Frightening new visualization shows the deadly Camp Fire racing out of the mountains and enveloping Paradise

By Tom Yulsman | January 12, 2019 3:05 pm
The sophisticated modeling behind the visualization may provide better tools for getting people out of the way of wildfires

This animation of the Camp Fire is one of the tools used by scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research to study factors that made the wildfire so deadly.

Driven forward at breakneck speed by bone-dry winds, California’s Camp Fire blazed down out of the hills so quickly that the town of Paradise never really stood a chance.

In the animation above, you can get a good sense of how those winds blew the fire across Paradise and other towns. Scientist Janice Coen and her colleagues at the National Center for Atmospheric Research are using it to study the factors that made the rampaging blaze so deadly. It may also help point toward better tools for enabling emergency managers to get people out of the way of chaotic, fast-moving blazes.

The Camp Fire shows how badly such tools are needed. It killed 86 people, which makes it the seventh deadliest wildfire in U.S. history, and the 14th deadliest worldwide. The fire also incinerated 14,500 residential and commercial buildings, making it the most destructive wildfire in California history.

The animation was produced using a system that combines modeling of wildfire behavior with numerical weather prediction modeling. In addition to portraying the spread and intensity of the fire, the simulation depicts the wind field. The arrows show which way winds were blowing; their length and color correspond to speed. (Check out the bottom of the two keys at upper right for the color coding that corresponds to wind speeds.)

As the simulation progresses, the colors help us visualize gusts blowing over the landscape — which are themselves influenced by the wildfire itself. Look for wave-like patterns depicted in orange and red before the fire gets going. These are wind gusts. Once the fire begins, some of those gusts — the ones represented by the darkest reds — reach speeds of 40 meters per second. That’s almost 90 miles per hour! Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Drought, select, Top Posts, Wildfire

Research showing steeper increases in ocean heat is not exactly new. So what’s up with all those headlines?

By Tom Yulsman | January 11, 2019 7:52 pm

There’s been good evidence that the oceans were heating up faster than thought. Now, scientists have fitted the puzzle pieces together.

The trend in the amount of ocean heat is shown for the period 1993 to 2015. Yellow, orange and red tones show locations where ocean heat has increased. (Source: Cheng, Lijing & NCAR. Last modified 10 May 2017. "The Climate Data Guide: Ocean temperature analysis and heat content estimate from Institute of Atmospheric Physics." Retrieved from

The trend in the amount of heat in the oceans is shown for the period 1993 to 2015. Yellow, orange and red tones show locations where ocean heat has increased. (Source: Lijing Cheng & NCAR. Retrieved from

So this morning, as I’m drinking my coffee and perusing news headlines, I see this in the New York Times: “Ocean Warming Is Accelerating Faster Than Thought, New Research Finds.”

The story was about a new paper published Thursday in the journal Science titled, “How fast are the oceans warming?”

This is a big deal, because human-caused global warming doesn’t affect just the land surface. In fact, more than 90 percent of global warming’s heat is absorbed in the oceans. That has helped prevent much steeper increases in temperature on land.

But all that heat going into the oceans isn’t really a benign phenomenon. By causing ocean waters to expand, it contributes to sea level rise. The heat also can make storms more destructive, and it’s putting enormous stress on ocean ecosystems — which we depend on heavily for food.

And in the long run, what goes into the oceans doesn’t all stay in the oceans. Heat eventually comes out of the water to contribute to warming atmospheric temperatures around the globe.

So knowing exactly how much heat is going in is very important. With that in mind, I checked out other stories about the new paper in Science, and I saw that many featured similar headlines as the N.Y. Times.

More about the scientific paper in a minute. But first, I have to say that I realized I had seen very similar headlines before. Just this past October, for example, I saw this in Scientific American: “The Oceans Are Heating Up Faster Than Expected.” According to the story, a “new study published yesterday in the journal Nature concluded that the global oceans may be absorbing up to 60 percent more heat since the 1990s than older estimates had found.” Read More

We’ve been waiting for El Niño, but all we’ve got is El Limbo

By Tom Yulsman | January 10, 2019 7:38 pm

The animation above shows how sea surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean varied from average week by week, starting in February 2018 and continuing through the first week of January 2019. At the start, cooler than normal temperatures prevail along the equator. As it continues, the surface waters warm, as indicated by the change from blue to red colors. 

The Pacific Ocean along the equator is practically shouting to the atmosphere, “Hey, we got an El Niño goin’ on over here, what’s your problem?” But the atmosphere just doesn’t seem to want to listen.

Bottom line: We’re still waiting for El Niño.

The climatic phenomenon is significant because it can influence weather around the globe, favoring some damaging impacts but also some welcome ones too. For example, during El Niño winters, an extended, more powerful jet stream tends to steer storms into the southern half of California and across parts of the U.S. Southwest.

That extra moisture sure would be nice right about now. That’s because the Four Corners region, where Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah all come together, is suffering from a horrible, persistent drought. But unfortunately, no dice — or, more precisely, no rain and snow — at least for now.

Here’s the deal: Read More

My pick for the most compelling — and scary — remote sensing image of 2018

By Tom Yulsman | December 29, 2018 6:23 pm
The top remote sensing image of 2018

An image of California’s Camp Fire, created using natural color and infra-red data acquired by the Landsat-8 satellite on Nov. 8, 2018. (Image courtesy Pierre Markuse)

This past year brought all too many disasters, including rampaging wildfires, destructive volcanic eruptions, swirling tropical cyclones, and a host of other events that brought misery to millions of people worldwide.

Many were visualized by satellites looking down on Earth, and as 2018 draws to a close, I thought I’d feature one that I found to be particularly compelling. It’s the image above showing California’s Camp Fire, created by blogger and remote sensing expert Pierre Markuse. It’s my personal pick for top remote sensing image of 2018.

The Camp Fire ignited on Nov. 8, 2018 and quickly exploded, engulfing and ultimately destroying the town of Paradise, California. As of Dec. 19, the death toll stood at 86 people, which makes it the seventh deadliest wildfire in U.S. history, and the 14th deadliest worldwide. (Jeff Masters of the Category 6 blog tallied the statistics here. But keep in mind that since he wrote his story, the death toll of the Camp Fire was actually reduced.)

Ultimately engulfing 153,336 acres — about half the size of the City of Los Angeles — the Camp Fire was also the most destructive wildfire in California history, incinerating 14,500 residential and commercial buildings.

Markuse created the image using data from the Landsat-8 satellite. I find it particularly noteworthy for a number of reasons. First, you can see the town of Chico, population 93,293, toward the left, partly obscured by the huge smoke plume. This provides a sense of scale. Read More

This started as a story about really cool clouds on Earth, but then it led to this: Does it snow on Mars?

By Tom Yulsman | December 29, 2018 4:44 pm
Snow falling from clouds near Boulder, Colorado on Dec. 19, 2018 did not reach the ground — a classic example of virga. That got me to thinking: Does it snow on Mars?

Snow falling from clouds near Boulder, Colorado on Dec. 19, 2018 did not reach the ground — a classic example of virga. (Photo: ©Tom Yulsman)

Mars is certainly cold. With temperatures that can plunge to more than negative 100 degrees Celsius, it’s bloody frigid!

But as cold as it might get, does it snow on Mars?

This wasn’t the first thing that came to mind when I photographed the scene above near Boulder, Colorado with my iPhone. But when I got home and started investigating the beautiful phenomenon I had documented, I eventually came around to that rather un-obvious question. How I came to it — as well as the answer — is a bit of an interesting journey, so I hope you’ll keep reading.

First, what about those clouds in the image above? If you live somewhere with wide open vistas, you’ve probably seen the phenomenon yourself: darkish streaks appearing to hang from a cloud deck.

This is called “virga” —  precipitation falling from the clouds but mostly not reaching the ground. I’ve seen virga many times before, but usually in summer. This is when temperatures are high and humidity near the surface can be relatively low, causing shafts of rain falling from clouds to evaporate before the drops reach the ground.

But I shot the photo above on December 19th, two days before the winter solstice and well into meteorological winter. At the elevation of the cloud deck, temperatures were almost certainly well below freezing. So the virga probably consisted of little ice crystals. As they fell toward the ground, they simply sublimated — meaning they went from the frozen state to water vapor without first condensing into liquid.

I decided to write a post about it here at ImaGeo, and as I did my research, my mind wandered far from Colorado. All the way to Mars, which I knew had its own clouds.

I began wondering whether Martian clouds feature ice crystals streaming downward to form virga. Do ice crystals actually reach the ground as snow? And what might all of this look like from the surface? Read More

Seen from space: the volcanic eruption that likely triggered Indonesia’s devastating tsunami

By Tom Yulsman | December 24, 2018 2:52 pm
Krakatau volcanic eruption

A volcanic cloud from the eruption of Anak Krakatau in Indonesia on December 22, 2018 is seen in this animation of satellite images acquired by the Himawari-8 satellite. Two distinct volcanic pulses are evident. (After clicking on the screenshot above, click “play” in the upper left corner of the page that launches. If the animation does not run, refresh the page. Source: RAMMB/CIRA SLIDER)

In Indonesia, they call it “Anak Krakatoa, meaning “child of Krakatoa.”

It’s a volcano that rose from the sea in the 1920s decades after one of the most deadly volcanic cataclysms in recorded history killed tens of thousands of people and all but obliterated the island of Krakatoa, between Java and Sumatra.

Now, Anak Krakatau has itself brought great misery to Indonesia, with an eruption that apparently triggered an underwater landslide, which in turn sent a tsunami racing toward the western tip of the island of Java. A wall of water roared ashore, catching residents and vacationers completely unawares. As I’m writing this on Christmas Eve, more than 370 people have perished, and more than a hundred still are missing.

When Anak Krakatau erupted on December 22, Japan’s Himawari-8 weather satellite was watching from geostationary orbit, 22,239 miles overhead. Click on the screenshot above to watch what the satellite saw.

The animation consists of “GeoColor” imagery acquired in different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum at 10-minute intervals starting at 11:00 UTC. A first pulse of ash is visible at about 13:40, and then a second one at 15:20. As the animation continues, dawn breaks and a plume of ash and steam can still be seen amidst a cloudy atmosphere.

Here’s what the eruption looked like in the infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum: Read More

In the Blink of an Eye, We’re Turning Back the Climatic Clock by 50 Million Years

By Tom Yulsman | December 14, 2018 3:45 pm
This animation based on computer modeling shows what climatic conditions will look like out to the year 2280 if we emissions of greenhouse gases are not restrained. The color coding shows how future conditions would compare to climates of the past. (Source: "Pliocene and Eocene provide best analogs for near-future climates," K. D. Burke et al, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Dec 2018, 201809600; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1809600115)

This animation depicts climatic conditions out to 2280 assuming emissions of greenhouse gases are not restrained. The color coding shows how future conditions would compare to past climates, with lighter orange corresponding to the Pliocene Epoch about 3 million years ago, and darker orange to the Eocene about 50 million years ago. Dark red indicates future climatic conditions with no past analog. (Source: “Pliocene and Eocene provide best analogs for near-future climates,” K. D. Burke et al, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Dec 2018, 2018)

Absent serious action on climate change, we’ll continue careening toward a climatic cliff. And modern civilization will be hard-pressed to survive the plunge.

This is the essential take-away from new research probing Earth’s climatic past to yield insights into our future. The research finds that if our emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases continue unabated, Earth’s climate will warm by the year 2150 to levels not seen since the largely ice-free Eocene Epoch about 50 million years ago.

That may seem like a long time on a human timescale. But consider that the research shows we’re currently on course to reversing 50 million years of cooling in just a couple of centuries. That may be so rapid that it will outpace our ability to adapt our agricultural and other modern life support systems.

Thanks to our emissions of greenhouse gases, “the Earth system is well along on a trajectory to a climate state different from any experienced in our history of agricultural civilizations,” write Kevin Burke and his co-authors in a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Here’s why that’s troubling: Modern human civilizations, made possible by agriculture, have thrived in what scientists term “a safe operating space,” meaning a stable, relatively benign climate. But now, staying within that safe space seems to be “increasingly unlikely,” the researchers write.

“If we think about the future in terms of the past, where we are going is uncharted territory for human society,” says the study’s lead author, Kevin Burke, in a press release. Burke led the research while he was a graduate student in the lab of paleoecologist John “Jack” Williams of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“We are moving toward very dramatic changes over an extremely rapid time frame, reversing a planetary cooling trend in a matter of centuries,” Burke says. Read More

Here’s what you may not have heard about the massive new report on climate change in the U.S.

By Tom Yulsman | November 25, 2018 8:18 pm

Many news outlets all but ignored a crucial part: the urgent need to adapt to changes already underway and in the pipeline

Climate change report emphasizes adaptation, but news media ignore it.

Research shows that wildfires in the western United States are already burning hotter, wider, and more frequently, thanks in large measure to human-caused climate change. Shown here is the 2018 Howe Ridge Fire in Glacier National Park. (Source: National Park Service, Glacier National Park)

The White House released a massive scientific report on climate change the day after Thanksgiving. Given that timing, you may have missed it entirely (which is probably what they had in mind).

But if you did manage to hear about it in news coverage, you may well have gotten the impression that the 1,656-page assessment, produced by 13 federal agencies, was devoted exclusively to the dire future we’ll continue hurtling toward unless we reduce emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

That impression would be understandable, given that many news media outlets, including the New York Times, chose to frame their coverage almost entirely around predictions of crop failures, deteriorating infrastructure, thousands of deaths from heat waves — and a worst-case hit to the economy of 10 percent of the nation’s GDP by century’s end.

Largely left out of much of the coverage that I’ve seen is an equally important part of the Congressionally mandated report: the pressing need to adapt to changes that are already occurring, and inevitable future changes.

The federal report, prepared under the auspices of the U.S. Global Change Research Program, mentions the words “adapt” or “adaptation” at least 40 times, and “resilience” or “resilient” another 39 times. But the word “adapt” appears just once in the main New York Times story about the report; “resilience” or “resilient” not at all. And many other news outlets seems to have followed the lead of the Times.

Make no mistake about it: This second volume of the climate assessment, focusing on impacts, risks, and adaptation to climate change in the United States, does emphasize that global action is needed to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. But this mitigation of greenhouse gases, or GHGs, is just one part of the needed response, according to the report: Read More

Baby, it’s cold outside — but global warming has not taken a Thanksgiving break

By Tom Yulsman | November 22, 2018 11:07 am

President Trump falsely uses frigid weather to cast doubt on human-caused warming

An Arctic blast may have brought cold Thanksgiving temperatures to parts of the U.S., but the long-term trend of global warming continues

This global anomaly map compares temperatures in October 2018 to the 1951 to 1980 base period. (Source: NASA GISTEMP)

It sure is cold outside — at least in the northeastern United States. In fact, some portions of the region could experience their coldest Thanksgiving on record.

Blame it on an Arctic blast that is sending temps plummeting to levels normally associated with the dead of winter, not turkey day.

It’s called weather, not climate — a distinction that the President of the United States either doesn’t care about, or doesn’t understand (or perhaps both?): Read More

Three days in the life of Earth as seen by GOES-17, soon slated to be our latest operational weather satellite

By Tom Yulsman | November 18, 2018 6:53 pm
An animation of GOES-17 satellite images shows the full disk of our planet over three days between Nov. 19 and 22, 2018. (Source: RAMMB/CIRA Slider)

An animation of GOES-17 satellite images. (Source: CIRA/RAMMB/SLIDER)

The newest U.S. weather satellite has moved into its operational position over the Pacific Ocean and is sending back stunning imagery despite a problem with its primary instrument.

You can get a taste of that imagery in the animation above, showing the full disk of our planet over three days between Nov. 19 and 22, 2018. Click the image, and then make sure to zoom in and explore.

Here’s another example of beautiful imagery from the satellite, designated GOES-17:

GOES-17 was launched on March 1, 2018, and in the ensuing months it has been undergoing post-launch checkout and testing. After a three-week drift starting on October 24, The spacecraft arrived at its current position on Nov. 13. More testing is to come before it is scheduled to become officially operational as NOAA’s GOES West satellite on December 10, 2018.

Read More



ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

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