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
The Greenland ice sheet is huge: 1.7 million square kilometers (650,000 square miles), and commonly creates a lot of icebergs in the summer.
This season is no exception, and in mid-July, during the biggest melt ever seen, In 2005, NASA’s Terra Earth-observing satellite took this quite beautiful shot of icebergs floating off Greenland in Baffin Bay: [NOTE: My mistake, I thought this was a recent pic, but it's actually from 2005! Oops. I somehow missed that, and thanks to r721 in the comments for pointing it out. I'll note I saw this picture before all the Greenland melting news, and was going to post it simply because it was beautiful! Then all the other news came out, and so I waited to post it. Sorry about the error, and I'll add that this doesn't change anything I wrote here except for the part I struck through above about timing.]
[Click to hugely englacienate.]
Note the scale; the image is about 45 km (27 miles) on a side. The image is a mix of natural colors and infrared; that makes the water look deep blue, the ground brown, and vegetation red (the Greenland coast has grass and other plants). The icebergs are easy enough to spot, some are several hundred meters across. The smaller ones pose the biggest navigational hazard, and images like this (as well as spotters on the sea and in the air) help seafarers avoid the worst of them.
And one thing I want to note. Last week I wrote about the Greenland ice melt in July, and as usual got some, um, interesting comments about it. I was very careful when talking about the Greenland melting and not tie it to global warming; I start the paragraph saying it’s difficult to pin any specific event with climate change, and end with saying the melting is consistent with what we expect. I even mention the fact that some of the melting is probably due to historic cycles, yet many people made comments as if they hadn’t read that particular statement. It’s amazing to me. It shows the state of the "debate" now; it doesn’t matter how careful I am and what pains I take to be accurate. The attacks blow through as if – oddly enough – facts don’t matter.
It would be so much easier if I could just make things up out of thin (but hot) air, find some small niggling point to amplify well beyond what’s called for, to bend facts like moldable plastic to fit whatever preconceived ideology I have.
But when it comes to things like this, I have no ideology. Seriously. I would love for global warming to not be true. I would love it if the facts indeed showed our climate is stable, or that the change is natural, or that the change won’t have any deleterious effects.
Alas, that’s not the case. Reality is, in the end, real. As is global warming, and the sooner we get past the political noise about it, the better.
Image credit: NASA/JPL
Last week, a huge chunk of ice broke off of Greenland’s Petermann glacier, an event called a "calving". The iceberg is now moving down the glacier’s fjord, as seen by NASA’s Terra Earth-observing satellite on July 21, 2012:
Note the scale. The iceberg is well over 100 square kilometers in size – about 50 square miles, or 30,000 acres. That’s larger than the island of Manhattan in New York City. An even larger iceberg broke off in 2010.
This image comes on the heels of an announcement that Greenland is seeing "unprecedented" melting. By July 12, 2012, as much as 97% of Greenland’s ice sheet had experienced some degree of melting. On July 8, just four days earlier, only 40% of the ice had experienced some melting:
[The map shows ice that has had some melting in red, and areas showing no melting in white. The left map is from July 8, the right from July 12.]
This does not mean that 97% of the Greenland ice sheet has melted away! The map shows all the places where at least some melting has occurred. Some of this melting is simply due to it being summer, and in some places there is evidence of a historic cycle of melting. But this widespread a melting has not happened in the 30 years satellites have been used to map the region. Normally, about half the ice on Greenland experiences some melting.
The culprit appears to be several waves of warm high-pressure ridges that have swept over Greenland, each stronger than the last, with the most recent one squatting over the island for about a week.
As always, it’s difficult to pin any specific weather event on global warming. But every day, the list of suspicious events grows longer. The Petermann calving happened much farther up the glacier than has occurred before. Waves of warm air over Greenland are unusual. And the weird weather we’ve been getting is consistent with what’s been predicted for a planet that’s warming up.
And while climate change deniers put up insulting billboards and compare climate scientists to child molesters, the Earth is getting warmer. While antiscience Congressmen write fallacy-laden op-eds and elected officials run witch hunts against scientists, the Earth is getting warmer.
We need serious people in charge, because it’s way, way past time to take this seriously.
Image credits: Terra picture: Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon, using data from NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team; Melting map: Jesse Allen, NASA Earth Observatory and Nicolo E. DiGirolamo, SSAI and Cryospheric Sciences Laboratory
- Huge glacier calves off Greenland
- Enormous glacier calves in largest Arctic event seen in 48 years (with followups here and here)
- EXCLUSIVE: Michael Mann responds to Rep. Barton
- Five shots against global warming denialism
[The Desktop Project is my way of forcing myself to clean off my computer's desktop by systematically writing a blog post for every cool picture I've been collecting and neglecting. I've been posting them every day for two weeks now. And there's more to come!]
Regular readers know I’m fascinated by clouds. The shapes they take on and the processes that form them are really interesting, especially when more unusual and rare conditions produce spectacularly odd clouds.
You’ve probably never heard of "cloud streets", technically called horizontal convective rolls. I hadn’t either until recently, but they are amazingly cool-looking, especially when seen from space. Proof: check out this shot from March 2012 of cloud streets over Greenland taken by NASA’s Aqua satellite:
[Click to ennebulenate, or grab an even higher-res version.]
Isn’t that incredible? The formation mechanism for these clouds isn’t well understood, but it involves gently rising warm, moist air getting blown to the side by a shear wind. This starts up a rotation in the clouds and stretches them out into these fantastically long parallel strips. Each row you see is spinning along the long axis, and each one is spinning in the opposite direction of the one next to it (this diagram may help).
To give you a sense of scale, this image is over 2000 km (1200 miles) across! So these clouds can stretch a long, long way.
You probably see clouds every day, or certainly quite often. Yet there’s a lot we don’t know about them, and certainly many kinds I bet you’ve never even heard of. What else is there you might be missing that’s sitting in plain sight?
Image credit: Jeff Schmaltz/MODIS Land Rapid Response Team, NASA GSFC