Aqua Mission (EOS/PM-1)
The Aqua mission is a part of the NASA's international Earth Observing System (EOS). Aqua was formerly named EOS/PM-1, signifying its afternoon equatorial crossing time. NASA renamed the EOS/PM-1 satellite to Aqua on Oct. 18, 1999. The Aqua mission is part of NASA's ESE (Earth Science Enterprise) program. 1) 2) 3)
The focus of the Aqua mission is the multi-disciplinary study of the Earth's water cycle, including the interrelated processes (atmosphere, oceans, and land surface) and their relationship to Earth system changes. The data sets of Aqua provide information on cloud formation, precipitation, and radiative properties, air-sea fluxes of energy, carbon, and moisture (AIRS, AMSU, AMSR-E, HSB, CERES, MODIS); and sea ice concentrations and extents (AMSR-E).
The Aqua spacecraft is based on TRW's modular, standardized AB1200 bus design (also referred to as T-330 platform) with common subsystems (Note: Northrop Grumman purchased TRW in Dec. 2002). The satellite dimensions are: 2.68 m x 2.47 m x 6.49 m (stowed) and 4.81 m x 16.70 m x 8.04 m (deployed). Aqua is three-axis stabilized, with a total mass of 2,934 kg at launch, S/C mass of 1,750 kg, payload mass =1,082 kg, propellant mass = 102 kg; power = 4.86 kW (EOL). Propulsion: hydrazine blow-down system; 4 pairs of thrusters. The design life is six years.
RF communications: X-band, S-band (TDRSS and Deep Space Network/Ground Network compatible). All communications are based on CCSDS protocols. Like the Terra mission, Aqua provides various means of payload data downlinks, among them Direct Broadcast (DB).
Figure 2: The Aqua spacecraft in launch preparation at VAFB (image credit: NASA)
Launch: The Aqua spacecraft was launched on May 4, 2002 with a Delta-2 7920-10L vehicle from VAFB, CA. Aqua is the second satellite in NASA's series of EOS spacecraft. - Aura, the third of the three large satellites in the EOS series, was launched in July 2004 and is lined up behind Aqua, in the same orbit.
Orbit: Sun-synchronous circular orbit, altitude = 705 km (nominal), inclination = 98.2º, local equator crossing at 13:30 (1:30 PM) on ascending node, period = 98.8 minutes, the repeat cycle is 16 days (233 orbits).
The Aqua spacecraft is part of the “A-train” (Aqua in the lead and Aura at the tail, the nominal separation between Aqua and Aura is about 15 minutes) or “afternoon constellation” (a loose formation flight which started sometime after the Aura launch July 15, 2004). The objective is to coordinate observations and to provide a coincident set of data on aerosol and cloud properties, radiative fluxes and atmospheric state essential for accurate quantification of aerosol and cloud radiative effects.
The PARASOL spacecraft of CNES (launch on Dec. 18, 2004) is part of the A-train as of February 2005. The OCO mission (launch in 2009) will be the newest member of the A-train. Once completed, the A-train will be led by OCO, followed by Aqua, then CloudSat, CALIPSO, PARASOL, and, in the rear, Aura. 4)
Note: The OCO (Orbiting Carbon Observatory) spacecraft experienced a launch failure on Feb. 24, 2009 - hence, it is not part of the A-train.
Figure 3: Illustration of Aqua in the A-train (image credit: NASA)
Figure 4: An introduction to Aqua (video credit: NASA)
Note: As of 12 March 2020, the previously single large Aqua file has been split into two files, to make the file handling manageable for all parties concerned, in particular for the user community.
• This article covers the Aqua mission and its imagery in the period 2020
Mission status and some sample imagery of 2020 + 2021
• September 1, 2021: As August 2021 came to an end, 42,647 fires had scorched 4,879,574 acres (~1,975,000 hectares) across the United States in 2021—close to the ten-year average for the first eight months of a year, according to statistics from the National Interagency Fire Center. But among the 83 fires still actively burning on August 31, some were especially fierce; two of them had crossed the crest of the Sierra Nevada for the first time in recent record-keeping. 5)
- The Caldor fire spread rapidly amid dry and gusty conditions, prompting officials to expand mandatory evacuation orders to the Tahoe Basin, including South Lake Tahoe, a lakeside city of nearly 22,000 people. According to news reports, Caldor is only the second-known fire to have crested the ridge of the Sierra Nevada, burning from one side to the other. It follows the Dixie fire, which crossed over the ridge earlier in the month.
Figure 5: The largest blazes burned in Northern California, most notably the Caldor and Dixie fires, which together have scorched nearly 1 million acres (1,500 square miles) so far. Smoke from the Caldor fire near Lake Tahoe is visible in this image, acquired on the afternoon of August 30, 2021, with the MODIS instrument on NASA’s Aqua satellite. Between ignition on August 14 and the time of the image, the fire had burned more than 170,000 acres. The fire perimeter was 14 percent contained as of August 31 (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory images by Lauren Dauphin, using MODIS data from NASA EOSDIS LANCE and GIBS/Worldview,VIIRS data from NASA EOSDIS LANCE, GIBS/Worldview, and the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership, and Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey. Story by Kathryn Hansen)
- Meanwhile, the Dixie fire continues to spread. Since igniting on July 13, the fire has burned more than 800,000 acres and has surpassed the August Complex to become the second-largest fire on record in California. The Dixie fire was nearly 50 percent contained as of August 31.
- Smoke from the Dixie fire is visible in the second image above, acquired on August 28, 2021, with the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8. The infrared signatures of actively burning areas are outlined in red. Evacuation orders have been lifted on the fire’s western side, but they were replaced on August 30 with new evacuation orders as the fire approached Lake Davis.
Figure 6: While the Caldor and Dixie fires are the largest, other wildfires are also posing hazards to people, property, and air quality across the U.S. West. On August 29, 2021, the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on the NOAA-NASA Suomi NPP satellite acquired this image showing the ominous arc of fires across Washington, Oregon, and California (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory)
• August 24, 2021: In mid-June 2021, hints of a phytoplankton bloom brewed off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada. In the following weeks, the faint patch transformed into a brilliant blue expanse as the number of microscopic plant-like creatures exploded. 6)
- The color of the ocean here is a good indication that the bloom is composed of coccolithophores, likely Emiliania huxleyi. The phytoplankton are covered in chalky calcite plates that are highly reflective, which make the ocean surface appear milky blue. Each cell is just a few nanometers across, but when enough of them congregate over a large area they become visible from space.
- The region’s currents and circulation patterns help enrich the water with nutrients, which can enhance the productivity of phytoplankton when combined with sunlight. The organisms become food for zooplankton, shellfish, and other marine creatures, which has helped make this region one of the richest fisheries in the world.
- It remains to be seen if coccolithophores will persist into September, as they did in 2019 and again in 2020. In previous years, E. huxleyi has been most abundant around mid-summer and less common in autumn.
Figure 7: The bloom was in full swing on August 5, 2021, when the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite acquired this image. Clouds are common over the Labrador Sea, and this day was no exception. But areas east and southeast of Newfoundland were clear enough for satellites to detect the stunning blue display. Faint traces of the bloom were still visible amid the clouds on August 23 (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using MODIS and VIIRS data from NASA EOSDIS LANCE and GIBS/Worldview and the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership. Story by Kathryn Hansen)
Figure 8: Meanwhile, about 3,000 miles (5,000 km) away in the Barents Sea, a bloom that dazzled in mid-July continued to put on a display. The image above was acquired on August 9, 2021, with the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on the NASA-NOAA Suomi NPP satellite. Traces of the bloom were still visible as recently as August 18 (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory)
- This bloom is also likely dominated by coccolithophores. E. huxleyi is common here from around late July into autumn, replacing blooms of diatoms that thrive in spring and early summer.
• August 20,2021: The Greenland Ice Sheet underwent two bouts of intense melting in July 2021, and forecasts called for even more to follow. They were right. Summer heat spurred another major melt event on August 14–15, 2021, but this time, the melting was exacerbated by rainfall. 7)
- Every year from around May to early September, melting takes place across the vast sheet of ice that covers Greenland. Besides contributing directly to sea level rise, meltwater can flow to the base of the ice sheet via crevasses and moulins, accelerating the flow of ice toward the ocean.
- Within a melting season there can be the occasional “melt event”—brief periods with more melting and runoff than during ‘typical’ summer days. The seventh-largest melt event on record (by area) occurred on July 28, when melting covered about 881,000 km2 (340,000 square miles) of the ice sheet, according to data from the National Snow and Ice Data Center. Melting on August 14—the peak of the unusual late-summer event—was slightly smaller, covering about 872,000 km2.
- According to Lauren Andrews, a glaciologist with NASA’s Global Modeling and Assimilation Office, the pattern of melting differed for each event. “While the late-July melt event was extensive in northern Greenland, the August event was focused in southern Greenland,” she said.
Figure 9: The island’s vast ice sheet underwent multiple bouts of widespread melting this summer, exacerbated in August 2021 by rain. The island’s southern tip was visible amid clouds on August 15, 2021, when the MODIS instrument on NASA’s Aqua satellite acquired this image of part of the melt area. The image is false color to better differentiate between areas of clouds (white), snow (cyan), bare ice (blue), and meltwater or slushy ice (darker blue). Ocean water appears the darkest blue, almost black. For comparison, a second image (Figure 10) shows the area on August 12, prior to the melt event ( image credit: NASA Earth Observatory images by Lauren Dauphin, using MODIS data from NASA EOSDIS LANCE and GIBS/Worldview and GEOS-5 data from the Global Modeling and Assimilation Office at NASA GSFC. Story by Kathryn Hansen)
- Notice that by August 15, the area of bare ice extends farther inland. “The snow line has retreated, exposing more of the darker, underlying ice,” Andrews said. “This retreat is most obvious when we look closely at the outlet glaciers and was likely driven by the large melt event on August 14–15.”
- Andrews also noted that the melting extended well inland toward the interior of the ice sheet and reached Summit Station—National Science Foundation’s research station located near the top of the ice sheet, nearly two miles above sea level.
Figure 11: The melting was provoked by warm air that moved over Greenland and produced unusually high temperatures. The map above shows the short-term warm up over Greenland; it depicts how much the air temperature on August 14, 2021, was above or below temperatures from the week before (averaged from August 5 to 11, 2021). The map was derived from the Goddard Earth Observing System (GEOS) model and represents air temperatures at 2 meters (about 6-7 feet) above the ground. Modeled data, which uses mathematical equations that represent physical processes, offer a broad, estimated view of a region where ground-based weather stations are sparse (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory)
- Widespread rainfall in southern Greenland contributed to the melting. Rain was even observed by National Science Foundation personnel at Summit Station on August 14, 2021—the first time since the start of field observations there in the late 1980s, according to Von Walden of the Summit Station Science Coordination Office and Washington State University.
- Warm air temperatures alone, not rain, caused previous major melt events at Summit Station, including those in 2012 and 2019, according to Christopher Shuman, a University of Maryland, Baltimore County, glaciologist based at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Studies have shown that the amount of melting across Greenland caused by rain has increased over the recent past, in both summer and winter.
- Large melt events including those of the 2021 season are generally short-lived and contribute a relatively small amount to the total melting that occurs across a season. But they can have a lasting effect on the ice sheet. Melting can trigger processes that cause the ice surface to darken and modify the underlying snow and firn, which can exacerbate future melting and runoff, even under normal atmospheric conditions.
- “During melt events, these processes can occur over parts of the ice sheet that do not typically experience melt, making the impact more widespread,” Andrews said. “Positive feedbacks like these are starting to take their toll.”
• August 13, 2021: Heading into the peak of hurricane season, the seas around North and Central America are primed to fuel storm development and intensification in the Atlantic and Eastern Pacific. While sea surface temperatures are just one factor influencing the development of hurricanes, they are a fair predictor of the readiness of the ocean to sustain them. 8)
- The data for the map of Figure 12 come from the Multiscale Ultrahigh Resolution (MUR) sea surface temperature analysis, produced at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It is based on observations from several satellite instruments, including the NASA Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer-EOS (AMSRE), the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on the NASA Aqua and Terra platforms, the U.S. Navy microwave WindSat radiometer, the Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer (AVHRR) on several NOAA satellites, and from in situ observations from NOAA.
- The 2021 hurricane season started quickly. In May, Tropical Storm Andres became the earliest named storm—winds of 39 miles per hour or greater—on record in the Eastern Pacific. To date, eleven tropical storms have developed in the basin, including four hurricanes.
- In the Atlantic, five named storms formed between May 19 and July 9, with Hurricane Elsa becoming the earliest fifth named storm on record. After Elsa, the Atlantic remained quiet until Tropical Storm Fred emerged on August 11. The storm lost some strength while passing near Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba, but it is forecasted to regain tropical storm force before making landfall in Florida over the weekend. Forecasters warned citizens about the potential for heavy rainfall.
- In its mid-season update on August 4, scientists from the NOAA Climate Prediction Center forecasted 15 to 21 named storms in the Atlantic in 2021, including 7 to 10 hurricanes, of which 3 to 5 could become major hurricanes. They noted: “Atlantic sea surface temperatures are not expected to be as warm as they were during the record-breaking 2020 season; however, reduced vertical wind shear and an enhanced west Africa monsoon all contribute to the current conditions that can increase seasonal hurricane activity.”
- NOAA and other federal and state agencies lead the forecasting of and response to hurricanes in the United States, with NASA playing a supporting role in developing experimental tools and providing key data to those agencies. NASA also works to streamline the flow of information to international science institutions, governments, and aid groups as they use and customize data products from freely available NASA data. “The NASA Disasters program contributes with high-value or unique products that complement actions of operational agencies and regional governments, support decision-making during crises, and aid in disaster risk reduction,” said Ricardo Quiroga, who coordinates with regional teams in Latin America through his role as co-lead of the AmeriGEO Disasters Working Group.
Figure 12: The map shows sea surface temperatures (SSTs) as measured on August 11, 2021, by a combination of satellite and ocean instruments. Meteorologists generally agree that SSTs above 27.8º Celsius (82º Fahrenheit) intensify and sustain hurricanes, cyclones, and typhoons. Surface waters above that threshold are represented in red on the map. Note the finger of warm water—the Gulf Stream—running parallel to the U.S. East Coast (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Lauren Dauphin, using data from the Multiscale Ultrahigh Resolution (MUR) project. Story by Michael Carlowicz)
• August 10, 2021: As soon as the snow began melting in May 2021, fires broke out in the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia) in eastern Russia. Over the spring and summer, blazes have proliferated and intensified. By August, fires had consumed large swaths of the region’s larch forests. Plumes of smoke blanketed skies, turning day into night, closing airports, and prompting talk of an “airpocalypse” in the city of Yakutsk. 9)
- In an area as large and remote as Sakha, satellites offer one of the best options for monitoring wildfire activity and tracking the severity of seasonal fire outbreaks. According to Mark Parrington, a scientist with the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, the 2021 Sakha wildfires have set a record for estimated carbon emissions for the period from June 1 to August 1. Parrington monitors fires for the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) using a satellite-based data record that began in 2003.
- Counted together with major fires in North America, Africa, and Europe, the Sakha fires helped push global wildfires emissions to record levels in July 2021, according to CAMS data. CAMS estimates near-real-time wildfire emissions from its Global Fire Assimilation System (GFAS), which aggregates observations of fires acquired by NASA’s Aqua and Terra satellites.
- “Based on current official burned area reports, Sakha is on track to have an extreme year of fire, but it won’t surpass previous extreme years if the fires are extinguished by the end of August,” said earth scientist Jessica McCarty of Miami University (Ohio). “If large fire events continue into September and October, we could see burned area totals surpassing 2020.”
- Vast areas of Yakutia have burned in the past 20 years, according to one recent analysis. About half of the fires in the region are caused by lightning. One team of researchers estimated that people start about one-third of Sakha’s fires with discarded cigarettes, sparks from vehicles, negligence with campfires, and arson. Other common causes include power line failures, crop fires, and logging.
Figure 13: The MODIS instrument on NASA’s Aqua satellite acquired this natural-color image of large clouds of smoke spreading over Sakha on August 8, 2021. Plumes of this size and opacity have been common for weeks, leading to poor air quality for many of the 280,000 people who live in the nearby city of Yakutsk. A few days before the image was captured, Russia's aerial fire protection service reported 178 active wildfires in Sakha. More than 2,600 people and 380 pieces of equipment were fighting fires at that time (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens, using MODIS data from NASA EOSDIS LANCE and GIBS/Worldview, and data from Kirillina, K., et al. (2020). Story by Adam Voiland)
Figure 14: An analysis of past fires in Sakha indicate that the total number of fires has declined in recent decades even as the area burned has increased. The trend is likely driven by changes in where people live and in how forests have been managed. Many people in the region moved from small settlements in the countryside into larger towns and cities, and fires are often allowed to burn in rural areas. Closer to cities, fires are typically extinguished (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory)
• August 6, 2021: Phytoplankton fuel ocean life by feeding other plankton, fish, and ultimately bigger creatures. Phytoplankton are among the smallest organisms in the ocean. Yet when they “bloom,” these tiny ocean drifters can cover thousands of square kilometers, which means these primary producers are often visible from space. Known as the “grass of the sea,” they are the first link in the ocean food chain. 10)
Figure 15: Phytoplankton fuel ocean life by feeding other plankton, fish, and ultimately bigger creatures. This video explores the diversity of phytoplankton in the oceans and shows why these plant-like organisms play such a crucial role in life on Earth. In some of the images, color-filtering techniques were used to draw out the fine details in the water, but the features are real (video credit: NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, Lauren Dauphin, Jesse Allen, and Jeff Schmaltz, using MODIS data from NASA EOSDIS LANCE and GIBS/Worldview and Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey. Images also by Norman Kuring/NASA's Ocean Color Web. Video by Kathryn Hansen. Music (“Ocean Waves”) by Lotus_Sound)
The following text is a transcript of the video. As we move around this global map of chlorophyll, we explore the diversity of phytoplankton in the oceans, and discover why these plant-like organisms play such a crucial role in life on Earth. - The remarkable organisms are also quite beautiful.
- North Sea: Phytoplankton are abundant here when spring melting and runoff freshen the salt water and add nutrients, just as sunlight is increasing. The milky blue waters are probably filled with coccolithophores. Greener areas may be diatoms. Both provide food for marine life.
- Iceland: Phytoplankton support Iceland’s productive fisheries. Volcanic ash can fertilize ocean waters with iron, though the North Atlantic usually has enough nutrients to sustain blooms even without the ash.
- Greenland: Disko Bay has been important to the local economy for at least 1,000 years because of its rich marine resources. Phytoplankton blooms feed the copepods and other plankton and fish that become food for the bay’s shrimp, seals, whales, and walruses.
- Newfoundland: Underwater plateaus off Newfoundland help create circulation patterns that can enrich the waters with nutrients. The waters near the Grand Banks are incredibly productive, supporting catches of swordfish, haddock, lobster, cod, and scallops.
- Gulf of Alaska: Nutrient-rich water provides fertile conditions for phytoplankton blooms in the Gulf of Alaska. Most nutrients come from upwelling from the depths or river runoff. But dust storms also play a role in supplying iron to the Gulf of Alaska.
- Hokkaido: Fueled by the Oyashio current, the waters off northeastern Japan support a bounty of phytoplankton and fish.
- Arabian Sea: Abundant blooms of Noctiluca scintillans have been depleting the oxygen and crowding out other species. They are too large to be eaten by copepods; instead they are feeding a surge of jellyfish and salps.
- Australia: Storms can stir up the seafloor and bring nutrients to the surface, promoting blooms of phytoplankton. That’s likely what happened here after tropical cyclone Veronica made landfall. An important player in the ocean nitrogen cycle, Trichodesmium makes seasonal appearances off the northeast coast of Australia.
- Patagonia: At the Brazil-Malvinas confluence, blooms are stimulated by the ocean’s complex circulation patterns and abundant fronts. The continental shelf off Patagonia is biologically rich due to dust blowing out from the land and nutrients stirred up from the ocean. It is the site of one of the world’s best fisheries.
- South Africa: The Benguela current mixes water masses from the Atlantic and Indian oceans as they meet off the capes of South Africa. This dynamic wind and water action causes the ocean to teem with life, form plankton to fish to whales. Beyond serving as a primary food source for other ocean life, phytoplankton are critical to the global carbon cycle and key producers of the oxygen that makes the planet livable.
• July 25, 2021: During the spring and summer in the Barents Sea, north of Norway and Russia, phytoplankton show up in abundance. Clouds permitting, the showy displays of these blue and green “blooms” are visible in satellite images just about every year. Yet no two phytoplankton blooms are exactly alike. 11)
- From spring into early summer, the surface waters of the Barents Sea are well-mixed, and nutrients are plentiful. This is when blooms of diatoms tend to dominate. These microscopic phytoplankton, with their silica shells and ample chlorophyll, color the surface waters green.
- By late July and into autumn, waters become more stratified and contain fewer nutrients. The summertime changes benefit coccolithophores, typically Emiliania huxleyi. Blooms of this type of phytoplankton—armored with plates of highly reflective calcium carbonate—make surface waters appear milky turquoise blue.
Figure 16: However, the bloom in this image appears green and turquoise blue. The image, centered on the Barents Sea north of the Kola Peninsula, was acquired on July 15, 2021, with the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens, using MODIS data from NASA EOSDIS LANCE and GIBS/Worldview. Story by Kathryn Hansen with image interpretation by Andrew Orkney and Heather Bouman/University of Oxford)
- There are a few possible reasons for the combination of colors. While it is impossible to verify the species without a direct water sample, this image might be showing the region during a period of transition, as coccolithophores replace diatoms.
- “It is possible this is a mixed bloom,” said Andrew Orkney, a doctoral candidate at University of Oxford who has used remote sensing to study phytoplankton in the Barents. “Mixed blooms of coccolithophores and another important bloom-forming group, the diatoms, have been observed off the Norwegian coast in previous years.”
- Alternatively, Orkney notes that the color could result from a coccolithophore bloom occurring in waters rich in colored dissolved organic matter (CDOM). CDOM can make typically blue seawater appear anywhere from green to yellow-green to brown depending on the concentration.
- Coccolithophore blooms now occupy more space in the Barents Sea compared to a few decades ago, according to recent research. Between 1998 and 2016, the summer blooms have expanded poleward and their surface area in the Barents Sea has doubled.
- Such changes could have implications for Arctic marine food webs and geochemical cycles. Coccolithophores and other type of phytoplankton are a primary food source for small zooplankton and fish. They are also critical to the global carbon cycle and key producers of the planet’s oxygen.
• July 15, 2021: Just weeks after the Pacific Northwest endured record-shattering temperatures, another heat wave scorched the U.S. Southwest. This heat wave, which started around July 7, tied or broke several all-time records in California, Nevada, northern Arizona, and southern Utah. 12)
- Two instruments – NASA’s Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) aboard the Aqua satellite, and the agency’s ECOsystem Spaceborne Thermal Radiometer Experiment on Space Station (ECOSTRESS) – tracked the heat wave, providing visualizations of it.
Figure 17: The AIRS instrument captured the progression of a slow-moving heat dome across the southwestern U.S from July 1 to July 12. The animation of the AIRS data shows surface air temperature anomalies – values above or below long-term averages. The hottest areas, shown in pink, experienced surface air temperatures more than 10 degrees Fahrenheit (5.6 degrees Celsius) above average. Surface air temperature is something that people directly feel when they are outside (image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Figure 18: On July 8, 2021, NASA’s ECOSTRESS instrument, aboard the space station captured ground surface temperature data over California. Areas in red – including Death Valley – had surpassed 86 degrees Fahrenheit by 7 a.m. local time, well above average ground surface temperatures for the area (image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
- On July 8, NASA’s ECOSTRESS instrument, attached to the International Space Station, captured ground surface temperature data over California. In the image (middle image), areas in red – including Death Valley – had surpassed 86 degrees Fahrenheit (30 degrees Celsius) by 7 a.m. local time, well above average ground surface temperatures for the area.
- On July 9, Death Valley recorded a high air temperature of 130 F, which fell just a few degrees short of the official all-time surface air temperature record of 134 F set in 1913. On July 11, Bishop, California, hit an all-time high of 111 F and Stovepipe Wells, California, set a new record for daily average temperature with 118 F. Numerous other daily, monthly, and all-time records were set throughout the inland areas of central and Southern California and northern Arizona.
• July 8, 2021: An unprecedented heat wave that started around June 26 smashed numerous all-time temperature records in the Pacific Northwest and western Canada. NASA’s Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS), aboard the Aqua satellite, captured the progression of this slow-moving heat dome across the region from June 21 to 30. An animation of some of the AIRS data show surface air temperature anomalies – values above or below long-term averages. Surface air temperature is something that people directly feel when they are outside. 13)
Figure 19: The AIRS instrument aboard NASA’s Aqua satellite collected temperature readings in the atmosphere and at the surface during an unprecedented heat wave in the Pacific Northwest and western Canada that started around June 26 (video credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
- In many cases, the highs exceeded previous temperature records by several degrees or more. On June 28, Quillayute, Washington, set an all-time high temperature record of 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43 degrees Celsius), shattering the old record of 99 degrees Fahrenheit (37 degrees Celsius). Numerous weather stations broke records on consecutive days, showing the unprecedented nature of this extreme heat, which is also being blamed for a number of fatalities. In British Columbia, the village of Lytton set a new all-time record for Canada at 119 degrees Fahrenheit (48 degrees Celsius) on June 29, only to break it the next day with a reading of 121 degrees Fahrenheit (49 degrees Celsius).
- The AIRS instrument recorded similar temperature anomalies at an altitude of about 10,000 feet (3,000 meters), showing that the extreme heat also affected mountainous regions. And temperature anomalies at roughly 18,000 feet (5,500 meters) demonstrated that the heat dome extended high into Earth’s troposphere, creating the conditions for intense heat at the planet’s surface that are normally found farther south.
- AIRS, in conjunction with the Advanced Microwave Sounding Unit (AMSU), senses emitted infrared and microwave radiation from Earth to provide a three-dimensional look at the planet’s weather and climate. Working in tandem, the two instruments make simultaneous observations down to Earth’s surface. With more than 2,000 channels sensing different regions of the atmosphere, the system creates a global, three-dimensional map of atmospheric temperature and humidity, cloud amounts and heights, greenhouse gas concentrations and many other atmospheric phenomena. Launched into Earth orbit in 2002 aboard NASA’s Aqua spacecraft, the AIRS and AMSU instruments are managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, under contract to NASA. JPL is a division of Caltech.
- The heatwaves are apparent in this map, which shows anomalies in air temperature at the surface from June 18-25, 2021. The anomalies indicate how much the daytime temperatures were above or below the average for the same period between 2003-2013. Red areas depict where the temperature was hotter than usual, and blue areas were cooler than usual. Data for the map are from the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite.
Figure 20: One of the hot spots parked over central and eastern Europe. On June 23, ground stations in Moscow measured an air temperature of 34.8°C (94.6°F)—the city’s hottest June temperature on record. Helsinki, Finland, also saw its hottest June day on record (31.7°C/89.1°F), and national records for the month were set in Belarus (35.7°C/96.3°F) and Estonia (34.6°C/94.3°F), [image credit: NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using AIRS data from the Goddard Earth Sciences Data and Information Services Center (GES DISC) and data from the National Snow and Ice Data Center. Story by Kathryn Hansen]
- According to Jennifer Francis, a scientist at Woodwell Climate Research Center, the heatwave is the result of a persistent northward bulge in the polar jet stream. “This is associated with a blocking pattern in the jet stream that has been prevalent over Scandinavia this year and contributed to unusually warm conditions there, especially in Finland,” Francis said.
- A second region of warm surface temperatures is visible toward the east, along the Arctic coast in Siberia. According to James Overland, of NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, a low-pressure zone just west of the hot spot produced strong, warm winds from the south that kept away the colder Arctic air.
Figure 21: Ice extent in the Laptev Sea (%) in the period 1978-2021. Both the offshore wind and the early heatwave helped to reduce the amount of sea ice in the Laptev Sea. As the chart shows, sea ice coverage in this part of the Arctic Ocean reached a record low for the time of year (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory)
- So far, the record-low sea ice appears to be localized to the Laptev Sea. “I don’t think that the Arctic sea ice extent this summer will be as low as it was last summer,” said Judah Cohen a climatologist at Atmospheric and Environmental Research. Nor does the Siberian heatwave appear to be as widespread or anomalous as the 2020 heatwave.
- Still, scientists are paying attention. “Western North America and northeast Asia are the two fastest-warming spots in summer,” Cohen said. “I’m not sure we know why Siberia is one of the regions that is warming the fastest in summer, but we can observe it.”
• June 28, 2021: Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, it became clear from satellite observations and human experience that the world’s air grew cleaner. But new research shows that not all pollutants were taken out of circulation during societal lockdowns. In particular, the concentration of tiny airborne pollution particles known as PM2.5 did not change that much because natural variability in weather patterns dominated and mostly obscured the reduction from human activity. 15)
- “Intuitively you would think that if there is a major lockdown situation, we would see dramatic changes, but we didn’t,” said Melanie Hammer, a visiting research associate at Washington University in St. Louis and leader of the study. “It was kind of a surprise that the effects on PM2.5 were modest.”
- PM2.5 describes particles, produced by both human activities and natural processes, that are smaller than 2.5 µm, or roughly 30 times smaller than the width of a human hair. PM2.5 is small enough to linger in the atmosphere and, when inhaled, is associated with increased risk of heart attack, cancer, asthma, and a host of other human health effects. “We were most interested in looking at changes in PM2.5 because it is the leading environmental risk factor for premature mortality globally,” Hammer said.
- By combining NASA spacecraft data with ground-based monitoring and an innovative computer modeling system, the scientists mapped PM2.5 levels across China, Europe, and North America during the early months of the pandemic. They found seasonal differences in PM2.5 between recent years were driven primarily by the natural variability of the meteorology, not by pandemic lockdowns. Some of the meteorological effects included changes in the sources and intensity of seasonal dust storms, the way pollutants reacted to sunlight in the atmosphere, the mixing and transfer of heat via weather fronts, and the removal of pollutants from the atmosphere by falling rain and snow.
Figure 22: One example is shown on this map, which compares PM2.5 levels across China in February 2020 versus February 2019. Note that although pollution levels dropped significantly in some of the most industrialized parts of China, they were actually higher near China’s desert regions. The pollution mapping effort included data from NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites, as well as meteorological modeling from the NASA Global Modeling and Assimilation Office. The study was published in June 2021 in the journal Science Advances (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory images by Lauren Dauphin, using data from Hammer, Melanie, et al. (2021). Story by Brandie Jefferson, Washington University in St. Louis, and Roberto Molar Candanosa, NASA’s Earth Science News Team, with Mike Carlowicz.). 16)
- PM2.5 is among the most complicated pollutants to study because particle size, composition, and toxicity vary greatly depending on the source and the environmental conditions. For instance, some PM2.5 pollution is known to come from the reaction of another pollutant—nitrogen dioxide (NO2)—with other chemicals in the atmosphere. NO2 is a major byproduct of fossil fuel burning by motor vehicles and industrial activities. Early in 2020, NASA and other science agencies detected significant drops in NO2 pollution during COVID-19 lockdowns, and some people assumed it would mean dramatic decreases in all pollution.
- However, the two pollutants do not have a linear relationship. Half as much nitrogen dioxide in the atmosphere does not necessarily lead to half as much PM2.5 production. Hammer and colleagues decided to examine whether the lockdowns resulted in a decline of particulate pollution. “Tackling PM2.5 is a very complex issue,” Hammer said, “and you have to take into account its multiple sources, not just the fact that fewer people are on the road,”
- To ensure a comprehensive analysis, the team focused on regions with extensive ground monitoring systems in place and compared monthly estimates of PM2.5 from January through April in 2018, 2019, and 2020. When they compared PM2.5 concentrations during the lockdown months in North America or Europe, they did not find clear signals. The most significant lockdown-related differences were detected in China, particularly over the North China Plain, where pollution levels are typically high and the strictest lockdowns were concentrated. But even that signal was a bit muddled.
- To decipher whether the lockdown was responsible for the change in China and other small ones across Europe and North America, the team ran different “sensitivity simulations” using the GEOS-Chem chemical transport model. They simulated a scenario where anthropogenic emissions of nitrogen dioxide and other pollutants were held constant and meteorological variability was solely responsible for year-over-year differences. They also ran simulations in which they reduced emissions from motor vehicles and other anthropogenic sources, mirroring the lockdowns. They found that the simulation where both meteorology and transportation effects were included most closely mirrored the real-world situation, with natural effects accounting for most of the differences. One of those results in shown in the map above.
- Hammer suspects the change in PM2.5 levels over the North China Plain was more apparent because of the region’s higher pollution levels during non-COVID times. The new insights also highlight a relevant point that is not intuitive from the 2020 observations: Average PM2.5 levels have been dropping steadily for years in North America and Europe, and pollution concentrations that are already low are more difficult to change.
- “The big story here is actually the global characterization of air quality, especially in places where there aren’t surface monitors,” said Ralph Kahn, a co-author and an atmospheric scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “The satellites provide an important piece of it, the models provide an important piece of it, and the ground-based measurements make an important contribution as well.”
Figure 23: Air pollution in China in February 2019 and in February 2020 (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory)
• June 14, 2021: For the second year in a row, drought has parched much of the United States from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Coast. Following one of the planet’s warmest years on record, and with precipitation this year well below average in the western U.S., scientists and government agencies are watching for diminished water resources and potentially severe fire seasons. 17)
- According to the June 10 report from the U.S. Drought Monitor, 88.5 percent of the land area in the West—defined as California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington—is experiencing some level of drought, with 55 percent being classified as “extreme.” An estimated 90 percent of Utah is under extreme drought conditions, with 64 percent rated “exceptional” (the worst classification). Similar conditions are reported across Arizona (87 percent extreme), California (85 percent), and Nevada (76 percent). More than 58 million people are living with the dry conditions in the region.
Figure 24: The map offers one indicator of the conditions on June 5, 2021. Using data from the Crop Condition and Soil Moisture Analytics (Crop-CASMA) product, the map shows soil moisture anomalies, or how the water content in the top meter (3 feet) of soil compares to normal conditions for the time of year. Crop-CASMA integrates measurements from NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) satellite and vegetation indices from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instruments on NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using soil moisture data from Crop Condition and Soil Moisture Analytics (Crop-CASMA) and evaporative stress index data from SERVIR. Story by Michael Carlowicz)
- Released in April 2021, the Crop-CASMA portal offers soil moisture information more frequently (every 2 to 3 days) and on smaller scales (down to the level of towns and counties instead of states) than many other data products. Farmers and resource managers can use soil moisture data to help time crop planting and irrigation, to forecast yields, and to track droughts and floods. The product was developed by scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), George Mason University, and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and Jet Propulsion Laboratory. One of the primary users of the dataset is the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.
- Drought conditions in the West are likely to get worse in 2021. The most recent NOAA Climate Prediction Center forecast noted: “Short-term and long-term drought remains entrenched throughout a majority of the West... The Southwest is typically dry during June until monsoon rainfall begins later in July. Based on below-normal precipitation during the past 30 to 60 days, low soil moisture conditions, and elevated monthly and seasonal probabilities of near to below normal precipitation and above normal temperatures for June-July-August, drought is expected to persist over the south-central West and to expand northward across parts of the Pacific Northwest and northern Rockies.”
Figure 25: This map provides a measure of the health of vegetation from March 5 to May 28, 2021. The Evaporative Stress Index (ESI) depicts the level of evapotranspiration, or how much and how quickly water is evaporating from the land surface and from the leaves of plants. Measuring evapotranspiration is useful because negative levels can indicate that plants are facing stress even if leaves have not yet wilted or turned brown. ESI data is derived from observations of land surface temperatures from NOAA’s geostationary satellites and of leaf area index from Terra and Aqua. ESI is considered particularly useful for observing “flash drought” and agricultural drought (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory)
• May 23, 2021: On May 7 and May 14, 2021, winter ice still covered most of Lake Winnipeg and the smaller lakes nearby, and walleye were starting to show up on fishing hooks. By May 19, most of the ice was gone, temperatures hovered between 30° and 33° Celsius (86° to 91° Fahrenheit), and the parched landscape was blanketed with smoke and fire. It seemed like Canada’s Manitoba Province had jumped right from winter to summer. 18)
- Much of southern Manitoba and Saskatchewan had abnormally dry autumn, winter, and spring weather, so much of the region is now in severe to extreme drought. John Pomeroy, a water resources researcher at the University of Saskatchewan, told CBC News that soil moisture is about 40 percent of normal. The western United States and much of Mexico are enduring similar conditions.
- Following a record-breaking spring heatwave and several days of gusty winds, Environment Canada declared fire danger to be “extremely high” in southern and central Manitoba. Provincial and regional governments have banned campfires in parks and closed many hiking and biking trails. Leaders of the Misipawstik Cree and Lake St. Martin First Nations encouraged residents to evacuate some areas due to encroaching fires, and several homes were destroyed. Parts of highways 5, 6, and 307 in Manitoba were shut down due to smoke.
Figure 26: Canada’s Manitoba Province jumped right from winter ice to summer fires. On 18 May 2021, The MODIS instrument on NASA’s Aqua satellite acquired this natural-color image of smoke billowing from several intense wildfires west and southwest of Lake Winnipeg. Strong westerly winds drove the plumes across Hudson Bay and the Canadian interior as far as Quebec. Other fires (not shown) burned to the west in Saskatchewan and to the east in Ontario. Researchers examining NOAA GOES satellite images detected hints of pyrocumulus “fire cloud” formation south of Lake Winnipeg (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens, using MODIS data from NASA EOSDIS LANCE and GIBS/Worldview. Text by Michael Carlowicz)
• May 14, 2021: In 2019-2020, eastern Africa experienced its worst desert locust invasion in more than 40 years. The United Nations and its partners treated more than 17,000 km2 (6,600 square miles) of locust infestations across ten countries with various eradication methods. Countless crops were still devoured by the insects, causing serious food insecurity in the region. 19)
- As the outbreaks grew and migrated, NASA-funded researchers worked to better forecast when and where the swarms would appear. In a recently published study, the team showed that by examining soil moisture and soil composition, they could predict optimal breeding sites 85 percent of the time.
- “We looked at soil moisture and texture because those are critical components to the locust life cycle,” said Lee Ellenburg, the food security and agriculture lead for NASA’s SERVIR program and the study’s lead author. “We are essentially identifying where the locusts are breeding.”
- The most effective time to eradicate desert locusts (Schistocerca gregaria) are when the insects are in the egg and hopper phases, a period when they are still developing wings and have limited mobility. Females tend to lay eggs in warm, wet, and sandy-clay soils at a depth of 10 to 15 cm (4 to 6 inches) below the surface.
- In roughly two to four months, the locusts mature and develop wings, at which point it becomes difficult to find and eradicate them. Adults can fly more than 150 km (90 miles) per day; swarms can even cross the Red Sea, as they did in 2019-2020. Just 1 km2 of a locust swarm can contain as many as 80 million adult locusts.
Figure 27: This map shows soil conditions on April 17, 2020, overlaid from locust observations from June 18, 2020, when infestations increased in Kenya (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory images by Lauren Dauphin, using data from Ellenburg, W. Lee, et al. (2021). Story by Kasha Patel)
Figure 28: Researchers can predict locust breeding locations up to nine weeks in advance. These three maps show the progression of the locust infestations, starting around Saudi Arabia, migrating toward Eritrea and Ethiopia, and then concentrating in Kenya. Soil moisture data was modeled using NASA’s Land Information System, and soil texture data came from the International Soil Reference and Information Centre (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory)
- During the outbreaks, the research team shared soil condition products with FAO and PlantVillage, which created a crowdsourcing application to allow government personnel and trained citizens to catalog locust sightings. PlantVillage used the soil moisture data to help prioritize areas for surveying.
- The SERVIR team is now working to integrate their soil condition products into the FAO locust support dashboard, which includes other relevant factors such as wind patterns, temperatures, and vegetation. The goal is to be better prepared for the next major locust invasion, said Catherine Nakalembe, a food security researcher with SERVIR and NASA Harvest. Once optimal breeding grounds are identified, officials can spray pesticides and administer insect growth regulators in the area to kill the eggs and hoppers.
- “If this were to happen again in two years, we don’t want to be scrambling for information,” said Nakalembe. “These satellite datasets and ground information help us with tracking, understanding, and providing necessary early warnings about how bad conditions may get.”
• April 15, 2021: Seasonal fires, lit to manage farmland and pastures, are common in Nepal in March and April. In 2021, the fires grew particularly extreme, as many spread and burned uncontrolled through forests. 20)
- Months of unusually dry weather has parched vegetation and turned it into tinder. Nepal received just a quarter of the rain it normally sees between January and April. Stretches of hot, windy weather have also exacerbated some fires, some of which burned in rugged terrain that made them hard to extinguish.
Figure 29: After an unusually dry winter, forest fires have raged throughout the mountainous country. Scientists have used several satellite sensors to track Nepal’s active 2021 fire season. The MODIS instrument on NASA’s Aqua satellite acquired this natural-color image of smoke enveloping much of the mountainous country on April 5, 2021. Most of the blazes have occurred in lower-elevation areas in southern Nepal, while the Himalayas serve as a barrier that directs smoke east toward India and Bangladesh rather than north into China (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory images by Lauren Dauphin, using MODIS data from NASA EOSDIS LANCE and GIBS/Worldview. Story by Adam Voiland)
Figure 30: The Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat-8 offered a more detailed view of a smoke pall covering the foothills and valleys near Pokhara on the same day (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory)
- One way that scientists can gauge the intensity of fire seasons is by analyzing thermal anomalies, or hotspots observed by satellites. In this case, the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on the NOAA-NASA Suomi NPP satellite detected roughly 41,000 hotspots in Nepal between January 1 and April 7, 2021—the second most the sensor has observed for that time period, according to NASA atmospheric scientist Pawan Gupta. The satellite sensor detected even more fire hotspots during the same period in 2016.
- The MODIS instrument on Aqua makes similar observations of thermal anomalies but with less detail for small fires. It also showed 2021 as having the second-most fire hotspots through April 7 in a record that dates back to 2002.
- The smoke in the lower atmosphere has frequently elevated air pollution to unhealthy and occasionally hazardous levels in March and April 2021, according to data from a U.S. air quality sensor in Kathmandu. The fires and poor air have forced school closures, prompted evacuations, caused multiple deaths, and led to flight cancellations, according to news reports.
- “Every year during the fire season, air pollution levels across Nepal remain very high for many days and affect the region’s economy and people’s health,” said Gupta. “Due to limited ground-based monitoring of air quality in the area, the health impacts are challenging to assess, but satellite data can fill in some of the gaps.”
• April 12, 2021: Springtime blooms on land in North America are usually obvious: green vegetation sprouts and flower buds open in ways that bring bright color to the landscape. Springtime changes in the North Atlantic Ocean are less obvious to the human eye, as not all of the action takes place at the surface and much of the color is camouflaged by the dark greens, blues, and blacks of the deep sea. 21)
- Satellite sensors give us other ways to see blooms of phytoplankton, the plant-like primary producers of the ocean. The MODIS instrument on NASA’s Aqua satellite observes Earth in 36 different visible, infrared, and near-infrared wavelengths. Over the past three decades, scientists have tuned the sensors and the processing of those spectral data to identify areas with high concentrations of chlorophyll-a, the primary pigment used by phytoplankton to harvest sunlight for energy.
Figure 31: Data for the image were collected by Aqua MODIS on March 30, 2021. The image shows concentrations of chlorophyll-a in the North Atlantic Ocean from New Jersey to Nova Scotia; the darkest shades of green show areas with the greatest chlorophyll concentrations (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory images by Lauren Dauphin, using MODIS data from NASA EOSDIS LANCE and GIBS/Worldview. Story by Michael Carlowicz)
- Note how the phytoplankton wrap into swirls and rings in some places. They often trace the edges and fronts of ocean eddies and warm core rings that spin off from currents like the Gulf Stream. Some of the chlorophyll abundance also shows up around the region’s shoals and underwater banks—such the Le Have and Emerald banks off the south coast of Nova Scotia—where upwelling and nutrient mixing promotes phytoplankton growth. The most famous patch is Georges Bank, where currents meet the relatively shallow water and promote an abundant crop of phytoplankton that fuels other marine species. The Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank have historically been among the most productive fishing grounds on the planet.
Figure 32: This image shows the same scene in natural color, as the human eye might see it. It is unusual at almost any time of year to have a clear view of such a wide area of the cloudy North Atlantic (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory)
- Phytoplankton account for nearly half of Earth’s primary production, turning carbon dioxide, sunlight, and nutrients into organic matter and providing the fundamental nourishment that fuels almost everything in the sea. The amount and location of phytoplankton affects the abundance and diversity of everything from finfish to shellfish and zooplankton to whales. Phytoplankton also affect the chemistry and climate of the planet. They produce about half of Earth’s oxygen and they draw carbon out of the atmosphere—locking it up for a time in their cells, in the animals that consume them, and in pellets of waste that drop to the seafloor.
• March 16, 2021: Dust storms commonly occur across Asia in springtime. But meteorological spring is just getting underway, and already an enormous plume of sand and dust has blanketed northern China. It has been called the largest and strongest such storm to strike the region in a decade. 22)
Figure 33: Meteorological spring is just getting underway, and already an enormous plume of sand and dust has blanketed northern China. The dust is visible in this natural-color image, acquired on March 15, 2021, with the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens, using MODIS data from NASA EOSDIS LANCE and GIBS/Worldview. Text by Kathryn Hansen)
- The plume appears to originate from the Taklamakan Desert in northwest China. The dry, barren area is a major source of airborne dust that can travel especially high and far on the strong winds of spring. From the Taklamakan, the dust moved eastward for thousands of kilometers.
- “Using NASA’s satellite data, we’re able to track the dust’s pathways,” said Hiren Jethva, a Universities Space Research Association (USRA) scientist based at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. In addition to natural-color imagery, Jethva tracks dust and smoke using satellite measurements of the UV aerosol index. Those data indicate that the dust moved along a west-to-east path. It then turned, following a cyclonic circulation in the atmosphere, and was lofted to an altitude above the cloud layer. Scientists have previously shown that aerosols above the clouds can have important consequences for the climate.
- In areas where the dust stays close to the ground, such storms can diminish air quality. That was the case in Beijing, where the high concentration of particles caused air quality to reach well into the “hazardous” level of the Air Quality Index. Dust tinted the sky orange, reducing visibility to less than 1000 meters (3,280 feet).
- In addition to the unusual magnitude and early season timing of the event, Jethva noted that it is uncommon for dust storms to grow so large so fast. Satellite images from March 14 show no signs of dust transport; one day later, the event had developed into a widespread, severe storm. News reports called for the dust storm to gradually weaken through the rest of the week.
• February 2, 2021: Surrounded by arid and barren land in east Africa, Lake Turkana is the largest permanent desert lake in the world. It is sometimes referred to as the Jade Sea due to its green color, a result of abundant algae. The lake is also unique for the largely intact fossils found along its shores, which have contributed more to the understanding of human ancestry than any other place in the world. 23)
Figure 34: The image shows Lake Turkana (formerly Lake Rudolf) on December 10, 2020, as observed by the MODIS instrument on NASA’s Aqua satellite. The majority of the lake is located in the Great Rift Valley of Kenya, with its northern tip poking into Ethiopia. The lake stretches 250 kilometers (150 miles) from north to south and up to 44 kilometers (27 miles) wide. Like many desert lakes, Lake Turkana is a salty, closed basin (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey and MODIS data from NASA EOSDIS LANCE and GIBS/Worldview. Story by Kasha Patel)
- Despite the unwelcoming environment for humans today, Lake Turkana was an ideal place for settlements about two million years ago, when conditions were wetter and greener. Nearby volcanoes helped preserve many human remains; researchers have found fossils embedded in hardened volcanic ash (known as tuff) and in various floodplains. Many intact fossils have been found on Lake Turkana’s eastern shore around Koobi Fora Ridge.
- In 1984, paleontologists Richard and Meave Leakey discovered at Koobi Fora an almost-complete fossilized skeleton of a young boy dating to about 1.5 million years ago. Known as “Turkana boy,” it is the most complete early human skeleton ever found. In 1995, Meave and her team also uncovered a fossil of a primate that appeared to walk on two legs much earlier than previously thought—at least 4.2 million years ago. Fossils representing more than 200 early humans, as well as other mammals and mollusks, have been found at Koobi Fora.
Figure 35: This image shows a closer view of Koobi Fora on January 28, 2021, acquired by the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat-8 (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory)
- Today, the area around Lake Turkana is sparsely populated by people due to its isolated location and inadequate fresh water. It is the most saline lake in East Africa, full of brackish water with high levels of fluoride that make it largely unsuitable for drinking. However, Lake Turkana and the three national parks nearby (Sibiloi, South Island, and Central Island national parks) serve as important stopovers for migrant water birds. They are also major breeding grounds for Nile crocodiles, hippopotamuses, and many venomous snakes, including carpet vipers and red spitting cobras.
• January 12, 2021: Between January 7–9, 2021, a moist, low-pressure weather system over the ocean collided with a cold air mass sitting over western Europe. The result was the heaviest snowfall over Spain in fifty years. 24)
- After barely seeing significant snowfall for a decade, the capital city of Madrid was blanketed with widespread accumulations of 20 to 30 centimeters (8 to 12 inches). Some suburban and rural areas in central, northern, and eastern Spain were coated with up to 50 centimeters (20 inches) of snow. The country’s State Meteorological Agency (AEMET) declared it the largest snowfall in the region since 1971. In southern parts of the country, torrential rains led to flash floods.
- Nearly 700 streets and highways were rendered impassable by the snowstorm, and hundreds of people were stranded in cars for a night. All flights out of Madrid were canceled for nearly two days, as was most rail traffic. Government workers and soldiers were dispatched to clear roads in order to keep food supplies and COVID-19 vaccine supplies moving. Forecasters expected cold temperatures (-8 to -10 degrees Celsius) to linger until January 14, freezing some of the snow into ice.
Figure 36: The MODIS instrument on NASA’s Aqua satellite observed snow cover in Spain and southwestern France in the early afternoon on January 11, 2021. Meteorologists declared it the largest snowfall in the region since 1971 (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Lauren Dauphin, using MODIS data from NASA EOSDIS LANCE and GIBS/Worldview. Story by Michael Carlowicz)
Figure 37: This MODIS image combines visible light, near-infrared, and shortwave infrared (MODIS bands 7-2-1) to distinguish clouds (white) from snow, ice, and high-altitude icy clouds (all shades of teal), image credit: NASA Earth Observatory
• December 24, 2020: In early December 2020, the planet’s largest iceberg appeared headed straight for South Georgia Island in the southern Atlantic Ocean. Scientists and reporters wanted to know: Would iceberg A-68A continue its northward path and plow into the island’s underwater shelf? Or would it change course and stay far enough offshore to avoid becoming stuck, or “grounded”? 25)
- Josh Willis, an oceanographer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), started following A-68A recently, as it started to approach South Georgia Island. But he has been using satellites to study ocean currents for decades. “When I heard about how big the iceberg was and where it was—moving on the biggest current in the world—it was a no-brainer,” Willis said. “It’s got to be following ocean currents.”
- The current vectors shown on the map come from the Ocean Surface Current Analysis Real-time (OSCAR) model, which blends various measurements, such as wind and sea surface temperature. The most critical measurement in the model, however, is sea surface height. Ocean currents that last more than a few days will actually tilt the surface of the ocean. By measuring this tilt with a satellite radar altimeter, scientists can identify the location of currents and estimate how fast they are moving.
- “Satellites that can tell us about ocean currents are really important for knowing how things spread out and move around the sea,” Willis said. “That’s useful for things like containing oil spills, aiding in search and rescue, and predicting the path of huge icebergs like A-68A.”
- The altimetry technique currently works best with large-scale currents. And none are larger (or stronger) than the Antarctic Circumpolar Current. This current zips around the continent, squeezing through the passage between South America and the Antarctic Peninsula. That’s where it catches icebergs moving north along the Weddell Sea Gyre, and gives them a push to the east—in this case toward South Georgia Island.
- Currents that are large enough to be visible from space—50 to 100 kilometers (30 to 60 miles) wide—are about the right size to move an iceberg the size of A-68A. As of December 18, the berg measured 135 kilometers long and 44 kilometers wide (73 by 24 nautical miles). And the portion visible above the sea surface is literally just the tip of the iceberg; as much as 90 percent of any iceberg lies below the sea surface. “When something is that big, it’s going to feel the currents that are the same size as it,” Willis said.
Figure 38: As the map shows, the trillion-ton iceberg neared the island’s shallow shelf in mid-December, then rotated clockwise and followed the current parallel to the shelf. The northern end of the berg protruded into shallow waters and eventually broke off, forming iceberg A-68D. Over the next several days, the main berg swerved and drifted southeast with the currents, away from South Georgia (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory images by Lauren Dauphin and Joshua Stevens, using MODIS data from NASA EOSDIS/LANCE and GIBS/Worldview, ocean bathymetry data from the British Oceanographic Data Center’s General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans (GEBCO), digital elevation data from the British Antarctic Survey, OSCAR (Ocean Surface Current Analysis Real-time) data from the Physical Oceanography Distributed Active Archive Center (PO.DAAC), and Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey. Story by Kathryn Hansen)
Figure 39: NASA's MODIS instruments also captured daily images of the berg, some of which you can see in this time-lapse sequence. Iceberg A-68A is still a behemoth iceberg, but it is changing fast. During the berg’s turn, a piece broke off and became iceberg A-68D. On December 22, the U.S. National Ice Center announced that two more large pieces broke away: icebergs A-68E and A-68F. The pieces are visible in the image, acquired on December 23, 2020, by OLI on Landsat-8. The image is false-color (bands 6-5-4) to help differentiate clouds (light blue-white) and ice (dark blue), image credit: NASA Earth Observatory
- Notice the bits of iceberg scattered across the ocean, which appear tiny compared with the named bergs. Some of these “small” pieces measure more than a kilometer long. Bergs like these are still at the mercy of currents, but winds and waves start to play a larger role in moving them around. Also notice the long rifts visible across the surface of A-68A, evidence of the stresses acting on the berg. Breakup of Antarctic icebergs is normal as they head north, where warmer water and air temperatures encourage melting.
- The smaller, newly named icebergs will continue to follow the ocean currents. “But they might do more wiggling around than we can explain with the current generation of sea level satellites,” Willis said. “In a few years, though, the upcoming NASA/CNES Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) mission might give us enough resolution to be able to predict the path of even these smaller bergs.”
• December 17, 2020: The South Pacific island nation of Fiji is bracing for the arrival of severe tropical cyclone Yasa. Citizens were told to evacuate low-lying areas in anticipation of a storm that will likely have category 4 or 5 strength when it arrives on December 17, 2020. Tropical cyclone warnings and flash flood alerts were issued for Vanua Levu, Viti Levu, the Yasawa and Mamanuca groups, and smaller surrounding islands. 26)
- Yasa emerged as a tropical storm on December 12 and organized into a cyclone by December 14. Over the next 36 hours, wind speeds increased by 130 kilometers (80 miles) per hour—well beyond the threshold increase of 55 kilometers (35 miles) per hour that meteorologists refer to as “rapid intensification.”
Figure 40: As of midnight Fiji standard time on December 17, the Joint Typhoon Warning Center reported sustained winds of 140 knots (260 kilometers/160 miles per hour). The center of the category 5 storm was about 400 km (240 miles) northwest of Suva, Fiji. The storm’s eye appeared to be headed between the islands of Viti Levu and Vanua Levu. Forecasters noted that wave heights around the eye of the storm could approach 14 meters (45 feet). The natural-color image above was acquired in the early afternoon on December 16, 2020, by the MODIS instrument on NASA’s Aqua satellite (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using MODIS data from NASA EOSDIS/LANCE and GIBS/Worldview and sea surface temperature data from the Multiscale Ultrahigh Resolution (MUR) project. Story by Michael Carlowicz)
- Yasa is the fifth storm worldwide to reach category 5 strength in 2020 and the second to do so in the South Pacific. (Tropical Cyclone Harold hit Vanuatu in April.) Only one previous category 5 storm on record has made landfall in Fiji: Tropical Cyclone Winston in 2016.
Figure 41: Yasa has had plenty of fuel for growth, as the storm developed and evolved over warm South Pacific waters known to fuel cyclonic storms. The map shows sea surface temperatures (SSTs) in the region as measured on December 15, 2020. Scientists have established that ocean temperatures should be at or above 27º Celsius (80º Fahrenheit)—red on the map—to sustain a cyclone or hurricane. The SST data come from the Multiscale Ultrahigh Resolution Sea Surface Temperature (MUR SST) project. MUR SST blends measurements of sea surface temperatures from multiple NASA, NOAA, and international satellites, as well as ship and buoy observations (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory)
• November 29, 2020: The Brahmaputra is a river of many names. In its upper courses, where it winds through a maze of narrow gorges in Tibet, it is the Yarlung Tsangpo. After a hairpin turn near Namche Barwa, it becomes the Siang. As it cascades through the Himalayan foothills in the northeastern Indian state of Arundal Pradesh, it is called the Dihang. People start calling it the Brahamputra as it widens and flows through Assam. After crossing into Bangladesh and absorbing the flow of several tributaries, it becomes the Jamuna River, then the Padma, and finally the Meghna before pouring into the Bay of Bengal. 27)
- With dozens of sediment-rich streams flowing south from the Himalayan highlands into the Assam Valley and an area with very high erosion rates near Namche Barwa, the Brahmaputra has one of the highest sediment loads per square kilometer of any river in the world—second only to China’s Yellow River.
- In some ways, the sediment is a blessing. Annual floods spread mineral-rich silt across farmland adjacent to the river, replenishing the soil. In other ways, it poses challenges. There is so much of it that large boats are unable to navigate many parts of the river. In an attempt to limit how much the narrow, shallow channels erode land and flood, authorities have launched a number of large-scale dredging projects.
- The vast amount of sediment deposited each year in the Ganges-Brahmaputra delta has ramifications for sea level rise. According to one recent study, the increasing weight of sediment piling up in the delta causes the land surface to sag downward. The authors found sediment loading adds 2 to 3 millimeters of subsidence per year, an amount comparable to the rate of global mean sea level rise.
Figure 42: The river’s high sediment load contributes to the abrupt change in its shape as it exits the Himalayas and hits flatter land. The MODIS instrument on NASA’s Aqua satellite captured this natural-color image of the river on November 9, 2020. Notice how the narrow channel widens after passing the town of Pasighat, transforming into a braided river with multiple, interlacing channels. As the water slows in the flatter Brahmaputra Valley, it loses its capacity to carry sediment, depositing the excess silt in sandbars. In the course of a few kilometers, the river channel increases its width twentyfold (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Lauren Dauphin, using MODIS data from NASA EOSDIS/LANCE and GIBS/Worldview. Story by Adam Voiland)
• November 20, 2020: In the days after Typhoon Vamco (Ulysses) passed through, the Philippines provinces of Cagayan and Isabela saw devastating flooding and landslides. Officials in Tuguegarao City, the provincial capital of Cagayan, called the flooding the worst they had endured in at least four decades. 28)
- According to UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, more than 3.6 million people have been affected by the floods, with nearly 280,000 displaced and at least 73 deaths. Though flood waters are now receding, more than 67,000 homes have been damaged or destroyed, and power and communications are still cut off in many areas.
- Three typhoons have hit the Philippines in the past four weeks, and while none of them made direct landfall in northern Luzon, each dropped abundant rainfall in the region. Typhoon Molave (Quinta) first passed through in late October, and Super Typhoon Goni (Rolly) blasted southern Luzon on November 1. By the time Typhoon Vamco arrived, the Cagayan River and its tributaries were already swollen. The cumulative effect of the storms plus the monsoon season overwhelmed the region’s waterways.
- Flowing mostly north for 500 km (300 miles), the Cagayan has wide channels and flood plains, with sizable sections deforested and covered by farmland. The main stem receives water from many streams and smaller rivers. Just a year ago, the flood-prone river valley was devastated by what was then called a “100-year flood.” When the trio of storms soaked the area in late 2020, regional water managers opened the floodgates on Magat Dam, one of the largest in the country, to keep water from over-topping the dam. That added volume to the swollen waterways downstream.
- According to news reports, flood waters reportedly rose as much as 5 meters in some areas along the valley. The European Space Agency’s Sentinel-2 satellite got a closeup, natural-color view of flooding around Tuguegarao City, while Sentinel-1 acquired a radar view of the flooded valley.
Figure 43: In the early afternoon on November 18, 2020, the MODIS instrument on NASA’s Aqua satellite acquired this natural-color image of the northern portion of Luzon Island. The swollen and muddy Cagayan River stands out against the inland landscape and pours sediment into the Philippine Sea near Aparri. Because of its tropical climate, it is often difficult to get visible imagery of the island (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens, using MODIS data from NASA EOSDIS/LANCE and GIBS/Worldview. Story by Michael Carlowicz)
- Typhoon Molave was forecasted to make landfall in southern Vietnam on the morning of October 28, 2020. Meteorologists predicted that the storm would bring 100 to 200 millimeters (4 to 8 inches) of rain near landfall and could potentially trigger landslides in mountainous areas. Officials in Vietnam have ordered evacuations for more than a million residents. The storm may also bring rainfall to Thailand and the island of Hainan, China.
- Molave passed through the Philippines on October 26 and 27 (locally known as Quinta) displacing thousands of residents, flooding villages, and causing several deaths. The storm has since intensified and is likely to maintain its strength as it crosses warm waters and an area with low wind shear. The storm is expected to make landfall with sustained winds of 135 to 180 kilometers (85 to 115 miles) per hour.
- Vietnam is already reeling from weeks of intense flooding caused by three tropical storms since October 11. Although October is part of rainy season for the country, the weather has been exacerbated by a La Niña event. La Niña is characterized by usually cold temperatures in the eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean and warmer water in the western Pacific, which leads to wetter-than-normal conditions to Southeast Asia.
Figure 44: On October 27, 2020, the ODIS instrument on NASA's Aqua satellite captured this image of Molave as it crossed the South China Sea (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory, image by Lauren Dauphin, using MODIS data from NASA EOSDIS/LANCE and GIBS/Worldview. Story by Kasha Patel)
• October 16, 2020: Small, controlled fires have long been a seasonal occurrence in Bolivia. They are routinely used as a tool to maintain pastures, burn off spent crops, clear brush and forest, fertilize soil, and burn trash. But the fires in 2020 — like those in 2019 — have been anything but routine. They have prompted the government to declare a state of emergency. 30)
- Rather than remaining small and burning for short periods, fires this year have escaped and burned unchecked in several ecosystems, including the Pantanal wetlands in the eastern part of the country; the dry Chiquitano forest in the southeast; and Beni savanna and Amazon rainforest areas in the north. Satellites have observed fires burning throughout August, September, and October, charring large areas and emitting a pall of smoke that has often darkened skies over the region.
Figure 45: The MODIS instrument on NASA’s Aqua satellite acquired these natural-color images showing smoke streaming from fires in the Chiquitano forest of eastern Bolivia from October 7 to 10, 2020. The red dots are active fire detections—locations where the VIIRS (Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite) detected unusually warm temperatures associated with fires (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory images by Lauren Dauphin, using MODIS data from NASA EOSDIS/LANCE and GIBS/Worldview and VIIRS data from NASA EOSDIS/LANCE and GIBS/Worldview and the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership. Story by Adam Voiland)
- Scientists attribute the extreme fire behavior in Bolivia to a particularly intense and prolonged drought and a recent heat wave that have both turned vegetation into tinder. Warm ocean temperatures in the tropical Atlantic Ocean may be at least partly responsible for the drought; the warmer water tends to shift weather patterns in a way that diverts moisture away from South America into the Northern Hemisphere.
- “In the 2000s, severe droughts linked to the warm phase of the Atlantic Multi-decadal Oscillation created conditions where forest fires could burn for months, even in dense Amazon rainforest,” explained Douglas Morton, chief of the Biospheric Sciences Laboratory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “This year fits that pattern. As warmer Atlantic sea surface temperatures shifted rainfall to the north, central South America has suffered drought conditions that have put multiple areas at greater risk of wildfires.”
- Drought conditions first sparked widespread fire activity in the Parana delta in Argentina in June. That was followed by unprecedented burning in the Pantanal wetlands along the borders of Brazil, Bolivia, and Paraguay in August. Most recently, these fires have flared up in the dry forests of northeastern Bolivia in September and October.
- The consequences of the fires have been severe in Bolivia. The government reports that fires have charred more than 1.3 million acres, burning dangerously close to several towns and causing widespread damage to crops and grazing lands. In Santa Cruz and Chuquisaca, fires have collectively destroyed more than 45,000 hectares of crops, 27,000 hectares of grazing land, and 800 head of cattle. According to one analysis of high-resolution commercial satellite imagery by the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP), 25 percent of the large fires in Bolivia have burned in protected areas, including Noel Kempff Mercado National Park and Copaibo Municipal Protected Area. Relief is not likely to come anytime soon, as weather forecasts predict high temperatures, winds, and little rain in the next few weeks.
- Scientists have been tracking the fires in the region and sharing the data with the public via NASA’s Amazon dashboard tool. It shows pronounced increases in the number of savanna and grassland fires in El Beni starting in mid-August. It also detected deforestation and small clearing fires in September in the Amazon rainforest areas of northern Bolivia.
Figure 46: This Aqua image shows the smoke plumes on just October 9 (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory)
• October 13, 2020: Months before Arctic sea ice reached its annual minimum extent for 2020, the floating blanket of ice had already pulled away from the Siberian coast. The seasonal ice will eventually return, but in mid-September, inland fresh water continued to flow unimpeded into the Laptev Sea. 31)
Figure 47: The result is a colorful mixture of dissolved organic matter and sediments that help trace the water’s otherwise invisible currents and eddies. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite acquired this natural-color image on September 10, 2020 (image credit: NASA image by Norman Kuring/NASA's Ocean Color Web, using MODIS data from NASA EOSDIS/LANCE and GIBS/Worldview. Story by Kathryn Hansen)
- Some of the brown and green color is the result of organic matter—debris from leaves, branches, and peat—dissolved in the river water and carried out to sea. The rivers also carry suspended sediments, adding to the colorful palette. The detailed patterns in the Laptev Sea are real, but certain shades and tones in the data have been separated and filtered to make the sediments and dissolved organic matter stand out.
- Phytoplankton might also be present amid the color. Samples collected during a 2015 field study showed that diatoms were abundant in early September in the upper layers of the sea, particularly in areas where seawater had been freshened by discharge from the Lena River. Researchers also found species of dinoflagellates and green algae in the water.
- The Lena, Ob, and Yenisei rivers together account for about half of the fresh water supplied to the Arctic Ocean each year. Fresh water from rivers and other sources is important to the ecosystem and to sea ice formation, but it also has the potential to affect ocean circulation patterns and climate.
- Scientists have been investigating how freshwater plumes move around the Arctic Ocean and mix with seawater. They are also studying the effect of changes occurring inland. The erosion of permafrost deposits releases large amounts of carbon and nitrogen into the Lena River and the Arctic Ocean, affecting ecosystems and adding greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
• October 10, 2020: William Dampier was not a typical pirate. Between pillages, the curious English sailor took detailed notes about local wildlife and even collected plants—some of which are still preserved today—on his voyages around the world. His travel logs provided valuable information for future scientists such as Charles Darwin and even inspired Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. 32)
- On a trip to the most westerly tip of Australia in 1699, he came across a basin with an abundance of sharks. Named by Dampier, Shark Bay is home to 28 different species, from the notorious tiger shark to the timid nervous shark. Little did Dampier know that the area would become world-renowned, but not because of its sharks. Shark Bay contains the largest and richest beds of seagrasses in the world and is also home to some of the oldest lifeforms on Earth.
- Spanning 4,800 km2, these underwater meadows include 12 of the world’s 60 known seagrass species. They grow in waters close to shore, where they are protected from strong ocean currents and receive lots of light for growth. Scientists estimate that around eight million tons of leaf material grow each year in the meadows. The Wooramel seagrass bank, the largest in the world, covers 1,000 km2 and stretches 130 km along Shark Bay’s eastern coastline.
- The lush seagrass meadows help feed and sustain a large variety of animals. Of note, Shark Bay supports more than 10,000 dugongs—described by Dampier as a shark with a hippopotamus in its mouth—around 10 percent of the world’s population. The bay is also home to endangered green and loggerhead turtles.
- Perhaps the most interesting life around the area is the oldest and smallest. The shores around Shark Bay contain numerous stromatolite deposits—layered rocks that are created when microbes trap particles and create sediments. The stromatolites found here are some of the most diverse in the world, and researchers study their sediments to learn what marine ecosystems looked like three billion years ago.
- The majority of Shark Bay’s stromatolites are located in the shallows of Hamelin Pool, on the basin’s eastern shore. The shallow pool is ideal for stromatolites because it is about twice as salty as the ocean. The hypersaline environment is the result of a combination of factors. The sand and seagrass banks make it difficult for water to flow through the area, trapping it in the pool. And low rainfall and high evaporation rates draw off moisture and make an ever-saltier basin. Since few animals and plants can survive in such conditions, nearby microbial communities have less competition for resources and fewer predators, allowing them to thrive and create the abundance of stromatolites.
Figure 48: The MODIS instrument on NASA's Aqua satellite captured this natural-color image of the region on September 30, 2020. Shark Bay’s waters, islands, and peninsulas cover more than 23,000 km2 (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory, image by Lauren Dauphin, using MODIS data from NASA EOSDIS/LANCE and GIBS/Worldview. Story by Kasha Patel)
• September 14, 2020: NASA's Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS), aboard the Aqua satellite, captured carbon monoxide plumes coming from California wildfires last week. There were 28 major wildfires burning across the state as of Sept. 14. This includes the August Complex Fire, which started on Aug. 17 and has since burned over 471,000 acres, making it the largest fire on record in California. 33)
Figure 49: This visualization shows a three-day average of carbon monoxide concentrations, from Sept. 6 to 14, in the atmosphere over California due to wildfires. Higher concentrations of the gas appear as red and orange regions (image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
- The animation shows three-day averages of carbon monoxide concentrations around 3 miles (5 km) up in the atmosphere between Sept. 6 and Sept. 14. The red and orange areas indicate regions with extremely high carbon monoxide concentrations of greater than 350 parts per billion by volume (ppbv). The more normal, background concentrations of carbon monoxide show up as yellow and green, with amounts between 30 and 50 ppbv.
- Released by the fires along with smoke and ash, carbon monoxide is a pollutant that can persist in the atmosphere for about a month and can be transported great distances. At the high altitude mapped in these images, the gas has little effect on the air we breathe; however, strong winds can carry it downwards to where it can significantly impact air quality. Carbon monoxide plays a role in both air pollution and climate change.
- The intense heat from the wildfires lofted the carbon monoxide high into the atmosphere, enabling detection by the AIRS instrument. The jet stream then blew the carbon monoxide plume eastward across the U.S. and over the Atlantic Ocean.
- AIRS, in conjunction with the Advanced Microwave Sounding Unit (AMSU), senses emitted infrared and microwave radiation from Earth to provide a three-dimensional look at Earth's weather and climate. Working in tandem, the two instruments make simultaneous observations down to Earth's surface. With more than 2,000 channels sensing different regions of the atmosphere, the system creates a global, three-dimensional map of atmospheric temperature and humidity, cloud amounts and heights, greenhouse gas concentrations and many other atmospheric phenomena. Launched into Earth orbit in 2002, the AIRS and AMSU instruments fly onboard NASA's Aqua spacecraft and are managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, under contract to NASA. JPL is a division of Caltech.
• September 7, 2020: Intense heat, winds, and drought have fueled smoky infernos in the western United States. 34)
- Though serious fires burned in California and other western states for much of August 2020, many new fires were ignited and others surged in intensity over Labor Day weekend. Cold air from Canada spilled into the Great Basin and helped trigger powerful wind storms in the Pacific Northwest.
- With record-breaking heat and extreme drought conditions already gripping much of the region, the addition of high winds further energized the fires, prompting many to spread rapidly and loft vast columns of smoke high into the air.
Figure 50: When the Aqua and NOAA-20 satellites acquired these images on September 7, 2020, smoke filled the skies across several states. In a few instances, fires grew so hot that they created pyrocumulus “fire clouds” that lofted columns of smoke several miles into the atmosphere. Thick smoke triggered warnings of unhealthy air quality in the region (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory, images by Lauren Dauphin, using MODIS and VIIRS data from NASA EOSDIS/LANCE and GIBS/Worldview. Story by Adam Voiland)
- The fires have created destroyed homes and triggered evacuations in many communities. In California, hundreds of hikers trapped at a wilderness resort near Fresno had to be rescued by helicopter. In Washington, the Babbs Road fire overran most of the town of Malden. In Oregon, flames destroyed large numbers of buildings in Blue River. In Colorado, people faced mandatory evacuations due to the Cameron Peak fire. They also endured weather whiplash: Just a day after record temperatures helped fuel fires, air temperatures plummeted nearly 60°F (33°C) and snow fell.
Figure 51: Fires acquired by Aqua and NOAA-20 on 7 September 2020 in the Western US (NASA Earth Observatory)
• July 31, 2020: Each summer, parts of the Arctic Ocean and peripheral seas lose their ice cover and bathe in ample sunlight. In this window of time, some of these open-water areas come to life with phytoplankton blooms so large and vivid they can be seen from space. 35)
- The summer of 2020 has been one of those summers. Phytoplankton—the floating plant-like organisms that, like plants on land, need sunlight and nutrients to thrive—have exploded in numbers, or “bloomed,” across ice-free northern latitudes.
- In the Barents Sea, blooms that show up in spring and early summer are typically composed of diatoms—a microscopic form of algae with silica shells and ample chlorophyll, which makes them appear green in satellite images. By late July and into autumn, waters become warmer and more stratified. This change promotes blooms of coccolithopohres, a type of phytoplankton that turns the water milky white-green in satellite imagery due to their calcium carbonate shells. Sometimes, as is likely the case here, both types of phytoplankton show up to at once.
- While blooms around the Arctic are somewhat common, new research has shown that phytoplankton biomass is continuing to increase in the Arctic Ocean. In a recent paper published in Science, researchers from Stanford University found that the rate of growth of phytoplankton biomass across the Arctic Ocean increased by 57 percent between 1998 and 2018. 36)
Figure 52: This image, acquired on July 26, 2020 with the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites, shows a bloom of phytoplankton in the Barents Sea, north of Scandinavia and Russia (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory, images by Joshua Stevens, using MODIS data from NASA EOSDIS/LANCE and GIBS/Worldview and data courtesy of Lewis, K. M., van Dijken, G. L., & Arrigo, K. R. (2020). Story by Kathryn Hansen)
- The success of phytoplankton in this increasingly ice-free environment is apparent in the map above. It shows changes in the amount of chlorophyll a—the pigment used by phytoplankton to harness sunlight for making food—during the past two decades across the Arctic Ocean. The map was produced using a regional algorithm that incorporates satellite data from NASA’s SeaWiFS and MODIS instruments. Notice that most of the increase is in the Chukchi and Barents seas.
Figure 53: Between 1998 and 2008, the increase in phytoplankton biomass was likely the result of increasingly vast expanses of ice-free waters and a longer growing season. Since 2009, the increases have been due to phytoplankton growing in ever-higher concentrations. The implication is that nutrients might be increasing in some parts of the Arctic Ocean (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory)
- “We were certainly surprised to see that phytoplankton biomass has begun to increase in the Arctic,” said Stanford biological oceanographer Kevin Arrigo, whose doctoral student Kate Lewis led the study. “Many people have been saying that with increased melt, nutrient inventories would decline, but that is not what we saw.”
- Not all areas saw increases; the waters east of Greenland stand out. Arrigo speculated that the decline there could be related to higher nutrient consumption “upstream” in waters that have become more productive. “But we would have to go there and look to know for sure,” he said.
- It remains unclear how phytoplankton biomass will change in the future as Arctic sea ice cover continues to shrink. “The Arctic Ocean is changing in an alarming rate and soon may lose a lot of its uniquely polar characteristics,” Arrigo said. “There will always be winter ice, but for the rest of the year, it’s starting to look a lot like our temperate oceans.”
• July 21, 2020: Arctic sea ice is subject to some serious travel restrictions. Penned in by major land masses, most ice that forms in the Arctic Ocean stays there for the duration of its existence—typically one to four years before melting. Some ice, however, escapes the Arctic Ocean through a handful of passages and then drifts south. 37)
- “The pack-ice you see in the image is remnant ice that exited the Arctic through Fram Strait,” wrote Robert Pickart, a high-latitude oceanographer at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. “It is in the process of melting out as it is carried southward by the East Greenland Current.”
- The Fram Strait is the primary route for sea ice exiting the Arctic Ocean. This 450 km (280 mile) wide passage between Greenland and Svalbard connects the Arctic Ocean with the Greenland Sea. The East Greenland Current originates north of the Fram Strait and moves seawater, along with some sea ice, southward toward the southern tip of Greenland.
- Pickart, who was sailing on the R/V Armstrong near the southern tip of Greenland at the time of this interview, noted that the current is unstable and tends to meander. The instability causes vortices of water, or “eddies,” to propagate offshore, which can deform the seaward edge of the sea ice.
- “This is a graphic example of how fresh water—both liquid and frozen—originating from the Arctic gets transferred to the interior of the Nordic seas, which modulates the wintertime transformation of the interior water,” Pickart said. “If this changes in the future, it has implications for the global overturning circulation that helps regulate our climate.”
Figure 54: That’s the origin of the sea ice pictured here. When satellites acquired these images in July 2020, the ice had drifted more than 1,000 km (600 miles) from the Arctic Ocean. The wide view above, acquired on July 2 with the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite, shows sea ice hugging the coast of East Greenland (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory images by Lauren Dauphin, using MODIS data from NASA EOSDIS/LANCE and GIBS/Worldview and Landsat data from USGS, story by Kathryn Hansen)
Figure 55: This detailed image, acquired on 3 July 2020 with the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat-8, shows ice south of the Scoresby Sound (Kangertittivaq) fjord system along the Denmark Strait (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory)
• July 20, 2020: Less than two months into the hurricane season, the Atlantic basin has already produced six named storms, delivering some of the earliest activity in the past fifty years. None of the storms reached hurricane intensity, but the sheer number of them fit with forecasts of a busy season. 38)
Figure 56: Abnormally warm ocean temperatures and a potential La Niña set the stage for an above-average Atlantic hurricane season. The map shows sea surface temperatures on July 14, 2020 (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory, images by Lauren Dauphin, using data from the Multiscale Ultrahigh Resolution (MUR) project, story by Kasha Patel)
- Forecasters at NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center predicted in May that 2020 would likely be an above-average hurricane season. A typical year brings 12 named storms (winds of at least 63 kilometers/39 miles per hour), of which 6 become hurricanes (winds of at least 120 km/74 miles per hour). This year, forecasters predicted 13 to 19 named storms, of which 6 to 10 would become hurricanes. Storm formation and intensification depend on a number of complex variables and conditions, and several are lining up in favor of robust activity in 2020.
- “Early season storm activity does not necessarily correlate with later hurricane activity,” said Jim Kossin, an atmospheric scientist with NOAA. “But if we’re in a season where the environment is conducive to storm formation early on, then those underlying favorable conditions often persist throughout the season.”
- Sea surface temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean have been abnormally warm so far in 2020, which could help fuel storms. Warm ocean water evaporates and provides moisture and energy for the lower atmosphere. As water vapor rises and condenses, it releases heat that warms the surrounding air and can promote the growth of storms. Ocean waters typically need to be above 27°C (80°F) for storms to develop. In early July, parts of the Atlantic basin (which includes the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean) hit temperatures of 30°C (86°F).
- Instruments: Aqua — AMSR-E and MODIS; NOAA-15 POES — AVHRR, NOAA-18 POES - AVHRR, NOAA-19 POES — AVHRR and Terra — MODIS.
Figure 57: This map shows sea surface temperature anomalies for the same day, indicating how much the water was above or below the long-term average (2003-2014) temperature for July 14. The data come from the Multiscale Ultrahigh Resolution Sea Surface Temperature (MUR SST) project, based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. MUR SST blends measurements of sea surface temperatures from multiple NASA, NOAA, and international satellites, as well as ship and buoy observations (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory)
- “If it’s warmer than average for several months, it’s reasonable to say that it will still be warmer than average later on in the season,” said Tim Hall, a hurricane researcher at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. “Ocean temperatures do not change rapidly.”
- Hall compiled the data for the chart below, which shows how this season compares so far to the past 50 years. The brown line represents the average number of tropical cyclones from 1970-2017 for that day, calculated from the National Hurricane Center’s HURDAT2 database. Day 120 is April 30 (except in Leap Years), one month before the official start of the season. The crest and trough of the shading represent the highest and lowest accumulated tropical cyclone count on that day. The season with the overall highest count was 2005, when there were 30 named storms and four category 5 hurricanes (Emily, Katrina, Rita, and Wilma).
Figure 58: “2020 is leading the pack in the number of tropical storms so far,” said Hall. The fifth and sixth named tropical storms of 2020—Eduoard and Fay—occurred earlier than any other in the five decades of satellite observations. Hall is quick to note, however, that the coastal impacts of the storms have been relatively mild, as no storm strengthened into a hurricane. Chart data courtesy of Tim Hall (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory)
- Beyond a warm ocean, a combination of factors also need to line up in order to create strong storms. Kossin noted that storms need low vertical wind shear and moist air in order to form, intensify, and persist. Vertical wind shear arises from changes in wind speed or direction between Earth’s surface and the top of the troposphere (10 km/6 miles above sea level). Strong vertical wind shear can impede storm formation by removing heat and moisture from the atmosphere. It can also up-end the shape of a hurricane by blowing its top away from its bottom.
- Forecasters have noted the development of one phenomenon that may affect wind shear in 2020: La Niña. Characterized by unusually cold ocean surface temperatures in the eastern equatorial Pacific, La Niña weakens westerly winds high in the atmosphere. This leads to low vertical wind shear in areas around the Americas, including the Atlantic basin, allowing hurricanes to form.
- On the other hand, bursts of dry air from the Sahara can suppress storm formation. Since June 2020, Saharan dust storms have carried dry air across the Atlantic Ocean and stunted storm development.
- “Even when the oceans are very warm and favorable for storm formation, dry air intrusions and dusty air from the Sahara can keep hurricanes from forming,” said Kossin. Saharan air layers create strong wind shear and bring dry air to the mid-levels of the atmosphere, where it can affect the structure and development of tropical cyclones.
- But unlike ocean temperatures, atmospheric conditions like wind shear and dry air can change rapidly. “We had events that suppressed further intensification of the tropical storms so far, but that doesn't mean those events will still be around in August and September," said Hall. "The warmer-than-average ocean temperatures will likely persist until the fall so the table is set for an active season if these other key factors also line up.”
• July 13, 2020: In southern South America, clouds often rule the skies. But in June 2020, just the right weather patterns were in place to provide a rare, clear view of Patagonia in winter. 39)
- According to René Darío Garreaud, a professor at the University of Chile, it’s unusual to see such a widespread cloud-free area over Patagonia. “The last time that I saw a completely clear image was in February 2019,” he said. At that time, during the Southern Hemisphere’s summer, the warm seasonal temperatures meant snow and ice were mostly limited to the spine of the Andes and the Patagonian icefields.
- The region is typically cloudy in satellite imagery due to the year-round passage of storms. The southern tip of the continent dips into a belt of prevailing westerly winds, along which high- and low-pressure systems constantly drift eastward. The terrain also enhances the region’s cloudiness: when winds encounter the Andes, moist air blowing in from the Pacific Ocean is forced upward, where it cools and condenses into clouds.
- In June, the usual weather pattern came to a halt. A system of high pressure settled in over the Drake Passage—the waterway just south of the continent—and brought clear skies to the wider region. The weather system stayed put for nearly a week. The phenomenon is known as a “blocking high,” aptly named because it blocks the typical movement of air masses. In this case, westerly winds were forced to take a detour.
- As a result of the blocking high, unusually cold temperatures stretched from Patagonia all the way to Paraguay and Bolivia. Cloud-free skies mean that heat near the land surface can more easily escape to space, resulting in cooler temperatures. In addition, the diverted westerly winds brought cold air from Antarctica and funneled it right into southern Patagonia.
Figure 59: On June 26, when the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite acquired these images, skies were clear over nearly all of Patagonia, which spans more than 1 million square kilometers of the continent’s southern end. Snow cover is visible from the western slopes of the Andes Mountains in Chile to the coastal lowlands in Argentina (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory, images by Lauren Dauphin, using MODIS data from NASA EOSDIS/LANCE and GIBS/Worldview. Story by Kathryn Hansen)
- Those cold temperatures kept the Patagonian plateau in Argentina blanketed under snow that fell during a major storm on June 23-24. Parts of the southern Andes receive abundant precipitation each year, measuring more than 500 cm (200 inches). It’s less common, however, to see snowfall so far east on an arid part of the continent that receives less than 30 cm (12 inches) of precipitation each year.
- The bout of frigid air, however, was not enough to freeze the deep lakes east of the icefield (detailed image of Figure 60). “Even in winter, surface air temperatures are generally above 0 ºC,” Garreaud said. “So the cold event was intense, but not long enough to freeze these lakes.” Left unfrozen, the lakes’ turquoise color—a result of “glacial flour”—contrasts even more with the surrounding white snow.
• June 24, 2020: Eastern Siberia is famous for some of the coldest wintertime temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere. But in 2020, it has been the region’s wildly high temperatures and wildfires that have wowed meteorologists. 40)
- After several months of warm weather, the Russian town of Verkhoyansk reported a daytime temperature of 38°C (100.4°F) on June 20—likely a record high for the town. (The previous high was 37.3°C, recorded on July 25, 1988.) If verified, this will be the northernmost temperature reading above 100°F ever observed and the highest temperature on record in the Arctic, according to the Capital Weather Gang.
- “This event seems very anomalous in the last hundred years or so,” said NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies Director Gavin Schmidt. “The background trends in temperature in this region are about 3 degrees Celsius since the 19th century, so the probabilities of breaking records there are increasing fast.”
- Note that the map depicts land surface temperatures (LSTs), not air temperatures. LSTs reflect how hot the surface of the Earth would feel to the touch and can sometimes be significantly hotter or cooler than air temperatures. — To learn more about land surface temperatures and air temperatures, read: Where is the Hottest Place on Earth?
Figure 61: This map shows land surface temperature anomalies from March 19 to June 20, 2020. Red colors depict areas that were hotter than average for the same period from 2003-2018; blues were colder than average. The map is based on data from the MODIS instrument on NASA’s Aqua satellite (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using data from the Level 1 and Atmospheres Active Distribution System (LAADS) and Land Atmosphere Near real-time Capability for EOS (LANCE), and data from NASA EOSDIS/LANCE and GIBS/Worldview and the Suomi NPP. Story by Adam Voiland)
- In a report about the remarkably warm temperatures in Siberia, European scientists examined historical temperature data in their global ERA5 reanalysis, finding that temperatures have been unusually warm in the region since January 2020. Since the ERA5 data begins in 1979, the European team also looked to GISTEMP, a NASA temperature record with data through 1880. They could not find any other examples in either dataset of such an intense heat wave in this part of Siberia persisting for such an extended period.
- The persistent high-pressure atmospheric pattern that brought the extreme heat has exacerbated wildfires, prompting dozens to burn in the region’s forest and shrub ecosystems. Some of those ecosystems grow on top of carbon-rich layers of peat and permafrost. The natural-color image below shows smoke streaming from several active wildfires in Russia's Sakha region.
- “Most of Earth’s terrestrial carbon is stored in the upper latitudes of the northern hemisphere,” explained Amber Soja, a NASA scientist who has conducted field research in the region. Soja noted that many forests in the region are dominated by a coniferous tree—Dahurian larch—that drops its needles each winter. “But because the winters are so cold, there are few decomposers around to break the needles down. Over time, you end up with lots of buried fuel that has built up over centuries, even millennia, and stores huge quantities of carbon in peat and soils.”
- Intense heat waves can thaw the permafrost layer and make long-frozen deposits susceptible to fires, which move carbon from the ground to the atmosphere and contribute to global concentrations of greenhouse gases. “In this part of Siberia, the signs of climate change are already here. It’s not some distant future. It’s now,” she said. “The heat and fires this year are just adding more evidence to the climate change signal that we have seen in these forests for years.”
- Though it is still early in the fire season, satellite observations of active fires by NASA and NOAA’s MODIS and VIIRS sensors show the number of fire detections to be among the highest observed in any year since 2003. “Over the Russian Far East, there has been about the same amount of fire as last year, another very active year,” said NASA and Columbia University scientist Robert Field. “Both 2020 and 2019 were about twice the 2003–2020 average, and about half as much as 2011, the most active year.”
Figure 62: Fires are raging in eastern Siberia in the midst of an unusually long-lived heat wave. This image was acquired on 23 June 2020 (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory)
• June 9, 2020: As ships cruise across the ocean, they emit a large number of small airborne particles—aerosols—into the lower atmosphere. Under the right conditions, these exhaust particles cause long, thin cloud patterns referred to as “ship tracks.” For decades, scientists have theorized that these cloud changes might alter climate by affecting the amount of sunlight reaching Earth’s surface. 41)
- Now, for the first time, researchers have measured exactly how ship emissions affect clouds at a regional scale. University of Washington scientist Michael Diamond and colleagues examined more than a decade of cloud patterns over a busy shipping lane in the southeast Atlantic that connects Europe to southern Africa and Asia.
- The team measured the cloud properties inside the shipping corridor using satellite data and compared them to what they estimated the values would be without shipping activity. The scientists found that the shipping activity increased the number of cloud droplets over the shipping lane. They further showed that those clouds prevented about 2 Watts of solar energy from reaching each square meter of ocean surface along the shipping lane. The team’s results agreed with previous computer modeling studies that predicted a sizeable cooling effect due to shipping.
- “If you look at a satellite image of a high-traffic shipping area, when the weather conditions are right, you can clearly see bright lines of clouds right along where those ships are traveling and emitting aerosols,” said Diamond, an atmospheric scientist. ”Ship tracks are a prime example of how tiny particles of pollution in the atmosphere can influence cloud properties. The clearly visible ship tracks are only the tip of the iceberg, however, so our study looked at how shipping could affect cloud properties on average over a long time period.“
Figure 63: The natural-color image shows an example of ship tracks over the southeast Atlantic Ocean as observed on January 18, 2018, by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory, image by Lauren Dauphin using MODIS image by Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE/EOSDIS Rapid Response. Story by Kasha Patel)
Figure 64: The maps show the average cloud droplet concentrations from 2003 to 2015 during the cloudiest months for the region (September, October, and November). The map on the left shows the cloud droplet concentrations observed by MODIS on NASA’s Aqua and Terra satellites. The map on the right shows the expected cloud droplet concentrations without shipping activity. The expected values were calculated based on statistical patterns from nearby, unpolluted areas. The team then calculated the difference in the amount of sunlight reflected back into space between the two scenarios. The team used data from NASA’s Clouds and the Earth’s Radiant Energy System (CERES) instruments, which monitor the solar energy reflected by Earth and the heat energy emitted by the planet (NASA Earth Observatory, image by Lauren Dauphin, using data from Michael Diamond, et al. (2020). Story by Kasha Patel)
- Diamond explained that the aerosols from the ships create “seeds” in the atmosphere that water vapor can latch onto and condense into small cloud droplets. These smaller droplets make clouds brighter so that they reflect more sunlight, which creates a local cooling effect at the planet’s surface.
- That change is small on a regional scale, but it could be enough to affect global temperatures if the same phenomenon occurs worldwide, according to study co-author Hannah Director of the University of Washington. When the team scaled their findings across the planet, they found that changes in low-lying clouds from all industrial pollution sources could block about 1 Watt of energy per square meter globally. For context, greenhouse gases from industrial activities have trapped roughly 3 Watts per square meter so far.
- “Cloud changes caused by industrial pollution have produced a global cooling effect that is about one-third as strong as the warming from increased greenhouse gases,” said Diamond.
- Diamond explains that even though these ship emissions have a short-term cooling effect, they create other issues. Pollutants from ship exhaust have detrimental effects on human health, while also adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
- The algorithms developed for this study could be applied to study other anthropogenic sources of pollution around the world. “We can use a similar methodology to determine the effects of other human sources of aerosols like power plants,” said Diamond. “We could model the world with and without various human activities and better understand our impact on Earth's climate.”
• May 28,2020: Spend time on China’s Hainan Island, and chances are good that you will witness a lightning storm. Hainan and neighboring Guangdong province have the highest density of cloud-to-ground flashes and the most lightning related casualties in the country. 42)
Figure 65: This image was acquired at 2 p.m. China Standard Time (06:00 Universal Time) on May 11, 2020, with the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory, images by Lauren Dauphin, using MODIS data from NASA EOSDIS/LANCE, Story by Kathryn Hansen)
Figure 66: The time-series animation shows the growth of the clouds over the course of the day, as observed by Japan’s Himawari-8 satellite (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory, using GIBS/Worldview and Natural-color animation based on Himawari imagery, courtesy of the Japan Meteorological Agency)
- “It’s definitely a cumulonimbus cloud,” said Paul Markowski, a professor of meteorology at Pennsylvania State University. “And it’s sitting over the highest terrain in the center of the island.”
- The south-central part of the island is mountainous, with elevations of more than 1800 m (5,900 feet) surrounded by plains extending to the island’s northeast. The rugged topography creates orographic lift: when air moves across the plains and encounters the mountains, it is forced upward. So, when moist ocean air moves from low to high elevations, it cools and condenses into clouds.
- The terrain enhances the convection. But even if the island were completely flat, cumulonimbus could still develop, as the collision of air masses also forces air upward. Starting in the morning, the Sun quickly heats up the land and warms the air above it. The warm air rises it leaves behind a pocket of low pressure. Air within high pressure areas over the ocean moves in to fill the void, producing an onshore wind known as a “sea breeze.”
- As the cool, moist air from over the South China Sea moves toward the island’s interior, it can collide with warm air along the sea breeze front. The cool air forces the less dense warm air to rapidly rise, producing the vertical towers of clouds. Convection can be particularly intense in areas where sea breezes from opposite sides of the island ultimately collide.
- The whole process takes time, which explains why the storm clouds tend to develop in the afternoon. For example, similar clouds show up in the afternoon of May 10. In contrast, images from the mornings of May 10 and May 11 show cumulus-free skies.
• May 09, 2020: Almost like clockwork, the right conditions develop in different parts of the world and vibrant blooms of phytoplankton color the oceans. Spring and summer, for example, are common times to see blooms in places like the North Sea or off the Alaskan coast. In a bay off the coast of northwest Africa, however, conditions are almost always just right. 43)
- The color of Figure 67 is due to a combination of phytoplankton and sediments. Physical samples collected in recent decades off Mauritania have turned up large numbers of diatoms, a type of microscopic algae with silica shells and plenty of chlorophyll. They are one of the most common types of phytoplankton in the ocean.
- Diatoms tend to thrive in waters that are rich in nutrients. They often show up after strong storms mix the ocean layers and bring up nutrients from the depths. (In contrast, a type of phytoplankton called coccolithophores can flourish in the more layered, or “stratified” waters common during summer and autumn.)
- But the waters off Mauritania don’t need storms to mix. Trade winds constantly displace the surface water—blowing it west and away from the African coast—which is then replaced by cold, nutrient-rich waters from below (a process known as “upwelling”). The sediments here are especially rich with iron from Saharan dust.
- While the upwelling off Mauritania is constant, it is strongest in March and October. It is part of the Canary Upwelling System, one of the main upwelling systems that occur along the eastern edges of the planet’s ocean basins. Other such systems show up off of southern Africa (Benguela), Chile and Peru (Humboldt), and the United States (California). These areas are known to be among the most biologically productive regions of the planet’s oceans.
Figure 67: The MODIS instrument on NASA’s Aqua satellite acquired this image of colorful surface waters off of Mauritania on May 5, 2020. Scrolling through satellite images of the area reveals that there is nothing particularly unique about the May 5 image; the tongue of green water is present constantly throughout the year (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Lauren Dauphin, using MODIS data from NASA EOSDIS/LANCE and GIBS/Worldview. Story by Kathryn Hansen, with image interpretation by Oscar Romero and Gerhard Fischer/University of Bremen, and Violeta Sanjuan Calzado/NASA GSFC)
• April 29, 2020: For much of March and April 2020, satellites have detected signatures of heat and smoke from fires burning in northwestern Venezuela. Some of them burned in and near Ciénagas del Catatumbo National Park, a flat swampy area west of Lake Maracaibo known for its rainforests full of unusual plant and animal life. 44)
- Throughout March, satellites detected short-lived fires in the northwestern state of Zulia—likely crop or other small-scale fires. But in mid-March a larger, smokier, and more sustained fire cluster emerged in the park in a forested area west of the lake.
Figure 68: On March 27, 2020, the MODIS instrument on NASA’s Aqua satellite acquired an image of a sizable smoke plume over the park. Places where the sensor detected unusually warm temperatures—signs of fires—are shown with red. As seen in the image of Figure 69, the fire was still smoldering in late-April (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory, images by Lauren Dauphin, using MODIS data from NASA EOSDIS/LANCE and GIBS/Worldview)
- It is not clear what triggered the fire, but Venezuela is in the midst of an ongoing drought. Recent observations from the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow On (GRACE-FO) satellites show stark deficits in soil moisture and shallow groundwater in Zulia. The dry weather may be exacerbating Zulia’s normal fire season, which typically runs from January to April in MODIS records of active fire data.
- The state’s 2020 fire season is registering as one of the most active in the MODIS record since 2003, according to data analyzed by Robert Field, a scientist at Columbia University and NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Satellites observations also show that nearby mountain ranges have been channeling smoke southwest toward the city of Cucuta, noted Jean-Paul Vernier of NASA’s Earth applied sciences disasters program.
• April 16, 2020: Severe storms with high winds ripped through much of the southern and eastern United States in mid-April, with tornado warnings stretching from Florida to Virginia. More than a dozen tornadoes were confirmed in Mississippi, including one on April 12, 2020, that scarred the landscape to such a degree that it could be seen from space. 45)
Figure 70: The scar is visible in this natural-color image, acquired on April 14, 2020, with the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite. It shows where the tornado uprooted vegetation and spread debris along a path nearly 70 miles long from Jefferson Davis County to Clarke County in the southeast part in the state of Mississippi. Preliminary reports from the National Weather Service indicate that the storm was an EF4—the second-highest intensity on the Enhanced Fujita scale (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using MODIS data from NASA EOSDIS/LANCE and GIBS/Worldview, and the Level 1 and Atmospheres Active Distribution System (LAADS) and Land Atmosphere Near real-time Capability for EOS (LANCE). Story by Kathryn Hansen)
Figure 71: The signature of the scar is also apparent in this image, which shows land surface temperature data also acquired by Aqua MODIS. Damaged areas appear warmer than the surrounding landscape because bare ground heats up faster than vegetated areas (A similar phenomenon was observed in 2018 in the damage associated with hail storms), image credit: NASA Earth Observatory
- Other tornados also marked the landscape in the area, although the scars appear more subtle in satellite images. For example, an EF3 tornado tracked for nearly 83 miles from Lawrence to Jasper counties in southeast Mississippi. According to news reports, the deadly outbreak of storms left tens of thousands of people in the state without power and destroyed hundreds of homes.
• April 9, 2020: In early April 2020, satellites observed several wildfires in northern Ukraine around the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Hundreds of firefighters and at least eight airborne units were working to extinguish fires in the Denysovets, Kotovsky, and Korogodsky forests. 46)
- Officials have been fighting fires in the exclusion zone since April 4, 2020. As of April 9, police evacuated residents from the village of Poliske, which is located within the zone.
- The soils and forests of the exclusion zone, which spans about 2,600 km2 (1,000 square miles), were contaminated in 1986 by radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear accident. Fires in the exclusion zone are not uncommon, but the severity and intensity of the fires has grown over the years as more forests and grasslands have recovered. Research has also shown that fires in heavily contaminated areas can resuspend radioactive elements in smoke plumes that then get carried across long distances.
- On April 5, officials tested the air in Kiev and nearby suburbs for radioactivity, but they did not report finding any man-made contamination. As of April 9, the State Emergency Service of Ukraine reported that background radiation levels continue to be within the normal range around Kiev. Additionally, no spikes in radiation have been reported in Belarus.
Figure 72: The natural-color image shows the fires on April 9, as observed by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite. Forecasts called for winds to blow the plumes of smoke toward the Chernihiv region and the border with Belarus (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory, image by Lauren Dauphin, using MODIS data from NASA EOSDIS/LANCE and GIBS/Worldview. Story by Kasha Patel)
• March 26, 2020: Spring has arrived in Central Asia. And over the Aral Sea, that means there is dust in the air. The shrinking of this once-vast inland lake means winds more frequently pick up dust from the exposed lakebed. 47)
Figure 73: On March 24, 2020, the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite captured this natural-color image of a dust storm over the once-vast inland lake. Much of the dust appeared to be coming from the Aralkum Desert, which has emerged as the Aral Sea has dried in recent decades. Dried lake beds are abundant sources of atmospheric dust because they are filled with light, fine-grained sediment that winds can easily lift (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory, image by Lauren Dauphin, using MODIS data from NASA EOSDIS/LANCE and GIBS/Worldview. Story by Adam Voiland)
- Scientists use satellites to track when and where winds transport the most dust. One analysis of nearly a decade of data from the NASA’s Aura satellite found that dust transport from the Aral Sea peaks in the spring (March-May) and early winter (November-January). In the spring, northeasterly and southwesterly winds often prevail, with 42 percent of dust plumes blowing to the north, 32 percent to the south, and 26 percent to the west.
Figure 74: The Aral Sea has been shrinking since the 1960s, when the former Soviet Union undertook a major water diversion project on the arid plains of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan and diverted river water for crops that otherwise would have poured into the Aral Sea. As the lake dried, river runoff enriched the increasingly salty water with fertilizers and pesticides. As a result, the salty dust that blows from the exposed lake bed poses public health hazards and can degrade the fertility of soils in the surrounding area (video credit: NASA Earth Observatory)
• March 18, 2020: As observed during previous years in Southeast Asia, large numbers of seasonal agricultural fires and wildfires are creating clouds of smoke over northern Thailand and Burma (Myanmar). The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite acquired this natural-color image (Figure 75) on March 18, 2020. 48)
Figure 75: The haze and smoke has resulted in unhealthy levels of air pollution, particularly in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, which has had the most polluted air in the world several times this month (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory, image by Lauren Dauphin, using MODIS data from NASA EOSDIS/LANCE and GIBS/Worldview. Text by Kasha Patel)
• March 12, 2020: Over the past few decades, the bison population in Yellowstone National Park has grown substantially. Some of that is due to longstanding conservation efforts, but some of it is also due to a greater abundance of food for the animals to graze on. A new study by a NASA scientist has found a link between the effects of climate change, the productivity of grasslands, and the proliferation of bison in Yellowstone. 49)
- Using 20 years of data from NASA’s Aqua and Terra satellites, earth scientist Christopher Potter examined the length of the growing season in Yellowstone—from snowmelt in springtime to the first snowfall in autumn—and the health and abundance of vegetation during that time. He found that the annual period of vegetation growth has been getting longer, likely due to the decreasing severity of winters and warming average temperatures (year-round) as a result of climate change.
- The National Park Service first approached NASA about ten years ago for insight into patterns of growth across Yellowstone’s grasslands. They thought tracking such growth could provide wildlife managers with clues about where bison and other animals might move. Potter became part of that effort.
- As the new research shows, the grass-growing season is getting longer and bison have more opportunities to feed, likely fueling their population growth. But as they follow the development of new and better grazing spots, they become more likely to leave the protected areas of the park. This creates challenges for the Park Service because bison can carry brucellosis, a bacterial disease that can spread among other wild species and domesticated livestock. Getting regular updates on grassland growth patterns can help wildlife managers better predict the movements of the bison herds.
- Scientists also see national parks as natural laboratories for climate research because land use is restricted, so the fingerprints of climate change are easier to detect than in settled areas. A decade ago, there was enough satellite data to make some projections about vegetation growth and animal movements, but not enough to draw conclusions about climate effects. Now the 20-year record allows for deeper insights about Yellowstone.
- MODIS instruments acquire images across nearly the entire surface of Earth every day. For his study, Potter compiled cloud-free images of Yellowstone across 20 years and also developed tools to make maps of vegetation and snow cover. Wildlife managers can check such maps to anticipate where and when confrontations between bison and human communities are likely to happen and to prepare appropriate conservation actions at the park boundaries.
- “By compiling daily satellite data, we created a near-real-time online tool that resource managers can consult much like a weather map,” said Potter, who is based at NASA’s Ames Research Center. “MODIS is the silver bullet for these large-scale wilderness situations, where daily updates make all the difference in planning a response.”
Figure 76: A new study has found a link between the effects of climate change, the productivity of grasslands, and the proliferation of bison in Yellowstone National Park. The map depicts one aspect of that change: how the end of the growing season fluctuated around Yellowstone National Park between 2001 and 2017. The map is based on measurements of vegetation greenness, the NDVI (Normalized Difference Vegetation Index), as observed by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instruments on Aqua and Terra (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens, using data from Potter, C. (2020). Story by Abby Tabor, NASA Ames Research Center, and Mike Carlowicz)
• March 9, 2020: It is not every day that a textbook high-pressure system, cold front, and warm front all reveal themselves on the same natural-color satellite image. But that is exactly what NASA research meteorologist Galina Wind recently noticed over the Eastern United States as she was browsing old satellite imagery. 50)
- On weather maps, the center of a high is generally marked with a blue H. “But in natural-color satellite images, you usually see clear skies because the downward movement of the air is strong enough to prevent any convective clouds from rising up as the Sun heats the surface,” explained Wind. “In this case, the descending air was weak enough that some fair-weather cumulus clouds were able to bubble up anyway.”
- The cold front, marked with blue triangles on a weather map, is visible here as a curving line of clouds with intense convection running through Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma. While highs generally lead to sunny, calm conditions, cold fronts often produce turbulent, unsettled skies.
- “If you have ever seen a snowplow going at full speed, you will have a sense of how cold fronts work,” said Wind. “Cold air is heavier than warm air, so it literally shoves warm air up in front and over it.” As the displaced, warmer air rises and cools, water vapor condenses, yielding clouds, rain, and often thunderstorms.
Figure 77: This image is a mosaic based on data collected by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite and the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on Suomi NPP on September 12, 2019. In the Southeast, thin rows of cumulus clouds trace the location of the high, with the center of circulation near Mississippi. High pressure systems typically have cool, descending air flow in their centers and winds that move in a clockwise direction in the Northern Hemisphere (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory, images by Joshua Stevens, using GOES-16 data from the NOAA-NASA GOES-R Mission, and MODIS and VIIRS data from NASA EOSDIS/LANCE and GIBS/Worldview and the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership. Story by Adam Voiland)
Figure 78: This video, based on imagery from the Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI) on GOES 16 (GOES-East), shows how the weather system developed between 7 a.m. and 3 p.m. on September 12. The images were taken at 5 minute intervals (video credit: NASA Earth Observatory, using GOES-16 data from the NOAA-NASA GOES-R Mission)
- As storm clouds bubbled up around the cold front, clouds swirled in a counter-clockwise direction around an area of low-pressure centered on South Dakota. East of the cold front, notice how the winds circulating around the high-pressure area flowed in the opposite direction. Though clouds in the high were generally small, look for the larger, deeper clouds that developed as air was forced upward by the Appalachian Mountains.
- “Conditions can become quite fierce along cold fronts,” said Wind, noting that false-color imagery of the cold front does a particularly good job of highlighting the deep convection and thunderstorms that developed along it. (For instance, the pinks in this false-color view of the cold front show clouds that have grown tall enough for water droplets to turn into ice particles.)
- The warm front, normally shown with red half circles on a weather map, is marked here by the wide band of clouds through Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. “Warm front events are much calmer. They are basically just layers and layers of clouds,” said Wind. “Sometimes warm fronts can produce drizzle, but they generally come and go as gently as a lamb.”
- However, the leading wave of clouds that precedes a warm front can often indicate that more serious weather may be on the way. “If it is a clear, sunny day and you suddenly notice the arrival of large numbers of thin, feathery cirrus clouds, that is a clue that the weather could be changing soon,” said Wind.
• February 18, 2020: Scientists previously established that the world is greener than it was in the early 1980s. Updated maps show that the trend has continued, and researchers say reduced global warming is among the consequences. 51)
Figure 79: This map shows where greenness increased (green) and decreased (brown) across the planet between 2000 and 2018. Specifically, it shows the trend in the “leaf area index”—the amount of leaf area relative to ground area—during the growing season. The index is computed using data from the MODIS instrument on NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites. White areas are where the land is barren, built upon, or covered with ice, wetlands, or water (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory, image by Joshua Stevens, using data from Shilong, P., et al. (2020). Story by Kathryn Hansen)
- Note that the map does not show overall greenness, which is why it does not exactly match heavily forested areas like the Amazon or the Congo Basin. Instead, the map shows how greenness has changed —a phenomenon most obvious in places like China and India where agriculture has intensified and governments have made efforts to conserve and expand forests.
- There is a clear greening trend in boreal and Arctic regions, a result of rising temperatures. For example, Svalbard in the high-Arctic has seen a 30 percent increase in greenness, according to Rama Nemani of NASA’s Ames Research Center, a co-author of the review paper in Nature Reviews Earth & Environment. The greening was concurrent with an increase in mean summer temperature from 2.9° to 4.7° Celsius (37.2° to 40.5° Fahrenheit) between 1986 and 2015.
- The paper’s authors reviewed more than 250 published articles that have used satellite data, modeling, and field observations, to understand the causes and consequences of global greening. Among the key results, the authors noted that on a global scale greening can be attributed to the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Rising levels of carbon dioxide increase the rate of photosynthesis and growth in plants.
- There is an interesting consequence of this global green up: as vegetation consumes some of the heat-trapping carbon dioxide it also performs evapotranspiration—a function similar to human sweating—which can have a cooling effect on the air. Scientists say that global greening since the early 1980s may have reduced global warming by as much as 0.2° to 0.25° Celsius (0.36° to 0.45° Fahrenheit). In other words, the world would be even warmer than it is if not for the surge in plant growth.
- “It is ironic that the very same carbon emissions responsible for harmful changes to climate are also fertilizing plant growth,” said co-author Jarle Bjerke of the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research, “which in turn is somewhat moderating global warming.”
- According to climate models, the future looks even greener. The map of Figure 80 shows what the green-up might look like in the future based on the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP5) climate model, under a scenario in which increases in greenhouse gases lead to almost 5° Celsius (9° Fahrenheit) of warming by the end of the 21st century. Specifically, it shows the predicted change in the growing season’s “leaf area index” from 2081-2100 relative to 1981-2000.
Figure 81: This chart shows the predicted changes by latitude. Notice that high latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere are still expected to change the most (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory, image by Joshua Stevens, using data from Shilong, P., et al. (2020). Story by Kathryn Hansen)
• January 29, 2020: There is plenty of plant-like life around Antarctica; you just have to know when and where to look. During the austral spring and summer, coastal waters sometimes swirl with vibrant green color—the surface expression of a huge phytoplankton bloom. 52)
Figure 82: Off the coast of Antarctica, vibrant green phytoplankton swirls amidst the sea ice. The floating, microscopic plant-like organisms were abundant in Terra Nova Bay and McMurdo Sound on January 21, 2020, when the MODIS instrument on NASA’s Aqua satellite acquired this image. Such colorful swirls in coastal waters are sometimes caused by sediments stirred up by waves and currents. But scientists say the source of the color this month has a biological origin (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory, image by Joshua Stevens, using MODIS data from NASA EOSDIS/LANCE and GIBS/Worldview. Text by Kathryn Hansen)
- “It is definitely a phytoplankton bloom,” said Kevin Arrigo, a biological oceanographer at Stanford University. “They tend to form every year in Terra Nova Bay around January.” Robert Dunbar, a fellow researcher at Stanford, agrees that the color is a phytoplankton bloom. “These kinds of features are common in Antarctica’s coastal polynyas in summer and late summer.”
- Polynyas are areas where winds sustain a persistent opening in the sea ice. Sunlight and near-surface nutrients are plentiful in these areas, making them havens for phytoplankton. Blooms can even occur in polynyas in late summer when the water is covered by thin, new frazil crystals and pancake ice. Research by Dunbar and colleagues has shown that late summer blooms can accumulate in this ice and turn it green. The phenomenon—most widespread in February and March—is visible in the photograph of Figure 83, shot by Dunbar in 2018.
• January 21,2020: Among the most useful and longest-lived dust-monitoring sensors in space today is the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites. Terra MODIS has collected more than 20 years of dust data; Aqua MODIS has observed for 18 years. 53)
Figure 84: Changing winds and more vegetation are probably contributing to the trend. The image was acquired on 22 March 2019 with MODIS on Aqua (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory, image by Joshua Stevens, story by Adam Voiland)
- “Two decades is long enough to look for meaningful trends in atmospheric dust,” said NASA atmospheric scientist Hongbin Yu. In a new study in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, Yu and colleagues detailed their efforts to do just that. “We looked at the world’s six major dust outflow regions. We found lots of year-to-year variability, but in most areas we did not see obvious increases or decreases in dust. The one exception was the area we defined as the northwestern Pacific. In other words, the dust that blows east from deserts in western China and Mongolia, such as the Taklamakan and Gobi deserts.” 54)
Figure 85: In this area, dust activity has declined since the early 2000s. Over the course of the MODIS record, the researchers found a 1.5 percent decrease in the atmospheric dust detected by the sensor each year. “More detailed analysis showed that the trend was due to changes in the spring—March, April, and May,” said Yu. “Trends were negligible in other seasons.”(image credit: NASA Earth Observatory, image by Joshua Stevens, using VIIRS data from NASA EOSDIS/LANCE and GIBS/Worldview and the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership, and data courtesy of Hongbin Yu, et al. (2020). Story by Adam Voiland)
- In this area, dust activity has declined since the early 2000s. Over the course of the MODIS record, the researchers found a 1.5 percent decrease in the atmospheric dust detected by the sensor each year. “More detailed analysis showed that the trend was due to changes in the spring—March, April, and May,” said Yu. “Trends were negligible in other seasons.”
- Scientists using other sensors and analysis techniques have noted the same pattern. Ground-based lidars in Japan detected a 4.3 percent decrease in spring dust. A team of Chinese scientists analyzed data from ground-based weather stations and an atmospheric model and concluded that spring dust storm frequency in arid and semiarid regions of China had decreased by 15 storms per year on average over a period of 25 years.
- Several research teams have addressed the obvious question: why? “There are three main factors that people have looked at: changes in winds, changes in vegetation cover, and changes in soil moisture,” said Yu. Changes in wind speeds, as well as wind shear, can affect how much dust winds can pick up. The presence of vegetation reduces how much dust winds can lift. And winds more easily lift dust from drier surfaces than wetter ones.
- “I haven’t personally tested which of these is the most important,” said Yu. “Based on what I have seen in the scientific literature, it is likely that a combination of all three is contributing to the decline.”
- For instance, some research shows a weakening in the polar vortex over the past few decades, a change that would limit the number of cold fronts (which elevate dust) and reduce maximum wind speeds of storm systems. Several studies also show increases in green vegetation and forests, likely due to global warming, reforestation projects, and efforts to prevent overgrazing.
• January 17, 2020: Afternoon storms are a typical phenomenon during summertime in Australia. They are a reminder that everyday natural events can be strikingly beautiful. 55)
- According to Bastiaan Van Diedenhoven, a researcher for Columbia University and NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, the cloud is a cumulonimbus—a type capable of producing thunderstorms and heavy rain.
- “Afternoon storms form often in the Austral summer as the land heats up, leading the air to rise and condense into clouds,” Van Diedenhoven said. “The storm looks very round from the top probably because there’s not much wind shear. When the top reaches its highest point near the tropopause, its top will expand horizontally.”
- While clouds like this are normal, they don’t turn up too often in MODIS or VIIRS imagery. The clouds usually grow large later in the afternoon, after the satellites have passed over and acquired their once-a-day imagery. Satellites with a geostationary orbit—giving a constant view of an area—can more easily capture full weather events. Watch the cumulonimbus evolve in this animation of images from Japan’s Himawari-8 satellite.
- Earlier in the week, thunderstorms had developed as a result Tropical Cyclone Claudia, which spun off the coast of Western Australia. And to the east, areas that previously saw thunderstorms triggered by the bush fires are now seeing the more typical type of thunderstorms, providing much-needed rain to the area.
- The cumulonimbus of Figure 86, however, was likely just a typical summer storm. Van Diedenhoven noted: “The cyclone or the fires should have nothing to do with it.”
Figure 86: These images show the evolution of a storm over Western Australia on January 14, 2020. Morning skies appear clear in the left image, acquired around 11 a.m. local time. The storm starts growing in the afternoon at about 1 p.m. (middle) and even larger an hour later (right image). The natural-color images were acquired (from left to right) with the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite; MODIS on NASA’s Aqua satellite, and the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on the NOAA-NASA Suomi NPP satellite (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Lauren Dauphin, using MODIS data from NASA EOSDIS/LANCE and GIBS/Worldview and VIIRS data from NASA EOSDIS/LANCE and GIBS/Worldview and the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership. Story by Kathryn Hansen)
• January 9, 2020: Satellite observations show how far winds normally spread North African dust particles before rain and gravity pull them down to the ocean. — Individual particles of dust are small and easy to ignore, but on a grand scale, atmospheric dust directly affects all of us, and the planet, in many ways. 56)
- Particles of dust are typically comprised of metal oxides, clays, and carbonates. They most often accumulate in low-lying desert basins, often dried rivers or lakes. When winds lift particles up, they can spread across thousands of miles, circling the planet and fertilizing key parts of oceans and rainforests with critical nutrients, notably iron. They also can spread diseases, trigger asthma and other respiratory health problems, and darken skies so much that they cause traffic accidents and problems for pilots.
- One of the most difficult to study—but far reaching—effects of dust is its influence on weather and climate. Dust particles can change air temperatures by blocking light, influence where clouds form and how they behave, and affect whether hurricanes or other types of storms break out. By fertilizing the sea, dust also helps influence the size and frequency of blooms of carbon dioxide-consuming phytoplankton, which could play a role in dialing global temperatures up or down.
- North Africa is the largest source of atmospheric dust in the world by far. “It has the key ingredients: plenty of strong winds, sediment piled up in basins, dry weather, and little vegetation,” explained NASA atmospheric scientist Hongbin Yu, noting the El Djouf region in Mauritania and Mali and the Bodélé Depression in northern Chad are the sources of much of the dust.
- Notice the seasonality in the distribution of dust. In December and January, strong northeasterly winds—the Harmattan—from West Africa carry dust southwestward, putting the highest concentrations over the Gulf of Guinea, and extending dust plumes west toward South America. Over the course of the year, as wind patterns and the location of the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) shift, the most concentrated dust band moves north. From June through August, particles stream from West Africa toward the Caribbean.
- “Measuring the distribution of atmospheric dust is just the first piece of our research,” said Yu, who has been using satellites and other tools to study dust and other aerosol particles for two decades. “In order to understand the effect African dust has on the ocean, we have to determine how much dust gets removed from the atmosphere by rainfall.” That is where other NASA satellite sensors, like the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer (MISR) on Terra and the lidar on the CALIPSO satellite, play a critical role. The CALIPSO lidar makes it possible to observe the height of different parts of dust plumes, which is key for estimating where dust drops into the sea. MISR excels at observing particle shapes in order to distinguish dust from other airborne material.
- By analyzing observations from all three sensors—as well as the European Infrared Atmospheric Sounding Interferometer (IASI)—Yu and colleagues have created maps showing how much dust gets deposited in the ocean and where. The most efficient removal of dust occurs in winter, when the dust is following the more southerly trajectory. The researchers found that it tends to be at low altitudes then and gets intercepted by rains along the ITCZ.
- “One of the most important things that comes out of this line of research is that we've realized that leading atmospheric circulation models like the Goddard Earth Observing System (GEOS) overestimate how fast dust is falling into the Atlantic ocean by 2 to 5 times,” Yu said. "Since in situ measurements [from ships or sensors on islands] of dust over the Atlantic Ocean are quite limited, satellites help fill data gaps, but models are still incredibly important for assessing the overall effects of dust.”
Figure 87: These maps, based on data analyzed by Yu and colleagues, show where the MODIS instrument observed dust moving out from Africa and over the Atlantic Ocean from 2007 to 2016. These optical depth observations are based on the amount of light dust particles scatter and absorb. The measurements capture dust throughout all levels of the atmosphere, not specific altitudes. The maps were first published in 2019 in the Journal of Geophysical Research–Atmospheres (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory, images by Joshua Stevens, using data courtesy of Yu, H., et al. (2019). Story by Adam Voiland)
• January 6, 2020: Forecasters predicted extreme fire conditions in southeastern Australia for the weekend of January 4–5, 2020, and they were correct in their assessment. The natural-color image of Figure 88 was acquired on January 4, 2020, by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite. Smoke has a tan color, while clouds are bright white. It is likely that some of the white patches above the smoke are pyrocumulonimbus clouds—clouds created by the convection and heat rising from a fire. 57)
Figure 88: As predicted, the weekend brought extreme fire weather.(image credit: NASA Earth Observatory, image by Joshua Stevens, using MODIS data from NASA EOSDIS/LANCE and GIBS/Worldview. Text by Michael Carlowicz)
Sensor complement: (AIRS, AMSU/HSB, AMSR-E, CERES, MODIS)
Aqua has six Earth-observing instruments on board, collecting a variety of global data sets. 58)
Note: The descriptions of CERES and MODIS can be found under Terra.
Table 1: Overview of sensor complement on the Aqua spacecraft
AIRS (Atmospheric Infrared Sounder):
AIRS is a NASA/JPL instrument, PI: M. T. Chahine; prime contractor is BAE Systems (Infrared and Imaging Systems Division (LMIRIS) of BAE Systems, in Lexington, MA). AIRS, along with AMSU and HSB, is of HIRS and MSU heritage flown on the NOAA POES series. Objective: High-spectral-resolution measurement of global temperature/humidity profiles in the atmosphere in support of operational weather forecasting by NOAA. Measurement of the Earth's upwelling infrared radiances in the spectral range of 3.74 - 15.4 µm, simultaneously at 2378 frequencies (bands). Four visible wavelength channels are also present. 59) 60) 61) 62) 63) 64) 65)
Figure 89: Photo of the AIRS instrument (image credit: NASA)
The AIRS spectrometer is a pupil imaging, multi-aperture echelle grating design that utilizes a coarse 13 lines/mm grating at high orders (3-11) to disperse infrared energy across a series of detector arrays. The typical entrance slit of a spectrometer is subdivided into a series of eleven apertures, each of which is imaged onto the focal plane. The grating serves to spectrally disperse each image, which in turn is overlaid onto a HgCdTe detector array with each detector in the array viewing a unique wavelength by virtue of the grating dispersion. Rejection of overlapping grating orders and background photon suppression is provided by a series of IR bandpass filters located within the spectrometer and directly on the focal plane. Use of the grating in combination with the filter set provides a two-dimensional color map on the focal plane with a high degree of design flexibility in terms of color arrangement and spacing. Cooling of the spectrometer to 155 K is provided by a two stage passive radiator assembly with 10 Watt cooling capacity at 155 K.
Figure 90: Isometric view of the AIRS instrument (image credit: NASA/JPL)
Dispersed energy exiting the spectrometer is imaged onto a state-of-the-art hybrid PV/PC: HgCdTe focal plane assembly (FPA) consisting of a series of multi-linear arrays each associated with a specific entrance aperture. The assembly consists of 17 arrays arranged in 12 modules with each module individually optimized for wavelength and photon flux. The module set includes 10 photovoltaic (PV) modules covering the 3.7 - 13.7 µm region and 2 photoconductive (PC) modules for the 13.7 - 15.4 µm region. The more advanced PV modules include on-focal plane signal processing via a custom CMOS Readout IC (ROIC) specifically designed for AIRS temperature, photon flux and radiation conditions. The ROIC provides the first stage of signal integration at a 1.4 ms subsample rate, which are summed off focal plane in groups of 16 to meet full footprint dwell time requirements. The IR FPA provides simultaneous measurement of 2378 spectral samples across the 3.7 - 15.4 µm region with two samples per resolution element. Additionally, each PV sample is further divided by two in the cross-dispersed direction to provide increased yield and a measure of spectral redundancy. As a consequence, the IR FPA contains a total of 4482 active detectors. The complex FPA is packaged in a vacuum dewar maintained at the 155 K spectrometer operating temperature, with the IR FPA cooled to 58 K via a redundant, 1.5 W capacity Split Stirling pulse tube cryocooler.
Figure 91: Illustration of the FPA (Focal Plane Assembly), image credit: NASA/JPL)
Figure 92: The AIRS spectrometer assembly (image credit: NASA/JPL)
Figure 93: AIRS scan assembly (image credit: NASA/JPL)
Figure 94: Illustration of the cryocooler assembly (image credit: NASA/JPL)
The infrared region of 3.74-15.4 µm has a spectral resolution of 1200 (lambda/ delta lambda). The high spectral resolution permits the separation of unwanted spectral emissions and, in particular, provides spectrally clean “super windows,” ideal for surface observations. - This is supplemented by a VNIR photometer of four bands in the range between 0.4 and 1.0 µm. The VNIR channels are used to discriminate between low-level clouds and different terrain and surface covers, including snow and ice. The AIRS infrared bands have an IFOV of 1.1º and FOV = ± 49.5º scanning capability perpendicular to the spacecraft ground track (swath width = 1650 km, 13.5 km horizontal resolution in nadir, 1 km vertical). It takes 22.41 ms for each footprint of 1.1º in diameter (or 13.5 km). Each IR scan produces 90 footprints across the flight track and takes 2.67 s (see Figure 95). The VNIR channels have a footprint of 0.185º or about 2.3 km on the ground, nine VNIR footprints are within a 40 km swath. The VNIR photometer is boresighted to the spectrometer to allow simultaneous VNIR observations.
The VNIR photometer uses optical filters to define the four spectral bands. It operates at ambient temperatures (293-300 K). Inflight calibration is performed during each scan period. In addition, AIRS uses four independent cold-space views.
The major data products derived from AIRS are atmospheric temperature profiles, humidity profiles (from channels in the 6.3 µm water vapor band and the 11 µm windows, sensitive to the water vapor continuum), and land skin surface temperature.
AIRS is flown on the Aqua satellite with two operational microwave sounders: NOAA's AMSU and Brazil's HSB (Humidity Sounder Brazil). Together, the three sensors constitute constitute a possible advanced operational sounding system for future NOAA missions - offering increased accuracy of short-term weather predictions, improved tracking of severe weather events like hurricanes, and advances in climate research.
Table 2: Overview of some AIRS parameters
Some AIRS results in 2010:
The excellent sensitivity and stability of the AIRS instrument has recently allowed the AIRS team to successfully retrieve Carbon Dioxide (CO2) concentrations in the mid-troposphere (8-10 km) with a horizontal resolution of 100 km and an accuracy of better than 2 ppm. 66)
Originally designed to retrieve temperature and water vapor profiles for weather forecast improvement, the AIRS (Atmospheric Infrared Sounder) has become a valuable tool for the measurement and mapping of mid-tropospheric carbon dioxide concentrations. Several researchers have demonstrated the ability to retrieve mid-tropospheric CO2 from AIRS by different methods. The retrieval method selected for processing and distribution is called the method of “Vanishing Partial Derivatives” and results in over 15,000 CO2 retrievals per 24-hour period with global coverage and an accuracy better than 2 ppm.
The AIRS CO2 accuracy has been validated against a variety of mid-tropospheric aircraft measurements as well as upward looking interferometers (FTIR) from the ground.
Mid-tropospheric CO2 concentrations are an indicator for atmospheric transport and several interesting findings have resulted from analysis of the data.
- First is the non-uniformity of CO2, primarily caused by weather.
- Second is the ability to identify stratospheric-tropospheric exchange during a sudden stratospheric warming event.
- Third is the presence of a seasonally varying belt of enhanced CO2 concentrations in the Southern Hemisphere.
Figure 96: AIRS yields about 15,000 mid-tropospheric CO2 measurements per day (image credit: NASA/JPL)
Carbon dioxide turns out to be an excellent tracer gas since it does not react with other gases in the atmosphere. The project is finding that the AIRS mid-tropospheric CO2 is a good indicator of vertical motion in the atmosphere. It is a known fact that the majority of atmospheric CO2 is produced and absorbed near the surface and that there are no sources or sinks in the free troposphere. Thus elevated levels of mid-tropospheric CO2 are the result of airflow into the mid-troposphere from the near surface.
The most obvious finding from the AIRS retrievals is that the distribution of CO2 is not uniform as indicated in the models. Strong latitudinal and longitudinal gradients exist particularly over the large land masses in the Northern Hemisphere. This phenomenon is referred to as “CO2 weather”. The large variability in atmospheric circulation due to convection and global and mesoscale transport is responsible for most of the variability seen in the AIRS data. This implies that the AIRS CO2 data will be extremely useful for validating global scale transport in GCMs (Global Circulation Models).
Figure 97: AIRS mid-tropospheric CO2 is a tracer for atmospheric motion particularly in the vertical direction. July, 2010 monthly average (image credit: NASA/JPL)
AMSU/HSB (Advanced Microwave Sounding Unit (NASA Instrument)/ (Humidity Sounder for Brazil), provided by INPE. Both instruments operate in conjunction.
AMSU was designed and developed by Aerojet of Azusa, CA (a GenCorp company). AMSU primarily provides temperature soundings, whereas HSB provides humidity soundings. AMSU is a 15-channel microwave radiometer. AMSU and HSB have a total of 19 channels, 15 are assigned to AMSU, each having a 3.3º beamwidth, and four are assigned to HSB, each having a beamwidth of 1.1º. AMSU comprises two separate units: AMSU-A1 (channels 3-15), and AMSU-A2 (channels 1 and 2). Channels 3 - 14 use the 50 to 60 GHz oxygen band to provide data for vertical temperature profiles up to 50 km. The “window” channels (1, 2, and 15) provide data to enhance the temperature sounding by correcting for surface emissivity, atmospheric liquid water, and total precipitable water. HSB channels 17 - 20 use the 183.3 GHz water vapor absorption line to provide data for the humidity profile. 67) 68)
AMSU-A1 measures temperature profiles from the surface up to 50 km in 15 channels. Temperature resolution: 0.25 - 1.2 K. The AMSU-A1 instrument has two 15 cm diameter antennas (reflectors with momentum compensation), each with a 3.3º nominal IFOV at the half power points or FWHM (Full width Half maximum). Each antenna provides a cross-track scan of ±49.5º from nadir with a total of 30 Earth views (scan positions) per scan line. The total scan period is eight seconds. The footprint (resolution) at nadir is 40 km. The swath width is approximately 1690 km. Internal calibration is performed with internal warm loads and cold space.
AMSU-A2 has a single 28 cm diameter antenna (reflector without momentum compensation) with a 3.3º nominal IFOV. All other instrument/observation parameters are the same as those of AMSU-A1.
AMSU parameters: mass = 91 kg (49 kg for AMSU-A1, 42 kg for AMSU-A2); power = 101 W; data rate = 2.0 kbit/s; thermal control by heater, central thermal bus, radiator; thermal operating range= 0-20º C.
Table 3: Spectral parameters of the AMSU-A and HSB instruments
Figure 98: View of AMSU-A1 (left) and AMSU-A2 (right), image credit: Aerojet
Table 4: Summary of AMSU instrument parameters
HSB (Humidity Sounder for Brazil):
HSB is an INPE-provided instrument of AMSU-B heritage (built by MMS (Matra Marconi Space) of Bristol, UK (now EADS Astrium Ltd) with participation of Equatorial Sistemas of Brazil), and sponsored by AEB (Brazilian Space Agency). HSB is a microwave radiometer with the objective to measure atmospheric radiation, to obtain atmospheric water vapor profile measurements and to detect precipitation under clouds with 13.5 km horizontal nadir resolution (humidity profiles for weather foresting). 69) 70) 71)
HSB is a four-channel self-calibrating instrument (passive sounder) providing a humidity profiling capability in the frequency range of 150 - 190 GHz, spanning the height from surface to about 42 km. The measured signals are also sensitive to a) liquid water in clouds (cloud liquid water content) and b) graupel and large water droplets in precipitating clouds (qualitative estimate of precipitation rate). HSB scans in the cross-track direction at a rate of 2.67 seconds in continuous mode. The instrument features a momentum-compensated scan mirror system. HSB is operated in combination with AMSU-A, they have a total of 19 channels: 15 are assigned to AMSU-A, each having a 3.3º beamwidth, and four assigned to HSB, each having a 1.1º beamwidth. The HSB receiver channels are configured to operate in DSB (Double Sideband).
The HSB collected valuable data for the first nine months of the mission but ceased operating in February 2003 (scanner anomaly).
Table 5: Specification of the HSB instrument
Figure 99: Photo of the HSB instrument (image credit: NASA)
AMSR-E (Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer-EOS):
AMSR-E is a JAXA/NASA cooperative instrument, of AMSR heritage, built by Mitsubishi Electronics Corporation (PIs: A. Shibata, R. W. Spencer). The objective is the measurement of geophysical parameters such as: cloud properties, radiative energy flux, precipitation, land surface wetness (moisture), sea ice, snow cover, sea surface temperature (SST), and sea surface wind fields. AMSR-E is a modified design of AMSR on ADEOS-II (Japan).
The AMSR-E instrument is a conically scanning total power passive microwave radiometer sensing microwave radiation (brightness temperatures) at 12 channels and 6 frequencies ranging from 6.9 to 89.0 GHz (6.925, 10.65, 18.7, 23.8, 36.5, and 89.0 GHz). Horizontally and vertically polarized radiation are measured separately at each frequency. 72) 73) 74)
AMSR-E consists of an offset parabolic reflector 1.6 m in diameter, fed by an array of six feedhorns. The reflector and feedhorn arrays are mounted on a drum which contains the radiometers, digital data subsystem, mechanical scanning subsystem, and power subsystem. The reflector/feed/drum assembly is rotated about the axis of the drum by a coaxially mounted bearing and power transfer assembly. All data, commands, timing and telemetry signals, and power pass through the assembly on slip ring connectors to the rotating assembly. The AMSR-E instrument has a mass of 314 kg, power = 350 W, a duty cycle of 100%, and an average data rate of 87.4 kbit/s.
Table 6: Performance parameters of AMSR-E
Figure 100: Schematic view of the AMSR-E instrument (image credit: NASA)
The AMSR-E instrument rotates continuously about an axis parallel to the local spacecraft vertical at 40 rpm. At an altitude of 705 km, it measures the upwelling scene brightness temperatures over an angular sector of ± 61º about the subsatellite track, resulting in a swath width of 1445 km. During a period of 1.5 seconds the S/C subsatellite point travels 10 km. Even though the IFOV for each channel is different, active scene measurements are recorded at equal intervals of 10 km (5 km for the 89 GHz channels) along the scan. The half cone angle at which the reflector is fixed is 47.4º which results in an Earth incidence angle of 55.0º.
Figure 101: Line drawing of the AMSR-E instrument (image credit: NASA)
Instrument calibration. The radiometer calibration accuracy budget, exclusive of antenna pattern correction effects, is composed of three major contributors: warm load reference error, cold load reference error, radiometer electronics nonlinearities and errors.
Some data products from AMSR-E are:
• Level 2A brightness temperatures
• Level 2 rainfall
• Level 3 rainfall
• Columnar cloud water over the oceans
• Columnar water vapor over the oceans
• Sea surface temperature (SST)
• Sea surface wind speed
• Sea ice concentration
• Sea ice temperature
• Snow depth on sea ice
• Snow-water equivalent on land
• Surface soil moisture
Figure 102: The Aqua spacecraft and instrument accommodations (image credit: NASA, JAXA)
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43) ”Perma-Blooms off Mauritania,” NASA Earth Observatory, Image of the Day for 9 May 2020, URL: https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/146684/perma-blooms-off-mauritania
44) ”A Fiery Month in Zulia,” NASA Earth Observatory, Image of the Day for 29 April 2020, URL: https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/146639/a-fiery-month-in-zulia
45) ”Tornado Sweeps Through Mississippi,” NASA Earth Observatory, Image of the Day for 16 April 16 2020, URL: https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/146584/tornado-sweeps-through-mississippi
46) ”Fires Burn in Northern Ukraine,” NASA Earth Observatory, Image of the Day for 10 April 2020, URL: https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/146561/fires-burn-in-northern-ukraine
47) ”A Dusty Day Over the Aral Sea,” NASA Earth Observatory,Image of the Day for 26 March 2020, URL: https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/146487/a-dusty-day-over-the-aral-sea
48) ”Smoke Blankets Thailand and Burma (Myanmar),” NASA Earth Observatory, 18 March 2020, URL: https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/146460/smoke-blankets-thailand-and-burma-myanmar
49) ”Satellite Observations Aid Bison Management,” NASA Earth Observatory, Image of the Day for 12 March 2020, URL: https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/
50) ”A Textbook Weather Front,” NASA Earth Observatory, Image of the Day for 9 March 2020, URL: https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/146392/a-textbook-weather-front
51) ”Global Green Up Slows Warming,” NASA Earth Observatory, Image of the Day for 18 February 2020, URL: https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/146296/global-green-up-slows-warming
52) ”Bloom in McMurdo Sound,” NASA Earth Observatory, Image of the Day for 29 January 2020, URL: https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/146213/bloom-in-mcmurdo-sound
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56) ”A Dusty Journey,” NASA Earth Observatory, Image of the Day for 9 January 2020, URL: https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/146122/a-dusty-journey
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The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: ”Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors” (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (email@example.com).