Extraordinary satellite imagery captures the ferocity of wildfires that recently roared through the High Plains

By Tom Yulsman | April 25, 2018 11:54 am

The Rhea Fire in Oklahoma, seen in this image, grew to megafire size. And it wasn’t the only blaze to scorch the High Plains in April.

The High Plains Rhea Fire in Oklahoma

The Sentinel-2 satellite captured this image of a wildfire burning near Putnam, Oklahoma on April 13, 2918. (Source: Sentinel-2 satellite data from ESA processed by Pierre Markuse)

That’s right — this image of the roaring Rhea Fire in Oklahoma was captured not from an aircraft but by a satellite about 500 miles above Earth’s surface.

At the time, on April 13th, the blaze was just getting going. Pushed by strong winds and exacerbated by high temperatures and bone-dry humidity of just 3 percent at one point, the blaze turned into Oklahoma’s third megafire in three years.

That term, “megafire,” is not my attempt at being sensationalistic. The National Interagency Fire Center has officially adopted it to describe a fire that has burned at least 100,000 acres. Before 100 percent containment was achieved today, the Rhea Fire had reached 286,196 acres in size — equivalent to more than three quarters the size of the city of Los Angeles.

The recurrence of megafires in Oklahoma can be attributed to a number factors, including alternating extreme wet and dry periods — a pattern seen globally and associated with human-caused climate change, according to meteorologist Bob Henson of Weather Underground. Unusual moisture, such as that seen in Oklahoma during the summers of 2016 and 2017, contributes to growth of lush vegetation. Then, when dramatic drying arrives, all that unusually luxuriant vegetation is primed to explode in fire once ignition happens, and low humidity and wind fan the flames.

As Henson puts it: Read More

A stirring photo shot by an astronaut on the space station shows the West with a beautiful mantle of snowy white

By Tom Yulsman | April 24, 2018 3:31 pm

But looks are deceiving: the West has seen too little of the white stuff

The western United States with a mantle of snowy white

An astronaut aboard the International Space Station captured this photo of the western United States on March 3, 2018. The white mantling of snow is thinner than it should be at this time of year. (Source: NASA Earth Observatory)

Views of Earth like this once seemed almost profound — at least I always thought so. That’s because we weren’t accustomed to seeing our home from a planetary perspective.

Now, of course, views of Earth from space are commonplace. So maybe some of us have become a bit jaded. And that’s one reason why I’m sharing this photograph taken by an astronaut aboard the International Space Station last month.

Sure, we’ve seen images like this before. But just take a minute to click on it and then explore it in detail. You just might regain some of the wonder that views of Earth from space once engendered.

You might also feel relieved, as I was when I first saw this photo, to see what seems like a nice white mantling of snow, which of course is crucial to the region’s water supplies. But that snowpack should be a lot thicker and more extensive than it is. Read More

A shark-shaped, climate-shifting blob of warm water — as wide as the Pacific Ocean — is rising from the depths

By Tom Yulsman | April 19, 2018 12:40 am

The ‘shark’ will soon gobble up La Niña’s cool surface waters. What might this mean for the climate later this year?

A blob of water shaped like a shark is rising in the Pacific

A cross section of the equatorial Pacific Ocean showing how water temperature departed from average during the five-day period centered on 3 April 2018. The vertical axis shows depth below the surface. The horizontal axis is longitude, from the western to eastern tropical Pacific. (Source: ENSO Blog/Climate.gov from CPC data)

It’s not every day that you see an animated graphic like the one above hosted on the website of an ordinarily staid U.S. government agency.

And yes, that is indeed an illustration comparing a complex Earth system phenomenon to, well, a shark.

The comparison comes from the fabulous folks at the ENSO Blog, published under the aegis of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (but technically not an official communication from NOAA). The ENSO bloggers focus with unusual clarity — and good humor — on El Niño, La Niña, and their impacts.

So, back to the shark. It’s actually a gargantuan blob of warm water as wide as the Pacific. And it is rising relentlessly from the depths along the Equator. Read More

Earth’s climate went kind of schizo in March

By Tom Yulsman | April 18, 2018 2:34 pm
A map of temperature anomalies shows a schizo pattern for March.

Global map of March 2018 temperature anomalies, relative to the 1951-1980 March average. (Source: NASA)

Earth has been taking a very slight breather this year from the seemingly unrelenting record-setting global temperatures observed in the previous two years. And this past month was no exception.

By NASA’s accounting, March 2018 was the sixth warmest such month in records dating back to 1880. In an independent analysis, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration pegged March as fifth warmest. And for the first quarter of the year (January through March), NOAA shows the period as sixth warmest.

That doesn’t mean human-caused global warming has gone away. Read More

Half A Degree Celsius Could Make A Big Difference For Arctic Sea Ice

By Tom Yulsman | April 9, 2018 2:27 pm

Two independent studies show how much we need to limit warming to preserve the ice. But we’re currently headed on a very different path.

Sea ice in the Chukchi Sea. A small difference in global warming could help determine whether sea ice would disappear or not.

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy encountered only small patches of sea ice in the Chukchi Sea when this photograph was taken on July 20, 2011. (Courtesy NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

Almost every month now we get news of dramatic losses of Arctic sea ice due to human-caused warming — and last month was no exception. The ice extent in March 2018 turned out to be the second lowest for the month in the satellite record.

The best estimates are that unless we significantly reduce our emissions of planet-warming carbon dioxide, the Arctic Ocean will begin to experience ice-free summers by mid-century, if not sooner.

But just how much would it take to give the ice a fighting chance? According to a pair of independent modeling studies published in the journal Nature Climate Change, a global warming difference of just a half degree Celsius — that’s less than a degree Fahrenheit — could make all the difference.

Both studies examined what would happen if humankind managed to restrain global warming by the end of the century to no more than 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), versus 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).

Those different levels of warming are significant because of the Paris Climate agreement. It commits the 175 signing parties to exerting their best efforts at keeping global warming this century below 2 degrees C above preindustrial levels. The agreement also states that it would be much preferable to limit warming no more than 1.5 C.

The two new studies show for the first time just how beneficial achieving the lower number would be for the Arctic, out to the year 2100. Read More

This compelling visualization shows the inexorable buildup of climate-altering CO2 in the atmosphere, week by week

By Tom Yulsman | April 5, 2018 8:51 pm

CO₂ averaged about 410 parts per million in the atmosphere during the last week of March. Ten years ago, it averaged ~387 ppm in that week.

CO2 Animation

Increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, as measured atop Mauna Loa in Hawaii. (Animation courtesy Robbie Andrew, CICERO Center for International Climate Research)

I spotted the animation above on Twitter the other day. It illustrates the growth of planet-warming carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in a novel and particularly compelling way, so I thought I’d share it here.

The animation shows how the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has changed week-by-week and year-by-year starting at the beginning of January 2010 and concluding in the last week of March this year.

I find the yearly buildup of layer upon layer to be a particularly compelling way of visualizing how we humans are fundamentally altering the chemistry of the atmosphere — and thereby causing profound, continuing impacts on our planet’s climate control system.

Lest any of you doubt CO2’s role in that system, I direct you to a story I wrote about that subject not long ago: Read More

This may be as close as you can come to going on a spacewalk 240-ish miles above Earth

By Tom Yulsman | March 31, 2018 6:56 pm

The vertiginous video also offers an opportunity to consider theories posited by two of the giants of science

While on a spacewalk outside the International Space Station over Mexico, NASA astronaut Randy Bresnik captured this spectacular, vertiginous video with a GoPro camera.

I spotted it in a NASA Tweet yesterday, and when I watched it, I really did have the sensation that this would be as close as I’ll ever come to experiencing free-falling around the Earth. (Short of a virtual reality video, that is.)

Bresnik shot the video awhile ago — on Oct. 20, 2017, while on one of three spacewalks during his mission totaling more than 20 hours. So this isn’t exactly breaking news. But I figured that there would be others who had’t seen it until now. I also got to thinking that it offered an opportunity to talk about the phenomenon of free-falling around the Earth — in other words, orbiting.

Let’s start with a simple ‘what if’ scenario: Imagine Earth’s gravity suddenly disappearing while Bresnik was on his spacewalk. I think you can easily picture what would have happened: Both he and the space station itself would have shot off in a straight line out into space.

But of course, our planet’s gravitational field continued to pull on both, causing them to fall — right toward the Earth. But as they did, Earth’s curved surface fell away at the same rate. So instead of falling to the ground, they continued falling around the Earth.

And this is, of course, is what it means to be in orbit. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Earth, Physics, select, Top Posts

Dramatic satellite images reveal thick palls of dust choking Beijing and blowing across 2,000 miles of Asia

By Tom Yulsman | March 30, 2018 1:47 pm
dust

An animation of satellite images reveals the stunning pall of dust and pollution that recently choked Beijing. (Images: NASA Worldview. Animation: Tom Yulsman)

About a week ago, dust sweeping north from the Sahara blanketed parts of Eastern Europe, turning snow-covered ski slopes a strange shade of orange.

Now, another far-ranging pall of dust — exacerbated by nasty air pollution — is in the news, this time in northeast Asia.

Starting on March 26th, China’s northern regions were hit with their fourth round of sandstorms this year, according to the Xinhua news agency. By the 28th, Beijing was choking on heavy dust mixed with air pollutants that pushed air quality readings to hazardous levels.

I created the animation of satellite images above to show just how bad things got. The ‘before’ image was acquired by NASA’s Terra satellite on March 24th. The ‘after’ image shows the view captured by Aqua, Terra’s twin, on March 28th.

Make sure to click on the animation and then click again to enlarge it. In the March 24th image, you can clearly make out a grid of roads and other signs of development in Beijing. In the March 28th image, Beijing and surroundings are totally obscured. Read More

This cyclone almost became the East Coast’s fifth nor’easter. What accounts for its beautiful comma shape?

By Tom Yulsman | March 29, 2018 7:41 pm
The classic comma shape of an extratropical cyclone

The GOES-16 weather satellite captured the image data used in this animation showing the evolution of a classic comma-shaped storm off the East Coast. The animation starts on March 25 as the storm is blowing out into the Atlantic and ends on March 27. Note: after clicking on the image you will be taken to another web page and may have to hit the play button to start the animation. (Source: RAMMB/CIRA/SLIDER)

I first spotted a still image of this striking comma-shaped storm on Twitter. Captured by the GOES-16 weather satellite, the storm had already blown across part of the United States, dropping rain and snow along the way, and out into the Atlantic.

Had it hugged the coast instead of pushing farther eastward, it would have been the fifth nor’easter in a row for the battered East Coast. Luckily, it did not. So now we can simply marvel at this meteorological wonder.

Here’s that still image of the storm in its full comma-shaped glory:

After becoming intrigued by this still image of the storm, I decided to create the animation using an awesome interactive tool called “SLIDER”: Satellite Loop Interactive Data Explorer in Real Time. Read More

The Arctic sea ice max for this winter was second lowest on record, thanks in part to an “extreme heat wave”

By Tom Yulsman | March 23, 2018 1:40 pm

The maximum extent of sea ice after a winter of growth was well below average — an area of lost ice about two-thirds the size of Alaska

Arctic sea ice extent on March 17, compared to the long-term median. (Source: NSIDC)

Arctic sea ice extent on March 17, compared to the long-term median. (Source: NSIDC)

After expanding all winter, the Arctic’s floating lid of sea ice has now reached its maximum extent — and it has continued an unsettling trend.

The National Snow and Ice Data Center announced today that this year’s maximum extent is the second lowest in the 39-year record of satellite observations.

“The four lowest maximum extents in the satellite record have all occurred in the past four years,” according to the NSIDC. Last year set the record for the very lowest.

Arctic sea ice appears to have maxed out this year on March 17, with an extent that was 448,000 square miles below the long-term median. That area of lost ice would cover about two thirds of Alaska.

Autumn freeze up occurred late this year, particularly in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska. This occurred in part because of large amounts of ocean heat being transported into the area through the Bering Strait.

In addition to the delayed freeze-up, air temperatures were persistently high in the Arctic, helping to retard ice growth. And February brought “an extreme heat wave over the Arctic Ocean,” according to the NSIDC.

In the dead of winter, warm air from the south surged across the Arctic toward the North Pole, bringing temperatures that soared to, and possibly above, the freezing mark. “This is the fourth winter in a row that such heat waves have been recorded over the Arctic Ocean,” the NSIDC says.

recent study shows that these winter heat waves are becoming more frequent and intense.

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

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.
ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Collapse bottom bar
+