Frigid, beautiful swirls

By Phil Plait | October 19, 2012 9:03 am

In my last post I talked about how knowing the science behind a picture makes it better. I still say that’s true, but also, sometimes, the beauty and awe of a picture can speak for itself.

Behold, swirls of sea ice off the coast of Greenland:

Breathtaking, isn’t it? [Click to phasechangenate.]

This was taken by NASA’s Aqua satellite on October 16, 2012. Aqua is designed to observe Earth’s water cycle: the oceans, evaporation, clouds, precipitation, snow cover, and, obviously, sea ice. It takes a vast amount of energy to move water from the ocean into the atmosphere and then move it around the planet, energy which comes from sunlight and steered by the Earth’s spin. Observations like those of Aqua show us how the constituents of the atmosphere change how that transport occurs, how that energy is stored, and how we humans affect that with our grand experiment of adding carbon dioxide to the air. That also affects our environment, how plants and animals eat, drink, live, and die.

We are animals, too, and we live in this environment created by sunlight, air, water, ice, and our own actions.

I am awed and moved when I see images like the one above. Its beauty is transcendent, and was made possible by our curiosity, our desire to learn more about the world we live in – an urge so strong we invented science, and engineering, and then built satellites that can look back at us from space and show us how surpassingly beautiful our world is, and how we need to take care of it.

Hmmm. I suppose I was wrong at the beginning of this post. Sometimes the picture doesn’t always speak for itself. It still helps to know the how and why of it. When you do, the picture speaks with far more authority, import, and wide-ranging impact.

Image Credit: NASA/GSFC/Jeff Schmaltz/MODIS Land Rapid Response Team

Related Posts:

The pressure of living on a spinning planet
Attack of the Cyclones
Desktop Project Part 14: The cloud streets of southern Greenland
Phytoplankton bloom

MORE ABOUT: Aqua, Greenland, sea ice

Comments (8)

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  1. Matthew

    I’ll never forget coming home from my first trip to Europe in 2010. We flew from London to Chicago, and went right over Greenland. A few people complained that I had my window shade open because it made it difficult to watch the movie. There are not many opportunities to fly over sites like this!

  2. gwat

    I disagree with the statement “We are animals”. That is simply not true. We are human beings. Human beings are not in the animal category regardless of theories on this subject.

  3. #2 Read for context. We fit every definition and sub-definition of “animal” over at except 2a which is (oddly) recursively defined as “animal except humans”. I know you’re just getting all politically offended an all, but really.

  4. Matt B.

    Usually when we embiggen a picture, it opens in a new tab. This one doesn’t do that. What’s up with that?

  5. Sometimes the picture doesn’t always speak for itself.

    A picture may speak a thousand words – but it often helps to add a few more! 😉

    @2. gwat : “I disagree with the statement “We are animals”. That is simply not true.”


    Course its true.* You think we’re, what, vegetables or minerals instead maybe? 😉

    Are you for real or just doing a Poe? (Can be so hard to tell sometimes.)


    * A basic biological fact that provides pedantic me with some wry amusement every time I see a “No animals allowed” sign on a shop. They expect us to send in robots? 😉

  6. #2 gwat:
    Are you a Poe, or are you really that stupid???
    Of course humans are animals, by any remotely sensible definition! We are animals, mammals and primates. We have exactly the same configuration of bones in our skeleton as does every other mammal on Earth, from a mouse to an elephant to a whale. Our DNA is 98% identical to that of our closest relative, the chimpanzee. etc etc etc. How much more evidence do you need?
    If you’re trying to hijack the thread with creationist drivel, don’t bother; the fact that humans are animals still applies, whether you think we got here via evolution or via Goddidit.

  7. Ken

    I’m happy to be an animal, given that the other options are plant, fungus, protozoan, and bacteria.


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