Record Algae Bloom Laced With Toxins is Flourishing in “The Blob” — and Spreading in the North Pacific

By Tom Yulsman | August 6, 2015 6:34 pm

An animation of satellite images showing algae blooming in the waters around Vancouver Island on July 18, 2015. See below for a detailed explanation. (Images: NASA Worldview. Animation: Tom Yulsman)

It has been called “The Blob,” a gigantic patch of abnormally warm water sitting in the Northeast Pacific Ocean for months. And now, The Blob may have helped midwife a record-breaking bloom of algae stretching from Southern California all the way north to Alaska.

More about that warm water in a minute. But first, that giant algae bloom: It consists of tiny marine plants known as phytoplankton, and it is “laced with some toxic species that have had far-reaching consequences for sea life and regional and local economies,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Toxins from the algae are suspected to have contributed to the deaths of at least nine Fin whales near Kodiak Island, Alaska, in June, although a definitive cause has not yet been determined, NOAA says.  There have also been reports of dead and dying whales, gulls, and forage fish in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, possibly connected to the algae.

And over the past few months, according to NOAA: Read More

On the 70th Anniversary of Hiroshima Bombing, Photos Document the Devastation. Plus: Personal Reflections.

By Tom Yulsman | August 6, 2015 2:07 pm
A mushroom cloud towers high above Hiroshima, Japan following detonation of the atom bomb, as seen from the Enola Gay flying over Matsuyama, Shikoku. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

A mushroom cloud towers high above Hiroshima, Japan following detonation of the atom bomb, as seen from the Enola Gay flying over Matsuyama, Shikoku. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Seventy years ago today, the crew of the Enola Gay B29 bomber, acting on behalf of the citizens of the United States and the Allies of World War II, dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.

It was the first time such a weapon had been used against a wartime target. The goal: end the most devastating conflict humankind had ever endured.

At 8:15 a.m., the unimaginably violent explosion from the A-bomb killed 80,000 people instantly; another 60,000 died in ensuing months. Even so, Japan did not surrender. It wasn’t until a second atomic bomb (of a different design) was detonated over Nagasaki three days later that the Japanese finally capitulated.

I thought I would commemorate the anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing with images offering different perspectives on the devastation, as well as a few personal reflections.

A Japanese casualty of the Hiroshima bombing. Her skin was burned in a pattern corresponding to the dark portions of her kimono. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

A Japanese casualty of the Hiroshima bombing. Her skin was burned in a pattern corresponding to the dark portions of her kimono. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Read More

As El Niño Gets Even Stronger, He’s Not Really Looking Like a Child Any Longer — More Like the Monster of 1997/1998

By Tom Yulsman | August 5, 2015 7:02 pm

A comparison of sea surface heights and, by extension, temperatures. The left-side measurements come from the TOPEX/Poseidon mission in 1997, while the right side is from Jason 2 in 2015. Comparing the two years, this year seems slightly more intense — for now. (Source: NASA/JPL)

Pulses of unusually warm water sloshing from the western Pacific Ocean toward South America along the equator have caused El Niño to get even stronger in recent weeks.

In fact, conditions in the equatorial Pacific Ocean are looking a bit more intense right now than they did at this point in the summer of 1997, when a true monster of an El Niño was brewing.

The animation above compares the evolution of sea surface conditions in 1997 (left) to this year (right), as measured by satellites. Yellow through white in the animations show areas where sea level, and by extension ocean temperatures, were higher than normal. (Areas of warm water stand higher because of thermal expansion.)

“We have not seen a signal like this in the tropical Pacific since 1997,” says Bill Patzert, a climatologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, quoted in a post today at NASA’s Earth Observatory.  “It’s no sure bet that we will have a strong El Niño, but the signal is getting stronger. What happens in August through October should make or break this event.”

Barring something really weird (always possible!), it is looking increasingly likely to be one of the stronger El Niño’s on record. That should load the weather dice in a way that would bring at least some of water-starved California a healthy dose of wintertime precipitation. Unfortunately, it could also mean turbulent weather that can include landslide-inducing torrents of rain.

You can watch El Niño strengthening in pulses in this animation, based on satellite data from the Jason-2 mission: Read More

Watch as Super Typhoon Soudelor — Earth’s Most Powerful Cyclone of the Year So Far — Churns Toward Taiwan

By Tom Yulsman | August 4, 2015 5:29 pm

An animation of images captured by the Himawari-8 satellite shows Super Typhoon Soudelor (circled in the first frame) spinning in the Pacific Ocean toward Taiwan and mainland China on Aug. 4, 2015. See the story below for an explanation of the advancing line of darkness. (Images: RAMMB/NOAA. Animation: Tom Yulsman)

Here we go again.

Yet another Category 5 cyclone has roared to life — the sixth or seventh of the year (depending on how you count them — keep reading…), and the very strongest of 2015 so far.

It’s Super Typhoon Soudelor, and as I’m writing this, it is howling over the open Pacific with maximum sustained winds of 150 miles per hour, and gusts up to an astonishing 184 mph, according to the Joint Typhoon Warning Center.

The forecast shows Soudelor churning toward a possible landfall in northern Taiwan as a Category 3 or 4 storm on Friday or Saturday local time. That would pose a risk to Taipei, Taiwan’s largest city. Also, the rugged terrain of the island’s interior could wring copious amounts of water from the storm and cause potentially ruinous flooding.

After tracking across the island, Soudelor is forecast to cross the Taiwan Strait and make landfall in China near Fuzhou.

The unusual animation above shows the storm spinning in the Pacific. I created it using satellite images covering Earth’s full disk.

I’ve circled Soudelor in the opening frame, which was captured by the Himawari-8 satellite at about 6 a.m. UTC today. That would be 3 p.m. local time. The animation goes in 10-minute time steps.

You might be wondering, what’s up with that advancing darkness across Earth’s disk?  Read More

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

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



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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