago, 91 percent of the state was in drought, with 55 percent at extreme or exceptional status. As recently as December 27, 2016, the Drought Monitor reported 82 percent of the state in some measure of drought.

These six satellite images show key reservoirs in California near their lowest and highest points over the past three years. All images were acquired by the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8. The image pairs were chosen to match seasons and to avoid cloud cover over each scene. Tan bands around the shorelines (left image in each pair) are sands and sediments that were exposed as water levels dropped and the lake bottom became exposed. Note that changing water levels largely reflect precipitation and evaporation, but they also can be altered by the movement of water between reservoirs and water transportation infrastructure in the California water system.

The first images show Trinity Lake, the third largest reservoir in the state (after Lake Oroville and Shasta Lake). The artificial lake in northern California connects to the Trinity River and is part of the Sacramento basin. On April 29, 2015, Trinity stood at 59 percent of its historical average level for that date; by April 2, 2017, it stood at 114 percent. As of April 19, the lake was filled to 95 percent of its 2.45 million acre-foot capacity (and 117 percent of average water levels).

The second image pair shows Don Pedro Reservoir, California’s sixth largest, standing in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada and connecting to the Tuolumne River and the San Joaquin Valley Basin. It is just miles from New Melones Lake, which is visible in the downloadable large image. When Landsat 8 acquired an image on February 26, 2015 (above), the reservoir stood at 61 percent of its long-term average level. By March 3, 2017, it had risen to 134 percent of average.

The third image pair shows Castaic Lake, which is the 24th largest reservoir in California but the largest water storage in the Los Angeles area. It stood at just 42 percent of average water levels on February 11, 2015; by February 1, 2017, it was back up to 98 percent.

The California Department of Water Resources, which tracks 46 major reservoirs, reported on April 18, 2017, that water storage stood at 112 percent of the long-term average for the entire system.

“Reservoirs at the surface are only a partial measure of California’s water health,” cautioned Bill Patzert, a climatologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “From space, it looks like we are out of five years of punishing drought. But the depleted aquifers, 100 million dead trees, and $1 billion in flood damage will take decades to deal with.”

Scientists at JPL are leading NASA-wide efforts to better study water storage and precipitation, alongside research partners in the California government and academic research community. The projects, known as the Western States Water Mission and the Western Water Applications Office, are working to make high-resolution satellite and aircraft data, as well as climate and hydrology models, more readily available to civic leaders in the region.

“Drought or deluge, we use more water than we have, and California suffers from chronic water scarcity,” said Jay Famiglietti, a hydrologist from JPL and the University of California-Irvine who leads the applied research effort. “That’s because California grows virtually all of the produce for the United States, as well as a tremendous amount of dairy. That level of productivity simply requires more water than is available on an annual renewable basis (snowmelt, rivers, and reservoirs). The water shortfall comes from groundwater, and that groundwater has been in decline for nearly a century. This winter will provide a slight replenishment bump, but that’s it.”

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Blooming Gibraltar

From space, the Strait of Gibraltar appears tiny compared to the continents it separates. At the strait’s narrowest point, Africa stands just 14 kilometers (9 miles) from Europe. But the narrow waterway is a complex environment that gives rise to striking phytoplankton blooms when conditions are right.

Water conditions and circulation near the strait produced a bloom with colorful tendrils visible in this image, acquired on March 8, 2017. The image is composed from data acquired with the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on Suomi NPP, and the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite. A series of processing steps were applied to highlight color differences and bring out the bloom’s subtler features.

The intricate swirls of phytoplankton trace the patterns of water flow, which in this region can become quite turbulent. For example, water moving east from the North Atlantic into the Mediterranean Sea has created turbulence in the form of internal waves. These waves—sometimes with heights up to 100 meters—occur primarily deep within the ocean, with just a mere crest poking through the surface. At the same time, water flowing west helps stir up water in the North Atlantic, including the Golfo de Cádiz.

While most of the swirls of color are phytoplankton, ocean scientist Norman Kuring of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center notes that some of the color near coastal areas could be due to sediment suspended in the water, particularly near the mouths of rivers. Some of the yellow-green plume near the Guadalquivir River, for example, could be due to colored dissolved organic matter (CDOM).

“My guess is that there is less suspended sediment along the Iberian and African coastlines than you might expect to find in eastern U.S. coastal waters, which overlay a broader continental shelf than what is found around Iberia,” Kuring said.

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Tulip Mania

On the ground, individual petals pop with vivid color. From space, whole acres of flowers brighten fields in the southern Netherlands.

Each year toward the end of April, scores of travelers—many by bicycle—ride from Amsterdam to visit this flower-filled landscape. Their destination: the “bulb region.” Visitors go there to see the famous tulips and other spring blooms, including crocuses, hyacinths, and daffodils.

On April 9, 2017, the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8 captured these images of the countryside roughly 40 miles (65 kilometers) southwest of the Dutch capital. Entire fields of bright reds and yellows stand out against the surrounding brown and green terrain. (The blue square in the image below is the roof of a nearby factory building.) The flowers bloom for several weeks, peaking in late April.

Today, growers plant tulips by the millions. However, there was a time when a single bulb could cost as much as an estate. In the 1630s, four decades after tulips were introduced to the Netherlands from Turkey, their prices skyrocketed. For economists, “tulip mania” or “tulipomania,” as it was known, became an early lesson in futures trading. In the spring of 1637, just a few years after the craze began, the tulip market collapsed.
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Cyclone Maarutha Passes Over Myanmar

The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite captured this natural-color image of tropical cyclone Maarutha as it churned above the Bay of Bengal on April 15, 2017, before passing over Myanmar (formerly Burma).

Maarutha moved toward land quickly on Sunday, without bringing significant storm surge, Al Jazeera reported. Ground photography shows downed power lines. News accounts warn of heavy rain and possible flash floods into Monday, April 17. It is the first named cyclone this year in the northern hemisphere.

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Modern Satellites: Littler and Mightier Than Before

Bigger isn’t necessarily better—at least where satellites are concerned. Modern “CubeSat” satellites are smaller and more numerous than ever.

The CubeSat takes its name from its dimensions; it is made up of multiples of 10×10×11 centimeter cubic units. A basic CubeSat weighs roughly 3 pounds (1.3 kilograms) and looks a good deal like a portable speaker.

Early satellites started out small, too. Launched in 1957, Sputnik weighed around 184 pounds (83 kilograms). America’s first satellite, Explorer I, weighed just under 31 lbs (14 kg). Then, as the desire for more sensors grew, so did the size of satellites. The first American weather satellite, TIROS I, was a hefty 270 lbs (122 kg). But recent years have seen a reversal of this trend.

Read the full blog post:

Learn more about CubeSats:

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