Satellite View of Cuba at Night Reveals the Impact of Embargo and a Centrally Planned Communist Economy

By Tom Yulsman | December 18, 2014 11:53 am

A satellite view of Cuba and Florida at night. (Source: NASA Worldview)

Yesterday’s announcement was historic: restoration of full diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba. And that got me to thinking of how satellite imagery could contribute to public debate now swirling around the move.

For 53 years, the U.S. embargo of Cuba, intended to help bring an end to the Cuban regime, has helped to stifle development there. This year, for example, the nation’s economy grew at a paltry 1.4 percent, according to the government’s no-doubt inflated figures. The embargo itself isn’t the lone cause of economic distress. A rigid, centrally planned economy in one of the last remaining Communist nations on Earth shares the blame as well.

Whichever factor plays the more important role, you can see the impact on Cuba in the image above based on data acquired by the Suomi NPP satellite in 2012.

The Florida peninsula seems to point a bright finger toward the darker landmass to the south: Cuba. Florida’s bright lights are a testament to the relative vibrancy of its economy.

The densely populated urban corridor anchored by Miami on the east coast gives way to the graceful and well lit arc of the Florida Keys. Across the Straits of Florida, Havana, Cuba’s capitol, is fairly obvious. But most of the rest of the country is quite dark compared to Florida, and even the small island of Jamaica to the south.

The New York Times described Cuba’s economic situation in a story today: Read More

The Arctic Continues to Bear the Brunt of Global Warming

By Tom Yulsman | December 17, 2014 9:09 pm

As global warming has caused Arctic sea ice to shrink, NASA satellites have observed a significant increase in the amount of solar energy that has been absorbed in the region since the year 2000. (Source: NASA Scientific Visualization Studio)

Acknowledgment: I want to thank my friend and colleague, environmental journalist Susan Moran for help with this story. She covered the NOAA press conference today at the AGU meeting and sent me her notes.

The Arctic continues to warm faster than any other region, according a report released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Wednesday.

Moreover, the extent of Arctic sea ice continues to shrink, and as a result more and more energy from the Sun is being absorbed by open sea water, helping to accentuate the warming.

“We continue to see impacts from a persistent warming trend that began 30 years ago,” said Jacqueline A. Richter-Menge, senior research engineer at the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Lab in Hanover, N.H. “We also continue to see significant year to year and regional variations.”

Richter-Menge spoke at a press conference held in conjunction with the release of the Arctic Report Card at the American Geophysical Union Conference in San Francisco.

“Central to the story are Arctic air temperatures, which continue to increase at a rate of warming that is more than twice as fast as at lower latitudes. This well documented effect is called ‘arctic amplification’ of global warming.” Read More

Stunning Before and After Photographs Show the Impact of Global Warming on Greenland’s Glaciers

By Tom Yulsman | December 15, 2014 6:36 pm
global warming

Acquired 2013. (Source: NASA Earth Observatory)

global warming

Acquired 1935 (Source: NASA Earth Observatory)

I love NASA’s Earth Observatory so much that I check in with it every day knowing I’ll be rewarded with a visual treat about the Earth. But I’m a journalist, which means I have an urge to try to break news first. That includes beating the folks at EO to big, visual, Earth and environmental sciences stories (which I’m proud to say I’ve done from time to time).

Today, though, I just have to share the Earth Observatory’s imagery as is. It consists of the two photographs above of the Sukkertoppen ice cap in southwest Greenland, which is being affected by global warming. Both were shot from aircraft.

Sometimes, a picture really is worth a thousand words — except in this case, it’s two pictures. Take a minute to gaze at them… Read More

Global Average Temperature Cools a Bit in November, But No Pause in Global Warming — And There Never Was One

By Tom Yulsman | December 14, 2014 2:07 pm

How temperatures in November departed from the long-term average is depicted in this map released by NASA today (Dec. 14, 2014). Much of North American experienced unusually cool temperatures during the month. (Source: NASA/GISS)

This past November was the ninth warmest globally in a record extending back to 1880, according to data released today by NASA.

| Update 12/15/14: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration came out with its own, independent report today. It ranks November 2014 as the 7th warmest on record. Their data suggest that 2014 is still on track to be the warmest year globally on record. |

This represents a bit of a cool-down from October, which was the warmest globally. What happened?

The answer is weather. In the map above, check out that big blue blob sitting over most of North America (with California and Alaska being the notable exceptions). Temperatures here were as much as 4 degrees C cooler than the long term average, helping to bring down the global average temperature for the month.

Thanks to the just announced climate agreement in Peru, this topic is threaded with politics even more intensely now than usual. So you may hear a familiar chorus of politicians and pundits using this one month to advance a familiar meme: there has been no global warming since 1998.

If you do hear this, never mind that the past 12 months have been the second warmest (according to NASA’s data; NOAA’s data will be released soon), and also that a balmy December could still qualify 2014 as the warmest on record. None of that matters. Because the meme is no more than that: an oft-repeated idea spread rapidly on the Internet.

And wrong.

I explored the so-called “hiatus” meme in  Discover’s Year-in-Science issue, which was published a couple of weeks ago. Then, on December 4th, Stefan Rahmstorf, a climatologist with the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, published a fascinating and incisive scientific take-down of the idea. I think it’s “dispositive,” as my lawyer friends would say. So I decided to revisit the topic and try my hand at explaining Rahmstorf’s most important points for non-scientific readers.  Read More

News Media #Fail: Storms DID Ease California’s Historic Drought. But Erasing it Could Take Years

By Tom Yulsman | December 14, 2014 2:11 am

Two views of California captured by NASA’s Terra satellite use false color to differentiate between clouds (whitish) and snow (orange-red). The first image was acquired on Nov. 25, 2014, before two storms hit California. The second is from Dec. 13th, after the second storm. (Images: NASA. Animation: Tom Yulsman)

If you’ve been following news reports about California’s epic drought in the aftermath of the recent storms there, it would be understandable if you’ve found yourself perplexed.

“Finally, Some Good News In The California Drought” read the headline in Huffington Post. “Flood-Causing Deluge Amounts to Just Drops in California Drought” proclaimed the New York Times’ glass-almost-empty headline:

Refilling the glass a bit, the San Jose Mercury News stuck to reporting facts: “Winter storms finally starting to boost storage levels in key reservoirs”. Meanwhile, Wired, like the Times, spun the story gloomily : “Think California’s Huge Storm Will End the Drought? Think Again”

As you probably know (assuming you haven’t been in hibernation), California has been on the receiving end of a veritable gusher of atmospheric moisture originating in the tropical Pacific. The first blast from this so-called “Pineapple Express” firehose came on December 2.  The second — and more powerful — round of storminess hosed California starting overnight on Dec. 10th and continuing through the 11th. It dumped an extraordinary amount of moisture.

In its story, the Times quoted Jon Gottschalck of the Climate Prediction Center as saying, “Most of the precipitation was rain…It wasn’t really adding to the snowpack, which is really what they need…Certainly this is good. But it’s going to be just a minor dent in the drought.”

But as Paul Rogers reported in his excellent Mercury News story, the state’s two largest reservoirs, Shasta Lake near Redding, and Lake Oroville in Butte County, were projected to receive 510,000 acre-feet of water in storm runoff by Tuesday.

That’s a staggering amount of water — 166 billion gallons from a single storm, enough water for 2.5 million Californians for a year. It would fill half a million football fields one-foot deep…

What gives? Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Climate, Environment, select, Top Posts, Weather

The Sun’s Colossal Glowing Loops, Up Close and Personal

By Tom Yulsman | December 12, 2014 1:40 pm

This visualization shows magnetic field loops in a portion of the Sun. The colors depict the strength of magnetic fields, with blue representing the weakest fields and red the strongest. The simulation was run on the Pleiades supercomputer at the NASA Advanced Supercomputing facility at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California. (Source: Robert Stein, Michigan State University; Timothy Sandstrom, NASA/Ames)

The gargantuan glowing loops that quiver and dance at the Sun’s surface are absolutely mesmerizing. If you’ve never seen them up close and personal, make sure to check out the videos a little lower down in this post.

But first, have a look at the image above. It is a supercomputer visualization that allows us to see what it would be like to fly through them.

To understand what you’re looking at, you first need to understand how these features form. First, consider the Sun’s prodigious energy created by the furnace at its core. Those nuclear fusion fires burn at an unimaginably hot 27 million degrees F. This is so rip-roaring intense that it tears atoms asunder, creating a roiling soup of charged particles called a plasma.

As is the case with all charged particles, magnetic fields are generated when they move about. And the Sun’s plasma moves around and interacts a whole lot.

Here’s the result, as explained by a primer at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center: Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Physics, select, Solar System, Sun, Top Posts

Pineapple Express Drenches California, Further Easing the Worst Drought in 1,200 Years

By Tom Yulsman | December 11, 2014 11:23 am
A river of water vapor stretching from Hawaii to California is visible in this  GOES-West satellite image.  This kind of atmospheric river is often called the "Pineapple Express." (Source: GOES Project Science—NOAA/NASA)

A river of water vapor stretching from Hawaii to California is visible in this GOES-West satellite image. This kind of atmospheric river is often called the “Pineapple Express.” (Source: GOES Project Science—NOAA/NASA)

The fierce storm now battering Northern California is bringing welcome rain and snow to a state experiencing what may well be its worst drought in 1,200 years. But the storm is also bringing dangerous surf, high winds, and the potential for flooding.

We’ll see how much of an additional dent this latest blast of moisture, and more rains forecast for Sunday, will make in the drought.

Meanwhile, the storm comes just days after a major report from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that “the current drought is not part of a long-term change in California precipitation, which exhibits no appreciable trend since 1895.” Instead, natural variability led to a long-lasting atmospheric ridge that has been blocking Pacific storm systems from hitting California.

Source: NOAA

Source: NOAA

That report was criticized for ignoring the role of record-breaking heat between 2012 and 2014 — the warmest three-year period in California history — in exacerbating the drought. In fact, a study published December 3rd in the journal Geophysical Research Letters found that the unusual warmth “could have exacerbated the 2014 drought by approximately 36%.” (Click on the thumbnail at right to see the long-term temperature trend.)

The blocking ridge of high pressure is nowhere to be seen right now. Read More

As Hagupit Weakens, Activists Hype Climate Connection

By Tom Yulsman | December 8, 2014 5:42 pm

Trophic Storm Hagupit over the Philippine Islands, as seen by the Suomi NPP satellite on Dec. 8, 2014. (Source: NOAA Environmental Visualization Laboratory)

Please don’t misread my headline. I’m not suggesting that I doubt the seriousness of the challenges posed by climate change — particularly for developing nations — and the pressing need to act.

In fact, I’m so concerned that I think it’s important to call out hype when I see it — because it could have the unintended effect of undercutting support for action on climate change.

The hype I’m concerned about is coming from Greenpeace, which is strongly linking Super Typhoon Hagupit to climate change in an online campaign:

Now it’s time for the world’s leaders and the media to start calling the problem by its real name: let’s name the typhoon after one of the biggest companies making a fortune from killing the climate. The more people vote, the more people will know what we should really be calling this supertyphoon. Vote now to help choose the name of the typhoon and share this with all your friends!

Readers are then prompted to Tweet their favorite. (For the record, as I write this Typhoon Chevron is in the lead.)

And that’s not all. The Independent is reporting this: Read More

Sun Develops Gigantic Hole Fifty Times Larger than Earth

By Tom Yulsman | December 6, 2014 8:15 pm
A composite of three image of the Sun acquired by the Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft with different, but very similar, temperatures. Each color highlights a different part of the Sun's extended outer atmosphere, called the corona. (Source: NASA SDO)

The Sun has developed a huge hole in its extended atmosphere, called the corona. It’s that big blue splotch visible at the bottom. (Source: NASA SDO)

Not to worry! As many of you may know, a gigantic hole in the Sun’s atmosphere is not terribly unusual. But you have to admit: This one is pretty dramatic.

The image above is actually a composite of three acquired by the Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft this past week. Each color highlights a different part of the Sun’s extended outer atmosphere — the corona. The coronal hole is that big, dark-blue splotch at the bottom.

Here’s NASA’s explanation:

The most dominant feature on the Sun the past week has been quite a large, dark coronal hole at the bottom of the Sun (Nov. 30 – Dec. 4, 2014). Coronal holes are areas where the Sun’s magnetic field is open ended and where high-speed solar wind streams into space. The area appears darker there because there is less material being imaged…

And here’s a nifty animation of SDO images showing the evolution of the coronal hole over nearly five days of activity: Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, select, Sun, Top Posts

The West Antarctic Ice Sheet Has Not Collapsed, But New Findings are Concerning. Do they Indicate a ‘Climate Crisis’?

By Tom Yulsman | December 5, 2014 2:30 pm

Glaciers in West Antarctica, as seen during NASA’s Operation IceBridge research flight in the region on Oct. 29, 2014. (Source: NASA/Michael Studinger)

| Udpate: I’ve been asking some scientists what they think about characterizing the climate as being in “crisis,” as well as other issues I raise below. As they come in I’ll tack them on to the bottom of the post. So make sure to scroll all the way down. |

Earlier this year, new research offered strong evidence that melting of the massive West Antarctic Ice Sheet has passed the point of no return. If true, this means it is now in irreversible retreat and will “collapse,” as scientists put it, over the course of 200 years, give or take.

As the ice tumbled into the sea and melted, such a scenario would eventually raise sea level by 16 feet. That’s enough to swamp coastal areas where many tens of millions of people live worldwide. Luckily, however, the time frame is long — if not from a geologic perspective, certainly from a societal one.

This week new research has suggested that the melt rate of glaciers in West Antarctica has tripled during the last decade. And another study attempts to show why: According to the research, over the past 40 years, a deep mass of water ringing Antarctica called the Circumpolar Deep Water appears to have warmed. The research also shows that warming CDW waters are intruding more and more to the undersides of glaciers that drain the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, causing them to melt from below, and speeding their passage toward the sea.

It should be emphasized that the latter study isn’t the final word on what’s causing the melting. Some scientists take exception to its methodology. (For more on that, check out Carolyn Gramling’s story in Science.)

The research from earlier in the year is featured in a story I wrote for Discover’s Year in Science issue, which has just been published. All in all, it looks like a terrific issue. But I take exception to the headline and subhead that go with my story. The headline is “Climate in Crisis,” and the subhead is “West Antarctic Ice Sheet Collapses.”

The first is arguable. The subheading really is not.

Read More


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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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