The Nile as Seen From Space: A Glowing Ribbon of Life

By Tom Yulsman | July 27, 2015 12:10 am
ribbon of life

The Nile River at night, as photographed from the International Space Station by astronaut Scott Kelly.

I wasn’t intending to post anything on a Sunday night, but I happened on this mind-blowing photograph shot and posted to Twitter by Scott Kelly from the International Space Station. So I just had to share it.

You’re looking at his astronaut’s-eye-view of the River Nile, all aglow at night. In this inverted view, North is toward the bottom of the frame, south toward the top. The Nile flows from the heart of Africa in the upper right quadrant to the dark Mediterranean Sea.

Near where the Nile empties into the Mediterranean you can see the bright glow of Cairo, and the intensively farmed and populated Nile Delta.

Most of Egypt’s population lives along the river, a green ribbon of life in a dry, relatively empty desert region.

That population density is reflected in those glowing lights — which give out toward the border with Sudan. Read More

Organic Brown Gunk (Technical Term) Rains Out of Pluto’s Surprising Atmosphere, Coloring the Planet’s Surface

By Tom Yulsman | July 25, 2015 4:40 pm
organic brown gunk

Speeding away from Pluto just seven hours after its July 14 closest approach, the New Horizons spacecraft captured this spectacular image of Pluto’s atmosphere, backlit by the sun. The atmospheric glow comes from layers of haze several times higher than scientists predicted.(Source: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

I’m just catching up on some of the recent spectacular imagery of Pluto sent back by the New Horizons spacecraft during its flyby, and this one really caught my eye.

This beautiful image of sunlight streaming through the atmosphere was captured by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager instrument, known as LORRI. The spacecraft was racing away from Pluto at the time, just seven hours after its closest approach on July 14, 2015.

But the image isn’t just beautiful. It actually astounded New Horizons’ scientists, who were not expecting Pluto’s atmosphere to be so thick. They also were surprised to find distinct layering. Read More

As Northern Lights Shimmer, a Glacier National Park Fire Lights up the Nighttime Sky — and Is Visible From Space

By Tom Yulsman | July 24, 2015 8:26 pm
The birth of the Reynolds Creek Fire in Glacier National Park on the afternoon of July, 21 is seen in this animation of images from the GOES-15 weather satellite. (Source: CIMSS Satellite Blog/SSEC-University of Wisconsin/NOAA)

The birth of the Reynolds Creek Fire in Glacier National Park on the afternoon of July, 21 is seen in this animation of images from the GOES-15 weather satellite. To the north of the smoke plume from the Reynolds Creek Fire you can also see another plume from a fire in neighboring Canada. (Source: CIMSS Satellite Blog/SSEC-University of Wisconsin/NOAA)

Although the Reynolds Creek Fire burning in Glacier National Park may not be particularly large (at least not yet), its smoke plume and even its glow have been easily visible from space.

And back on the ground, photographers have already captured some spectacular images of the blaze.

The wildfire began at about 3:45p.m. on Tuesday, July, 21, about six miles east of Logan Pass in Montana’s Glacier National Park. Lightning is the likely culprit, but a definitive determination hasn’t been made yet. It has been burning along the shores of Saint Mary’s Lake, west of the town of St. Mary.

You can watch the wildfire’s birth and initial growth in the animation of GOES-15 weather satellite images above (courtesy of the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies at the University of Wisconsin). Look for the development of a gray plume of smoke just a little above and to the right of center. (You can also see a smaller plume from another fire to the northwest, across the border in British Columbia, Canada.) Read More

Astronomers Discover an Earth-Size World Orbiting a Sun-Like Star in the ‘Habitable Zone.’ But Is It Earth 2.0?

By Tom Yulsman | July 23, 2015 6:52 pm
Earth 2.0

An artist’s concept of how planet Kepler-452b might look. It’s the first near-Earth-size world to be found in the habitable zone of a star that is similar to our sun. (Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle)

Until today, for all we knew as humans, Earth was the only rocky planet in the universe orbiting a reasonably friendly star within a zone that was neither too close nor too far for life to thrive.

Now we know there’s a good chance that the home planet is not unique.

Note the caveat. Please keep reading to find out why it’s necessary….

Astronomers with NASA’s Kepler Mission announced today that they’ve found the first near-Earth-size planet in the “habitable zone” orbiting a Sun-like star. They’ve dubbed it Kepler-452b.

It’s 6 billion years old, 1.5 billion more than Earth. It’s also about 60 percent larger in diameter, and its mass is may be five times that of Earth, give or take.

So, about that caveat: Astronomers can’t yet say what Kepler-452b is made of. For it truly to be just like Earth, it would have to be made of rock. And that’s why we still do not know for sure, despite today’s announcement, whether there really are other Earth-like planets circling stars like our Sun within a region where it’s not too hot or too cold for liquid water to exist on the surface. Liquid water is thought to be a requirement for life.

But Jon Jenkins of NASA’s Ames Research Center, home of the Kepler project, told the New York Times that there’s a 50 percent to 62 percent chance of Kepler-452b being rocky.

Or as NASA puts it, “previous research suggests that planets the size of Kepler-452b have a good chance of being rocky.”

Read More

A Spectacular View of Earth Unlike Any Seen Since 1972

By Tom Yulsman | July 20, 2015 9:25 pm
EPIC

The DISCOVR satellite’s first publicly released photograph of the entire sunlit side of Earth, captured on July 6, 2015. (Source: NASA Earth Observatory)

You may think you’ve seen many images of Earth just like this one since the Apollo astronauts snapped the very first one more than four decades ago.

But actually, you haven’t.

Maybe you’re thinking, ‘What about those recent Blue Marble images from NASA?’ Sorry, but nope. Those were mostly mosaics of multiple images stitched together.

No single image of the full sunlit face of Earth has been has been shot since the Apollo 17 astronauts captured the iconic Blue Marble photograph in 1972, according to NASA.

The spectacular photograph at the top of this post was made on July 6 by the EPIC camera (Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera) on the DISCVR satellite (Deep Space Climate Observatory). It is EPIC’s first image of Earth’s sunlit face, taken from 1 million miles away after a five-month journey across 1 million miles of space to the L1 Lagrange Point.

That point is four times farther from us than the orbit of the Moon.

According to the awesome folks at NASA’s Earth Observatory, who posted this image today: Read More

Earth Gripped by Record Warmth During First Half of 2015

By Tom Yulsman | July 20, 2015 7:32 pm
record warmth

Record warmth was seen in many places around the globe during the first half of 2015. Meanwhile, only one small area in the North Atlantic experienced record cold.

The first six months of 2015 comprised the warmest first half of any year on record, surpassing the previous global record for January through June set in 2010.

This past June also was the warmest in the 136-year record, according to the latest monthly update from the National Centers for Environmental Information. (Both NASA and the Japan Meteorological Agency have also ranked June as warmest on record.)

SEE ALSO: Japan Meteorological Agency: For the Globe as a Whole, June 2015 Was the Warmest on Record

As the map above shows, most of the world’s land areas were much warmer than average, meaning they fell within the top 10 percent their historical temperature range for January through June. Vast swaths of the world’s oceans were also much warmer than average at the surface, with record warmth dominating the northeastern and equatorial Pacific, a big portion of the North Atlantic, and the Barents Sea north of Norway.

In particular, check out that swath of record warmth extending westward across the tropical Pacific from Central America. This is just what you’d expect during an El Niño year. And as the NCEI report points out:

. . . 2010 was the last year with El Niño conditions; however El Niño had ended by this point in 2010, while it appears to be continuing to mature at the same point in 2015.

If El Niño does continue to mature, as is expected, we can expect temperatures in the equatorial Pacific to stay high — and maybe even warm further. That could well mean 2015 will end up as the warmest year on record. Read More

A New Record Linked to Climate Change Was Just Set in Greenland. It May Seem Esoteric, But It’s Really Important.

By Tom Yulsman | July 18, 2015 9:04 pm

 

esoteric

The animation above shows changes in the amount of sunlight reflected by snow on the Greenland Ice Sheet between May 21 and July 14, 2015. Warm colors show areas where reflectivity, or “albedo,” was low. A record low occurred in early July. (Images: Polar Portal. Animation: Tom Yulsman)

Back in early July, unusual warmth helped trigger a sudden and dramatic spike in melting at the surface of Greenland’s ice sheet. Exactly what was happening, and whether the trend would continue, was unclear.

SEE ALSO: As Parts of Three Continents Bake, Greenland Sees Sudden Spike in Surface Melting

Two weeks later, we now know that while the extent of surface melting is still significantly above average, it has not come close to breaking the record (at least not yet).

At the same time, another significant milestone has been reached: The amount of sunlight reflected by snow on the ice sheet’s surface plummeted during the first week of July to the lowest levels seen in the 16 years that it has been measured by satellite. (Check out the black line in this graph.)

Reflectivity of snow is not as esoteric as it may seem. It’s actually an important climate variable — one that played a critical role in Greenland’s record-setting surface melt in July of 2012. At that time, just a little less than 100 percent of the surface experienced melting.

It was an astonishing event, and warm temperatures were partly to blame. But so was another factor: darkening of the snow by soot from wildfires burning many hundreds of miles away. And as you’ll see in a minute, soot may have been a factor this summer too. Read More

First Incredible Close-Up Image of Pluto Reveals Gigantic Ice Mountains!

By Tom Yulsman | July 15, 2015 3:02 pm
mountains

A range of youthful mountains rises as high as 11,000 feet above the surface of Pluto, as seen by the New Horizons spacecraft. (Source: NASA-JHUAPL-SwRI)

Here they come now — the first incredible detailed images of the surface of Pluto. The image above was just published by NASA, and it shows an absolutely astounding landscape (to my eyes, anyway).

In a discovery that NASA is calling a “giant surprise,” New Horizons has found a range of youthful ice mountains rising as high as 11,000 feet above Pluto’s surface.

The mountains likely formed no more than 100 million years ago, which is extremely young compared to the 4.56-billion-year age of the solar system.

Alan Stern, principal investigator on the New Horizons mission, compares these mountains — likely to be made of a bedrock of water ice — to the Rockies. As someone who lives at the base of those mountains, all I can say is: WOW!

Looking at the image above, you’ll also note that it does not look anything like the moon, whose surface is pockmarked by impact craters. On Pluto “we have not yet found a single impact crater, which means it is a very young surface,” said Jeff Moore of the New Horizons’ Geology, Geophysics and Imaging Team, at a NASA press briefing today.

That’s surprising too, because Pluto has presumably been bombarded for billions of years by objects in the icy Kuiper Belt. So where did the craters go?

They have likely been erased by geologic activity. The cause and nature of that activity is still not known. One thing is for sure: Gravitational tidal energy of the kind responsible for geologic activity on moons near giant planets like Jupiter is not to blame. That’s because there is no giant planet near enough to Pluto to cause that.

This will send “a lot of geophysicists back to the drawing board,” Stern said.

Geysers and volcanoes spewing nitrogen from the planet’s interior are likely to be part of the geologic activity that is continually remaking the face of Pluto, according to Stern.

But we’ll have to wait for the analysis of more data to get answers to these intriguing questions.

I wanted to get this image posted as soon as I could, so I’ll leave it there — for now. I’ll come back once NASA makes more images and information available.

WATCH: Animation Captures Typhoon Nangka Swirling in the Pacific in Beautiful Detail

By Tom Yulsman | July 15, 2015 1:37 pm
Typhoon Nangka

Typhoon Nangka in the western Pacific Ocean, as seen by the Himawari-8 satellite. You can find a link to a dramatic animation of images of the storm in the story below. (Source: Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies)

The image above is a screenshot from a stunningly beautiful animation showing Typhoon Nangka swirling in the Pacific. More about that animation in a minute. But first…

Typhoon Nangka

Forecast track for Typhoon Nangka. (Source: JTWC)

The storm is headed for landfall near city of Kochi on Japan’s southeast coast some time after nightfall on Thursday, local time. The Joint Typhoon Warning Center forecasts maximum sustained winds at landfall of about 80 miles per hour and gusts up to about 100. (Click on the thumbnail at right for a map of the forecast track.)

Typhoon Nangka is likely to bring more than a foot of rainfall to the mountainous region where the storm will barge ashore. (For more detail on the current forecast, see Angela Fritz’s story at the Washington Post’s Capitol Weather Gang blog.)

SEE ALSO: New Video Shows Multiple Cyclones Swirling in the Pacific

The storm is approaching Japan at an unusual angle that heightens the risks. Typically, tropical cyclones curve to the northeast as they near Japan, causing them to track more or less parallel to the coast. But Typhoon Nangka will strike perpendicular to the coast. This may boost the storm surges. For more about that, as well as the very active cyclone season now underway, see Bob Henson’s post over at Underground.com.

Now, about that animation. Read More

Japan Meteorological Agency: For the Globe as a Whole, June 2015 Was the Warmest on Record

By Tom Yulsman | July 14, 2015 7:33 pm

June 2015

This past June was the warmest globally in a record stretching back to 1891.

That’s the verdict from the Japan Meteorological Agency, which issued its latest monthly report on global temperatures today. You can see how June 2015 stacked up compared to other Junes in the graph above.

Two U.S. agencies — NOAA and NASA — will each issue their own independent reports soon. The details may vary a bit, but it’s unlikely that the ranking will.

Given the strengthening of El Niño in recent months, this should come as no surprise. El Niño has caused the surface waters of a large swath of the Pacific Ocean to warm considerably, and this has been affecting the atmosphere. With El Niño expected to continue through the end of the year, it is looking increasingly likely that 2015 will finish as the warmest year on record. But the climate is complex and fickle, so we’ll have to wait and see.

NASA’s report for June 2015 should be next. Look for an update on that in the coming days.

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ImaGeo

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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