Antarctic Ice Shelves are Thinning Rapidly — and the Losses are Accelerating in West Antarctica

By Tom Yulsman | March 27, 2015 1:50 pm
ice shelves

Satellite radar data reveal the speed of flow of the Pine Island Glacier in West Antarctica between March 3 and 15, 2015. Pink indicates the fastest flow: about 100 meters (328 feet).

Yesterday, I posted a story about the Halley Research Station on Antarctica’s Brunt Ice Shelf. I titled it a “Winter Postcard from Antarctica,” and it included photos and comments about life at the station from Tom Welsh, the wintertime manager there.

Well, I was so busy putting that post together that I missed the big news yesterday about Antarctic ice shelves in general: They are thinning faster than previously thought.

This is a big deal because these ice shelves act like dams that impound giant glaciers behind them, slowing their movement to the sea. So as these ice shelves erode, it allows the glaciers to flow more quickly, releasing more ice into the sea and thereby raising sea level.

The new findings have been reported widely elsewhere, including this excellent overview by Andrew Freedman at Mashable. So I won’t go into them in great detail here.

But I thought I’d share a quick summary as well as some imagery that can help explain what’s going on. Read More

As Seen From Space: Russian Volcano Throws A Tantrum

By Tom Yulsman | March 26, 2015 7:29 pm
Russian volcano

An animation of true- and false-color satellite images of the eruption of Shiveluch volcano on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. The images were acquired by NASA’s Terra satellite on March 25th, 2015. (Images: NASA Worldview. Animation: Tom Yulsman)

Shiveluch is at it again. The volcano — one of the largest and most active on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula — erupted yesterday, belching a giant plume of ash high into the atmosphere.

You can see the plume in the animation above. I created it using two images captured by NASA’s Terra satellite. In the natural color image, Shiveluch’s eruption plume is brownish in color. In the false-color image, tiny water droplets make the plume appear white, which stands out starkly against the orange background. (In this false color scheme, orange is indicative of snow.)

Make sure to scroll down for a spectacular video of the eruption of the Russian volcano as seen from space. But first… Read More

Winter Postcard From Antarctica: Life on Ice at the British Halley Research Station

By Tom Yulsman | March 26, 2015 1:25 pm
Halley Research Station

The British Antarctic Survey’s Halley Research Station, as seen the week of March 8, 2015. (Photograph: Courtesy Thomas Welsh)

Back in February, I stumbled across a Tweet about a ‘not so nice day’ at the British Halley Research Station in Antarctica. It featured a photo of a person wearing ski goggles and a big puffy parka being pummeled by wind-blown snow standing in front of an intriguing structure in the background.

The link in the Tweet took me to an online diary by Tom Welsh, the wintertime station leader, with a series of fabulous photos. Here’s what he wrote in February’s post: Read More

Pic of the Day: Flying Saucers Shoot Death Rays Over Colorado?

By Tom Yulsman | March 25, 2015 4:54 pm

The ominous yet beautiful view looking east from Niwot, Colorado at sunset on March 24th, 2015. (Photo: © Tom Yulsman)

The clouds and dramatic light rays that formed at sunset yesterday just east of where I live here in Colorado sure did look like an alien invasion had begun.

But the flying saucers were a particularly cool kind of cloud formation that’s common in these parts. And those rays? As ominous as they looked in combination with the saucers, they were a spectacular example of a phenomenon known as anticrepuscular rays. More about them in a minute.

But first, what about those clouds? They are known as altocumulus standing lenticular clouds. They tend to form when relatively stable, fast-flowing air flows up and over mountains oriented perpendicular to the wind flow, creating standing waves in the atmosphere.

flying saucers

(Source: Albuquerque Center Weather Service Unit)

If there is sufficient moisture, clouds will form at the apex of each wave. Click the thumbnail image at right for a schematic illustration of how this happens. (I’ve written about this phenomenon a number of times — for example, in my second post here at Imageo, as well as here and here.)

This phenomenon can result in long parallel bands of clouds, as well as flying-saucer-shaped clouds like the ones I photographed right near my home.

For the record, I shot the image with a Fuji X100s (which has a 35mm equivalent fixed lens). I used the Silver Efex Pro 2 plugin for Adobe Lightroom to convert the image to black and white and do some additional processing. Read More

It’s Now Official: Arctic Sea Ice Sets a New Winter Low

By Tom Yulsman | March 20, 2015 9:29 am

In early March, I wrote that Arctic sea ice appeared to be heading toward a new record: the lowest maximum winter extent for Arctic sea ice in the satellite era.

Yesterday, the National Snow and Ice Data Center made that new, unsettling record official:

On February 25, 2015, Arctic sea ice extent appeared to have reached its annual maximum extent, marking the beginning of the sea ice melt season. This year’s maximum extent not only occurred early; it is also the lowest in the satellite record. However, a late season surge in ice growth is still possible.

Possible, but very unlikely.

The animation above highlights two areas where the extent of sea ice extent was particularly low: the Sea of Okhotsk in Russia’s far northwest (to the left), and the Bering Sea (to the right). The culprit: unusually warm temperatures.

Here’s the graphic I used back on March 9th to show what was going on in that region: Read More

The Other Big Drought Story You Need to Pay Attention To

By Tom Yulsman | March 18, 2015 8:59 pm

Watch the water disappear from the northern reaches of Lake Powell in this animation consisting of natural-color images taken by the Landsat series of satellites in spring between 1999 and 2014. The first image, from March of 1999, is labeled. It pauses for an extra second, as does the final image in the series, from May 2014. (Source: NASA Earth Observatory)

With California’s scary, record-breaking drought capturing so much attention lately, an important bit of news about the dearth of water across a much larger region has gotten short shrift.

I’m talking about the Colorado River Basin, which supplies water to 40 million people in seven states — including Californians.

Over the long run, the Colorado has been providing less than it once did, even as demand for its water has risen. And this year, as in most years during the past 15, the water situation in the river basin is not looking good.

droughtClick on the map at right to see how rain and snow between October and the end of February shaped up. See all that red, orange and yellow. Not good…

Barring a miracle in March and April, meltwater cascading out of the snow-capped high country of the Colorado River Basin this spring will probably fall below average. According to the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center, flows into Lake Powell, one of two giant reservoirs on the Colorado, are likely to be just 71 percent of the long term average.

The predicted lackluster flow of water into Lake Powell will, in turn, have a ripple effect downstream to Lake Mead, the second giant reservoir on the Colorado River.

In fact, barring intervention, by the end of the water year on September 30th, the reservoir’s surface elevation is projected to fall below 1,075 feet above sea level, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. And that would smash last year’s record low set in July.

To compensate, the USBR will probably release additional water from Lake Powell. But this is a zero sum game, because water releases from Powell will only reduce how much water it will hold in storage.

You can take resources out of one savings bank and deposit it in another. But that has no effect on how much money you have. At the end of the day, you’re just as poor.

And over time, our hydrological savings have been dwindling.

Lake Powell is now at just 45 percent of capacity. And Mead is at 41 percent. I suppose that’s better than the situation in California, which has just a year’s worth of water left in storage. But as a Westerner, I still find this pretty alarming.


Las Vegas, to the left, and Lake Mead, to the right, as seen on July 21, 2014 by the Landsat 8 satellite. Lake Mead reached a record low water level that month. (Source: NASA Earth Observatory)

The problem, in a nutshell, is this: The Colorado’s flow once dazzled, like Old Faithful in Yellowstone. But today the geyser has become enfeebled.

Here are the sobering details from a report by the Bureau of Reclamation:

. . . unregulated inflow to Lake Powell, which is a good measure of hydrologic conditions in the Colorado River Basin, was above average in only 3 out of the past 15 years.  The period 2000-2014 is the lowest 15-year period since the closure of Glen Canyon Dam in 1963, with an average unregulated inflow of 8.39 maf, or 78% of the 30-year average (1981-2010).

In the parlance of water managers, “maf” means “million acre-feet.” One acre-foot is about 325,000 gallons, or enough to supply the needs of roughly two households for a year.

Whatever the parlance, it’s clear that we’ve got a problem. And it is likely to get worse. Much worse.


A representation of the summer moisture in the U.S. Central Plains and Southwest. The brown line represents the variation in dryness since the year 1000, based on data from the North American Drought Atlas; the lower the line on the graph, the drier the conditions. Colored lines to the right side of the graph represent what climate models see ahead: a trend toward dryness not seen in the previous millennium. (Source: Cook et al., Science Advances, 2005)

See those plunging trendlines? That’s the projection for soil moisture in the Central Plains and Southwest out to 2100.

It comes from a study that combined data from tree rings, which provide a glimpse at past climates, with projections from 17 different climate models to analyze the future impact of rising average temperatures. The results are sobering. During the second half of the 21st century, both the Southwest and Great Plains of the United States are likely to experience persistent drought worse than anything seen 1,000 years.

The cause: us.

As the authors of the study put it:

Our results point to a remarkably drier future that falls far outside the contemporary experience of natural and human systems in Western North America, conditions that may present a substantial challenge to adaptation.

Seen in this context, California’s plight is part of a much bigger picture.

WATCH: The Solar Eruptions That Caused Today’s Spectacular St. Patrick’s Day Auroras

By Tom Yulsman | March 17, 2015 8:24 pm
St. Patrick's Day

The auroral display at Donnelly Creek, Alaska, photographed at 1:30 a.m., March 17, 2015, by Sebastian Saarloos. (Source: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

Curtains of hyper-luminous green, white, purple and red light glittered in the skies around the world today as a result of a severe geomagnetic storm caused by two massive explosions on the Sun.

These St. Patrick’s Day auroral displays started early on Tuesday, March 17th, and they are predicted to continue overnight.

St. Patrick's Day

The two eruptions from the Sun, called coronal mass ejections, responsible for the major geomagnetic storm here on Earth on March 17, 2015, are see in this animation created using data from the SOHO spacecraft. (Source: SOHO/

The video above, from the SOHO spacecraft, shows the two coronal mass ejections from the Sun, or CMEs, responsible for the auroral fireworks.  Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Earth Science, select, Sun, Top Posts

Month of February, as Well as This Past Winter, Were Second Warmest on Record Globally

By Tom Yulsman | March 15, 2015 11:53 am

Evolution of global temperature anomalies between February and March. (Source: NASA GISS)

Even as half of the United States shivered, exceedingly warm temperatures in most other places pushed winter temperatures globally to their second highest on record, according to figures just released by NASA.

This past December through February period — meteorological winter— was topped only in 2007.  February itself was second warmest for the month, exceeded only by 1998.

I created the animation above to show how global temperature patterns evolved during winter — and to emphasize the strange but now familiar dichotomy in North America.

It starts with an anomaly map for December, which shows how temperatures departed from the long term average. Much of Europe, Siberia and the Arctic were particularly warm, as was North America, which helped 2014 finish as the warmest on record. Read More

Monster Flare Explodes From the Sun With Energy of Millions of H-Bombs

By Tom Yulsman | March 11, 2015 9:24 pm
solar flare

A significant flare exploded from the Sun on March 11, 2015, peaking at 12:22 p.m. EDT. The action was observed by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory satellite. (Source: NASA SDO/

The first monster solar flare of the year exploded from the Sun today, causing disruption to radio communications here on Earth for a time. It packed the energy of millions of hydrogen bombs exploding simultaneously.

To be fair, that kind of energy release is typical of solar flares in general. But this one was an X-class flare — the most powerful category.

If you doubt that they can be that powerful, have a look at the image above. It’s a screenshot of a video I created using data from the Solar Dynamics Observatory satellite. Check out the blindingly bright spot. That’s the flare, frozen in action. Now, check out the image of the Earth at the lower left corner, included for scale. Humbling, yes?

Also make sure to click the video to watch it. (It covers a time period of about six hours.) I’ve also included other views below. But first, some details about flares and what happened today:

Solar flares occur when pent up magnetic energy in the Sun’s atmosphere is suddenly and rapidly released, spewing out radiation across almost the entire electromagnetic spectrum, along with a spray of particles. Radiation travels at the speed of light, so if a flare is powerful enough and the Sun is facing Earth, it can reach us in about eight minutes.

Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere protect us here on the ground. But the radiation can disrupt radio communications. That’s exactly what happened today: Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, select, Sun

Watch Not One But TWO Huge Hurricane Strength Storms Swirling in the North Atlantic

By Tom Yulsman | March 9, 2015 2:35 pm

Screenshot of a video showing satellite views of the evolution of two large storms in the North Atlantic Ocean. (Source: National Weather Service)

Back on Feb. 24th, I posted a video based on satellite data showing a low pressure system in the North Atlantic evolving into a hurricane-force storm.

I guess when it rains it, uhm, pours…  In the past few days, not one but TWO big storms with hurricane-strength winds have swirled in the North Atlantic. Click the image above to see a video of the storms just released by the Ocean Prediction Center of the National Weather Service.

The data for the video come from the infrared and water vapor channels of the Meteosat Second Generation satellite, and the false color scheme used here is particularly good at showing the rapid evolution of cyclones.

The video also shows what the weather service calls “pseudo-natural color imagery” produced by the Meteosat-10 satellite.

The first storm spun up hurricane force winds on March 6th to the east of Greenland, while the second storm intensified to hurricane force just today as it passed north of Ireland.

Sure enough, the Irish Meteorological Service has issued a warning for winds up to storm force — meaning 55 to 73 miles per hour — for parts of the coast.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Extreme Weather, select, Top Posts, Weather

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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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