Pure Dumb Luck Saved Us from a Calamity in 2012 Sparked by One of the Strongest Solar Storms in Recorded History

By Tom Yulsman | August 2, 2014 1:27 am

On July 23, 2012, billions of tons of plasma exploded from the Sun and raced out into space in what was one of the most powerful solar storms ever recorded.

And it’s only by chance that Earth wasn’t in the way of this gargantuan coronal mass ejection, or CME.

“If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces,” Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado told NASA.

And that may be putting it mildly. A CME of the size that almost hit us in July of 2o12 would probably knock out satellites we depend on for modern telecommunications and also cause global blackouts lasting for months.

Everything that plugs into a wall socket would be disabled. And as NASA puts it, “Most people wouldn’t even be able to flush their toilet because urban water supplies largely rely on electric pumps.”

For a good overview of the solar storm that almost caused this kind of mayhem in 2012, and how it compared to the notorious Carrington event of September, 1859 (which set telegraph lines on fire and caused auroral displays as far south as Cuba), check out the video above.

“I have come away from our recent studies more convinced than ever that Earth and its inhabitants were incredibly fortunate that the 2012 eruption happened when it did,” Baker says. “If the eruption had occurred only one week earlier, Earth would have been in the line of fire.” Read More

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

Even as Spectacular Storms Bring Relief to U.S. Southwest, Drought Conditions Persist — and Worsen in California

By Tom Yulsman | July 31, 2014 5:59 pm

A massive thunderhead blossoming over the Manzano Mountains, about 30 miles southeast of Albuquerque, New Mexico, as photographed on the evening of Wednesday, July 30th, 2014 by photojournalist Jerry Redfern.  (Photograph: © Jerry Redfern)

After a profound lack of precipitation, parts of the Southwestern United States have finally begun to get some desperately needed relief.

New Mexico, where the spectacular photo above was taken yesterday, has been suffering through four years of drought. And while the drought hasn’t ended (not by a long shot), the storms have finally come — in very dramatic fashion.

Overall, rainfall totals through July 29th have been twice normal in several New Mexico locations, according to the latest report from the U.S. Drought Monitor, out today. Albuquerque has accumulated 3.34 inches — a whopping 242 percent of normal. That has made it the wettest July on record for the city.

Rainfall since late June has almost made up the precipitation deficit for the entire year, at least as measured at Albuquerque’s airport.

A friend and colleague, Jerry Redfern, who lives just south of the city, took the photograph above yesterday evening. The massive thunderhead blossomed just east of the Manzano Mountains. Jerry reports that it produced half-dollar sized hail and winds above 60 miles per hour.

Thunderstorm activity in the region also produced spectacular displays of lightning: Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, select, Top Posts, Weather

Possibly Toxic Cyanobacteria Bloom Mucks up Baltic Sea

By Tom Yulsman | July 29, 2014 2:36 pm

A thick bloom of cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, along the shore at Torö, Sweden, near Stockholm. (Photograph: Courtesy Susanna Baltscheffsky)

Summer sun, warm temperatures, and pollution have all combined to brew up an explosion of potentially toxic cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, in the Baltic Sea.

You can see the nasty muck up close in the photo above, taken on Sunday by a friend in Torö, Sweden, near Stockholm. On the same day that she posted the picture to Facebook, I spotted a view of the Baltic bloom on NOAA’s Environmental Visualization Laboratory web site:


A massive bloom of phytoplankton containing possibly toxic cyanobacteria swirls in the Baltic Sea on July 24, 2014. The image, captured by the VIIRS instrument on the Suomi NPP satellite, shows features not ordinarily apparent in normal visible imagery. (Source: NOAA/NASA)

In this image, Sweden is to the left. It was captured on July 24 by the VIIRS instrument on the Suomi NPP satellite. (For a Google map of the region, click here.)

Blooms of cyanobacteria can contain different species — including toxic forms that can cause a variety of exceedingly unpleasant effects in humans. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says “cyanotoxins” produced by these bacteria can include: Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Pollution, select, Top Posts, Water

Earth Art: Wildfire Abstraction

By Tom Yulsman | July 20, 2014 1:01 pm

Wildfire smoke filling valleys in British Columbia creates an abstract pattern in this highly processed image based on data acquired by NASA’s Aqua satellite on July 16, 2014. (Source image: NASA. Processed image: © Tom Yulsman)

By mid-afternoon on Saturday, July 19th, raging wildfires in Oregon and Washington had consumed 947,583 acres, according to the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center. That’s an area more than three times the size of New York City, and up from a bit more than 300,000 acres on Thursday.

About 100 homes have been destroyed in Washington, and many more have been threatened. So it is without question a terrible situation. But in one satellite image of an area to the north in British Columbia, I found a kind of savage beauty — an almost abstract, tendril-like pattern created by smoke filling a network of river valleys. Read More

Super Typhoon Rammasun Slams Ashore in Southern China

By Tom Yulsman | July 18, 2014 5:27 pm

A screenshot from an animation of infrared images from the COMS-1 satellite shows Super Typhoon Rammasun slamming ashore in southern China today. Click the image to watch the animation. (Source: Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies)

Super Typhoon began pummeling the mainland of southern China today, slamming ashore on the Luichow Peninsula with winds at landfall that may have been as high as 135 miles per hour.

Click on the image above to watch an animation of infrared satellite images showing the storm barreling ashore. It was the strongest storm to hit southern China in 41 years.

Here’s a spectacular closer view: Read More

As Rosetta Nears its Rendezvous With a Comet, Use this Way Cool Interactive Model to See How it Got There

By Tom Yulsman | July 18, 2014 3:30 pm

The folks at Inove, creators of Solar System Scope, got in touch with me this morning to share their recent cool creation: an online, interactive, 3-D model of the Rosetta mission to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

The European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft has lately been going through a series of thruster burns to bring it to a final rendezvous with the comet on August 6th. At 1.9 by 3.1 miles in size, 67P is a relatively tiny chunk of dust and ice — making Rosetta’s coming meet-up after a journey of a decade and many millions of miles quite an amazing feat!

To see exactly how Rosetta has gotten there, check out the model above. You can also visit Solar System Scope (link above) and run the model there.

Here’s an animation of some of the latest images of the comet, acquired by Rosetta on July 14: Read More

Numerous Wildfires Rage in Hot and Dry Pacific Northwest

By Tom Yulsman | July 18, 2014 1:16 pm

Smoke plumes from wildfires burning throughout the Pacific Northwest are circled in this image acquired by NASA’s Terra satellite on Thursday, July 17, 2014. Click to see detail in a larger, high-resolution image. (Source: NASA)

| Updated 7/19/14, 10 a.m. MDT: see new image below |

Ignited by lightning strikes on hot and tinder dry forests, more than a dozen large wildfires are raging throughout the Pacific Northwest of the United States and up into British Columbia.


Click for interactive map.

In Oregon and Washington alone, more than 310,000 acres were ablaze as of yesterday (July 17), according to the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center. That’s an area more than twice the size of the city of Chicago. For an interactive map of the wildfires, click on the thumbnail at right.

The image at the top of the post, acquired by NASA’s Aqua satellite yesterday, provides a broad geographic overview of the region. I’ve circled some of the obvious wildfire complexes in Oregon and Washington and also extending up into British Columbia, where plumes of smoke can be seen streaming from fires there. Click on the image for a larger, high-resolution version that shows quite a bit of detail.

| Update, 7/19/14: Here’s a dramatic overview image, from the U.S. Weather Service in Boise, Idaho, showing the fire situation as of two days ago:


Satellite imagery from July 17th reveals the spread of smoke from multiple wildfires burning in the Western United States. (Source: National Weather Service, Boise, Idaho.)

 Here’s closer view captured yesterday (Friday, July 18) by the Aqua satellite of fires blazing in Oregon:

Read More

California Experiences Warmest, 3rd Driest Year Since 1895

By Tom Yulsman | July 17, 2014 11:55 am

Dramatic shrinking of New Melones Reservoir in California is seen in this animation of Landsat images. The first was acquired on July 8, 2002, after a wet season that brought just slightly less precipitation than average. The second is from Thursday, July 10, 2014. (Source: USGS Earth Explorer)

I didn’t think that the release today of the weekly U.S. Drought Monitor report would bring significant news about California. As the report says, with much of the state categorized as being in extreme or exceptional drought, and May through September being normally dry anyway, “there is not much more room for further deterioration, at least during the dry season.”

But the report does contain significant news about the continuing profound drought in California: The past year — from July 2013 through June 2014 — has been the warmest and third driest since 1895. And according to the Drought Monitor:

 The only drier July-June periods were in 1923-24 and 1976-77. This is the first time California experienced 3 consecutive years in the top 20 for dryness: 2011-12 ranked 20th, 2012-13 ranked 18th, and statewide precipitation has averaged 67% of normal during this 3-year period, and was just 56% of normal in 2013-14.

The only silver lining is that “California’s reservoirs hold more water than they did in 1977, when the state experienced its 4th and 2nd driest years on record from July 1975-June 1977,” the report states.

They may be fuller now than back then, but that doesn’t mean they’re all in good shape — as the animation of a dramatically shrinking reservoir at the top of this post dramatizes. Read More

June Was 6th Warmest Globally. The Month Brought Raging Wildfires, Brutal Temperatures, and Melting in Greenland

By Tom Yulsman | July 15, 2014 1:48 am

Departures in June from long-term average temperatures are seen in this map from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. (Source: NASA/GISS)

Arctic air may be plunging south into the U.S. midsection this week, but for the globe as a whole, the picture has been quite different recently.

Check out NASA’s latest rendering of the big global picture above. It shows how temperatures departed from the 1951-1980 average in June. The warm colors covering most of the globe attest that June 2014 was quite warm — according to NASA, the sixth warmest in an instrumental record that goes back 134 years.

The map also offers hints of a number of interesting climate-related stories — from raging wildfires to brutal cold. So read on…

Read More

The Moon: A Visual Appreciation As We Approach the 45th Anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s Historic Small Step

By Tom Yulsman | July 14, 2014 3:54 pm

Supermoonrise over California. (Please click to enlarge. Photograph: © Tom Yulsman)

In this post, I’m going to attempt to tie together the recent rising of a “supermoon,” the first Moon landing, the painter Mark Rothko, and photographic technique. I hope you’ll bear with me, keep reading, and click on all the images… 

As I was flying home from San Francisco last Saturday, the hazy, twilight view out the window was suddenly pierced by a bright light emerging from the cloud tops.

It was the full Moon rising, and it seemed a bit brighter than normal. So I pulled out my Sony RX100 camera, put the lens right up against the window and started shooting.


Photo: © Tom Yulsman

The image above is an interpretation of what I saw. For the original, click on the thumbnail at right. I’ll get to how I processed the image in a minute. But first, more about that moon.

It was indeed  brighter — about 30 percent so. It was also about 15 percent bigger (although that wasn’t really noticeable from the plane). What I saw was, in fact, a rising “supermoon.”

This happens because the Moon’s orbit around us inscribes an ellipse, and one side, perigee, is about 31,000 miles closer than the other, apogee. And when the full Moon just happens to coincide with the Moon’s closest approach, we get a supermoon — more scientifically known as a perigee moon. We’ll get to experience it two more times this summer: on August 10th and September 9th.

In the meantime, there’s another reason to appreciate the moon right now: We’re approaching the 45th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s historic “one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” 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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