Landsat-8 / LDCM (Landsat Data Continuity Mission)
The Landsat spacecraft series of NASA represents the longest continuous Earth imaging program in history, starting with the launch of Landsat-1 in 1972 through Landsat-7 with the ETM+ imager (launch April 15, 1999). With the evolution of the program has come an increased emphasis on the scientific utility of the data accompanied by more stringent requirements for instrument and data characterization, calibration and validation. This trend continues with LDCM, the next mission in the Landsat sequence. The enhancements of the Landsat-7 system, e.g., more on-board calibration hardware and an image assessment system and personnel, have been retained and improved, where required, for LDCM. Aspects of the calibration requirements are spread throughout the mission, including the instrument and its characterization, the spacecraft, operations and the ground system. 1) 2)
The following are the major mission objectives: 3)
• Collect and archive moderate-resolution, reflective multispectral image data affording seasonal coverage of the global land mass for a period of no less than five years.
• Collect and archive moderate-resolution, thermal multispectral image data affording seasonal coverage of the global land mass for a period of no less than three years.
• Ensure that LDCM data are sufficiently consistent with data from the earlier Landsat missions, in terms of acquisition geometry, calibration, coverage characteristics, spectral and spatial characteristics, output product quality, and data availability to permit studies of land cover and land use change over multi-decadal periods.
• Distribute standard LDCM data products to users on a nondiscriminatory basis and at no cost to the users.
Background: In 2002, the Landsat program had its 30th anniversary of providing satellite remote sensing information to the world; indeed a record history of service with the longest continuous spaceborne optical medium-resolution imaging dataset available anywhere. The imagery has been and is being used for a multitude of land surface monitoring tasks covering a broad spectrum of resource management and global change issues and applications.
In 1992 the US Congress noted that Landsat commercialization had not worked and brought Landsat back into the government resulting in the launches of Landsat 6 (which failed on launch) and Landsat 7. However there was still much conflict within the government over how to continue the program.
In view of the outstanding value of the data to the user community as a whole, NASA and USGS (United States Geological Survey) were working together (planning, rule definition, forum of ideas and discussion among all parties involved, coordination) on the next generation of the Landsat series satellites, referred to as LDCM (Landsat Data Continuity Mission). The overall timeline foresaw a formulation phase until early 2003, followed by an implementation phase until 2006. The goal was to acquire the first LDCM imagery in 2007 - to ensure the continuity of the Landsat dataset [185 km swath width, 15 m resolution (Pan) and a new set of spectral bands]. 4) 5) 6) 7) 8) 9) 10) 11)
The LDCM project suffered some setbacks on its way to realization resulting in considerable delays:
• An initial major programmatic objective of LDCM was to explore the use of imagery purchases from a commercial satellite system in the next phase of the Landsat program. In March 2002, NASA awarded two study contracts to: a) Resource21 LLC. of Englewood, CO, and b) DigitalGlobe Inc. of Longmont, CO. The aim was to formulate a proper requirements set and an implementation scenario (options) for LDCM. NASA envisioned a PPP (Public Private Partnership) program in which the satellite system was going to be owned and operated commercially. A contract was to be awarded in the spring of 2003. - However, it turned out that DigitalGlobe lost interest and dropped out of the race. And the bid of Resource21 turned out to be too high for NASA to be considered.
• In 2004, NASA was directed by the OSTP (Office of Science and Technology Policy) to fly a Landsat instrument on the new NPOESS satellite series of NOAA.
• In Dec. 2005, a memorandum with the tittle “Landsat Data Continuity Strategy Adjustment” was released by the OSTP which directed NASA to acquire a free-flyer spacecraft for LDCM - thus, superseding the previous direction to fly a Landsat sensor on NPOESS. 12)
However, the matter was not resolved until 2007 when it was determined that NASA would procure the next mission, the LDCM, and that the USGS would operate it as well as determine all future Earth observation missions. This decision means that Earth observation has found a home in an operating agency whose mission is directly concerned with the mapping and analysis of the Earth’s surface allowing NASA to focus on advancing space technologies and the future of man in space.
Overall science objectives of the LDCM imager observations are:
• To permit change detection analysis and to ensure consistency of the LDCM data with the Landsat series data
• To provide global coverage of the Earth's land surfaces on a seasonal basis
• To acquire imagery at spatial, spectral and temporal resolutions sufficient to characterize and understand the causes and consequences of change
• To make the data available to the user community.
The procurement approach for the LDCM project represents a departure from a conventional NASA mission. NASA traditionally specifies the design of the spacecraft, instruments, and ground systems acquiring data for its Earth science missions. For LDCM, NASA and USGS (the science and technology agency of the Department of the Interior, DOI) have instead specified the content, quantity, and characteristics of data to be delivered.
Figure 1: History of the Landsat program (image credit: NASA) 13)
Legend to Figure 1: The small white arrow within the Landsat-7 arrow on this timeline indicates the collection of data without the Scan Line Corrector.
“The Landsat series of satellites is a cornerstone of our Earth observing capability. The world relies on Landsat data to detect and measure land cover/land use change, the health of ecosystems, and water availability,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told the Subcommittee on Space Committee on Science, Space and Technology U.S House of Representatives in April 2015.
“With a launch in 2023, Landsat-9 would propel the program past 50 years of collecting global land cover data,” said Jeffrey Masek, Landsat-9 Project Scientist at Goddard. “That’s the hallmark of Landsat: the longer the satellites view the Earth, the more phenomena you can observe and understand. We see changing areas of irrigated agriculture worldwide, systemic conversion of forest to pasture – activities where either human pressures or natural environmental pressures are causing the shifts in land use over decades.”
Landsat-8 successfully launched on Feb. 11, 2013 and the Landsat data archive continues to expand. — Landsat-9 was announced on April 16, 2015. The launch is planned for 2023. 14)
Dec. 31, 2015: NASA has awarded a sole source letter contract to BACT (Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation), Boulder, Colo., to build the OLI-2 (Operational Land Imager-2) instrument for the Landsat-9 project. 15)
In April 2008, NASA selected GDAIS (General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems), Inc., Gilbert, AZ, to build the LDCM spacecraft on a fixed price contract. An option provides for the inclusion of a second payload instrument. LDCM is a NASA/USGS partnership mission with the following responsibilities: 16) 17) 18) 19)
• NASA is providing the LDCM spacecraft, the instruments, the launch vehicle, and the mission operations element of the ground system. NASA will also manage the space segment early on-orbit evaluation phase -from launch to acceptance.
• USGS is providing the mission operations center and ground processing systems (including archive and data networks), as well as the flight operations team. USGS will also co-chair and fund the Landsat science team.
In April 2010, OSC (Orbital Sciences Corporation) of Dulles VA acquired GDAIS. Hence, OSC will continue to manufacture and integrate the LDCM program as outlined by GDAIS. Already in Dec. 2009, GDAIS successfully completed the CDR (Critical Design Review) of LDCM for NASA/GSFC. 20) 21)
Figure 2: Artist's rendition of the LDCM spacecraft in orbit (image credit: NASA, OSC)
The LDCM spacecraft uses a nadir-pointing three-axis stabilized platform (zero momentum biased), a modular architecture referred to as SA-200HP. The SA-200HP (High Performance) bus is of DS1 (Deep Space 1) and Coriolis mission heritage. The spacecraft consists of an aluminum frame and panel prime structure.
The spacecraft is 3-axis stabilized (zero momentum biased). The ADCS (Attitude Determination and Control Subsystem) employs six reaction wheels, three torque rods and thrusters as actuators. Attitude is sensed with three precision star trackers (2 of 3 star trackers are active), a redundant SIRU (Scalable Inertial Reference Unit), twelve coarse sun sensors, redundant GPS receivers (Viceroy), and two TAMs (Three Axis Magnetometers).
- Attitude control error (3σ): ≤ 30 µrad
- Attitude knowledge error (3σ): ≤ 46 µrad
- Attitude knowledge stability (3σ): ≤ 0.12 µrad in 2.5 seconds; ≤ 1.45 µrad in 30 seconds
- Slew time: 180º any axis: ≤ 14 minutes, including settling; 15º roll: ≤ 4.5 minutes, including settling.
Key aspects of the satellite
performance related to imager calibration and validation are pointing,
stability and maneuverability. Pointing and stability affect geometric
performance; maneuverability allows data acquisitions for calibration
using the sun, moon and stars. For LDCM, an off nadir acquisition
capability is included (up to 1 path off nadir) for imaging high
priority targets (event monitoring capability).
C&DH (Command & Data Handling) subsystem: The C&DH subsystem uses a standard cPCI backplane RAD750 CPU. The MIL-STD-1553B data bus is used for onboard ADCS, C&DH functions and instrument communications. The SSR (Solid State Recorder) provides a storage capacity of 4 Tbit @ BOL and 3.1 Tbit @ EOL.
The C&DH subsystem provides the mission data interfaces between instruments, the SSR, and the X-band transmitter. The C&DH subsystem consists of an IEM (Integrated Electronics Module), a PIE (Payload Interface Electronics), the SSR, and two OCXO (Oven Controlled Crystal Oscillators).
Figure 3: Photo of the EM SSR (Solid State Recorder), image credit: NASA
Figure 4: Block diagram of the C&DH subsystem (image credit: NASA, USGS, Ref. 92)
- The IEM subsystem provides the command and data handling function for the observatory, including mission data management between the PIE and SSR using FSW on the Rad750 processor. The IEM is block redundant with cross strapped interfaces for command and telemetry management, attitude control, SOH (State of Health) data and ancillary data processing, and for controlling image collection and file downlinks to the ground.
- The SSR subsystem provides for mission data and spacecraft SOH storage during all mission operations. The OCXO provides a stable, accurate time base for ADCS fine pointing.
- The C&DH accepts encrypted ground commands for immediate execution or for storage in the FSW file system using the relative time and absolute time command sequences (RTS, ATS respectfully). The commanding interface is connected to the uplink of each S-band transceiver, providing for cross-strapped redundancy to the C&DH. All commands are verified onboard prior to execution. Real-time commands are executed upon reception, while stored commands are placed in the FSW file system and executed under control of the FSW. Command counters and execution history are maintained by the C&DH FSW and reported in SOH telemetry.
- The IEM provides the command and housekeeping telemetry interfaces between the payload instruments and the ADCS components using a MIL-STD-1553B serial data bus and discrete control and monitoring interfaces. The C&DH provides the command and housekeeping interfaces between the CCU (Charge Control Unit), LCU (Load Control Unit) , and the PIE boxes.
- The PIE is the one of the key electrical system interfaces and mission data processing systems between the instruments, the spacecraft C&DH, SSR, and RF communications to the ground. The PIE contains the PIB (Payload Interface Boards ) for OLI (PIB-O) and TIRS (PIB-T).
Each PIB contains an assortment of specialized FPGAs (Field Programmable Gate Arrays) and ASICs, and each accepts instrument image data across the HSSDB for C&DH processing. A RS-485 communication bus collects SOH and ACS ancillary data for interleaving with the image data.
Figure 5: Block diagram of PIB (image credit: USGS, NASA)
- Data compression: Only the OLI data, sent through the PIB-O interface, implements lossless compression, by utilizing a pre-processor and entropy encoder in the USES ASIC. The compression can be enabled or bypassed on an image-by-image basis. When compression is enabled the first image line of each 1 GB file is uncompressed to provide a reference line to start that file. A reference line is generated every 1,024 lines (about every 4 seconds) to support real-time ground contacts to begin receiving data in the middle of a file and decompressing the image with the reception of a reference line.
- XIB (X-band Interface Board): The XIB is the C&DH interface between the PIE, SSR, and X-band transmitter, with the functional data path shown in Figure 6.
The XIB receives real-time data from the PIE PIB-O and PIB-T and receives stored data from the SSR via the 2 playback ports. The XIB sends mission data to the X-band transmitter via a parallel LVDS interface. The XIB receives a clock from the X-band transmitter to determine the data transfer rates between the XIB and the transmitter to maintain a 384 Mbit/s downlink. The XIB receives OLI realtime data from the PIB-O board, and TIRS real-time data from the PIB-T board across the backplane. The SSR data from the PIB-O and PIB-T interfaces are multiplexed and sent to the X-Band transmitter through parallel LVDS byte-wide interfaces.
- SSR (Solid Ste Recorder): The SSR is designed with radiation hard ASIC controllers, and up-screened commercial grade 4GB SDRAM (Synchronous Dynamic Random Access Memory) memory devices. Protection against on-orbit radiation induced errors is provided by a Reed-Solomon EDAC (Error Detection and Correction) algorithm. The SSR provides the primary means for storing all image, ancillary, and state of health data using a file management architecture. Manufactured in a single mechanical chassis, containing a total of 14 memory boards, the system provides fully redundant sides and interfaces to the spacecraft C&DH.
The spacecraft FSW (Flight Software) plays an integral role in the management of the file directory system for recording and file playback. FSW creates file attributes for identifier, size, priority, protection based upon instructions from the ground defining the length of imaging in the interval request, and its associated priority. FSW also maintains the file directory, and creates the ordered lists for autonomous playback based upon image priority. FSW automatically updates and maintains the spacecraft directory while recording or performing playback, and it periodically updates the SSR FSW directory when no recording is occurring to synchronize the two directories (Ref. 92).
TCS (Thermal Control Subsystem): The TCS uses standard Kapton etched-foil strip heaters. In general, a passive, cold-biased system is used for the spacecraft. Multi-layer insulation on spacecraft and payload as required. A deep space view is provided for the instrument radiators.
EPS (Electric Power Subsystem): The EPS consists of a single deployable solar array with single-axis articulation capability and with a stepping gimbal. Triple-junction solar cells are being used providing a power of 4300 W @ EOL. The NiH2 battery has a capacity of 125 Ah. Use of unregulated 22-36 V power bus.
The onboard propulsion subsystem provides a total velocity change of ΔV = 334 m/s using eight 22 N thrusters for insertion error correction, altitude adjustments, attitude recovery, EOL disposal, and other operational maintenance as necessary.
The spacecraft has a launch mass of 2780 kg (1512 kg dry mass). The mission design life is 5 years; the onboard consumable supply (386 kg of hydrazine) will last for 10 years of operations.
Table 1: Overview of spacecraft parameters
Figure 7: Two views of the LDCM spacecraft (without solar arrays) and major components (image credit: NASA, USGS)
RF communications: Earth coverage antennas are being used for all data links. The X-band downlink uses lossless compression and spectral filtering. The payload data rate is 440 Mbit/s. The X-band RF system consists of the X-band transmitter, TWTA (Travelling Wave Tube Amplifier), DSN (Deep Space Network) filter, and an ECA (Earth Coverage Antenna). The serial data output is set at 440.825 Mbit/s and is up-converted to 8200.5 MHz. The TWTA amplifies the signal such that the output of the DSN filter is 62 W. The DSN filter maintains the signal’s spectral compliance. An ECA provides nadir full simultaneous coverage, utilizing 120º half-power beamwidth, for all in view ground sites below the spacecraft's current position with no gimbal or actuation system. The system is designed to handle up to 35 separate ground contacts per day as forecasted by the DRC-16 (Design Reference Case-16).
The X-band transmitter is a single customized unit, including the LDPC FEC algorithms, the modulator, and up converter circuits. The transmitter uses a local TXCO (Thermally Controlled Crystal Oscillator) as a clock source for tight spectral quality and minimum data jitter. This clock is provided to the PIE XIB to clock mission data up to a 384Mbit/s data rate to the transmitter. The X-band transmitter includes an on-board synthesized clock operating at 441.625 Mbit/s coded data rate using the local 48 MHz clock as a reference. Using the on-board FIFO buffer, this architecture provides a continuous data flow through the transmitter (Ref. 92).
The S-band is used for all TT&C functions. The S-band uplink is encrypted providing data rates of 1, 32, and 64 kbit/s. The S-band downlink offers data rates of 2, 16, 32, RTSOH; 1 Mbit/s SSOH/RTSOH GN; 1 kbit/s RTSOH SN. Redundant pairs of S-band omni’s provide transmit/receive coverage in any orientation. The S-band is provided through a typical S-band transceiver, with TDRSS (Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System) capability for use during launch and early orbit and in case of spacecraft emergencies.
Onboard data transmission from an earth-coverage antenna:
• Real-time data received from PIE (Payload Interface Electronics) equipment
• Play-back data from SSR (Solid State Recorder)
• To three LGN (LDCM Ground Network) stations
- NOAA Interagency Agreement (IA) to use Gilmore Creek Station (GLC) near Fairbanks, AK
- Landsat Ground Station (LGS) at USGS/EROS near Sioux Falls, SD
- NASA contract with KSAT for Svalbard; options for operational use by USGS (provides ≥ 200 minutes of contact time)
• To International Cooperator ground stations (partnerships of existing stations currently supporting Landsat).
Figure 8: Photo of the EM X-band transponder (left) and AMT S-band transponder (right), image credit: NASA
Figure 9: Alternate view of the deployed LDCM spacecraft showing the calibration ports of the instruments TIRS and OLI (image credit: NASA/GSFC)
Figure 10: The LDCM spacecraft with both instruments onboard, OLI and TIRS (image credit: USGS) 24)
Launch: The LDCM mission was launched on February 11, 2013 from VAFB, CA. The launch provider was ULA (United Launch Alliance), a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing; use of the Atlas-V-401 the launch vehicle with a Centaur upper stage. 25) 26)
Note: Initially, the LDCM launch was set for July 2011. However, since this launch date was considered as too optimistic, NASA changed the launch date to the end of 2012. This new launch delay buys some time for an extra sensor with TIR (Thermal Infrared) imaging capabilities.
Orbit: Sun-synchronous near-circular orbit, altitude = 705 km, inclination = 98.2º, period = 99 minutes, repeat coverage = 16 days (233 orbits), the nominal LTDN (Local Time on Descending Node) equator crossing time is at 10:00 hours. The ground tracks will be maintained along heritage WRS-2 paths. At the end of the commissioning period, LDCM is required to be phased about half a period ahead of Landsat 7. 27)
Figure 11: Anatomy of Landsat 8. Have you ever wondered what all the parts of a satellite do? This video identifies a few of the main components onboard Landsat 8 and tells you about their role in flying the satellite and capturing images of the Earth's surface below (video credit: USGS, NASA) 28)
Figure 12: The Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM), a collaboration between NASA and the USGS (U.S. Geological Survey), will provide moderate-resolution measurements of Earth's terrestrial and polar regions in the visible, near-infrared, short wave infrared, and thermal infrared. There are two instruments on the spacecraft, the Thermal InfraRed Sensor (TIRS) and the Operational Land Imager (OLI). LDCM will provide continuity with the nearly 40-year long Landsat land imaging data set, enabling people to study many aspects of our planet and to evaluate the dynamic changes caused by both natural processes and human practices (video credit: NASA, USGS) 29)
Note: As of February 2020, the previously single large Landsat-8 file has been split into four files, to make the file handling manageable for all parties concerned, in particular for the user community.
• This article covers the Landsat-8 mission and its imagery in the period 2021, in addition to some of the mission milestones.
Mission status and some imagery of 2021
• May 4, 2021: Unlike the sea ice that caps the Arctic Ocean—some of which can survive the summer—the ice on the northern Baltic Sea will completely melt away before summer starts. These images offer a late-season look at some icy features before they are wiped away by spring melting. 30)
Figure 13: Acquired on April 19, 2021, by the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat-8, these natural-color images show the northwestern side of Bothnian Bay. Located in the northernmost part of the Baltic Sea, the bay is bounded by Sweden (west) and Finland (east of this image), image credit: NASA Earth Observatory images by Lauren Dauphin, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey. Story by Kathryn Hansen, with image interpretation by Renée Mie Fredensborg Hansen/FMI; Eero Rinne/FMI; and Sinead Farrell/UMD
- The wide view shows plenty of ice still clinging to the coast of Sweden. This “land-fast ice” is anchored to the shore and does not drift. Farther out in the bay, drift ice moves freely with the winds or currents.
Figure 14: The detailed view shows a closer view of land-fast ice in the Luleå Municipality, along the coast of northern Sweden. Notice the ice’s rusty color in places, most notably near Måttsund: This is due to sediment-laden water that flooded the surface of the ice at some point. This can happen when the water level rises, but the ice—anchored to the land—cannot rise with it (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory)
- When this image was acquired on April 19, the fast ice was still mostly intact. By May 1, ice charts from the Finnish Meteorological Institute indicate that much of this fast ice was in an advanced state of disintegration, or “rotten.” This is typical for the bay’s fast ice, which usually starts to decline by mid-April and disappears completely by mid-May.
- Though seasonal, the presence of ice in Bothnian Bay each year is hugely important for the region’s wildlife. Seals, for example, use the icy habitat for giving birth to their pups. People also find utility in the seasonal ice, using it to easily access the bay’s archipelagos. Thousands of islands are clustered off the shores of Sweden and Finland; some are populated, others have seasonal fishing villages, and many are uninhabited. Some of the linear features on the ice close to shore are likely tracks made by people during these offshore excursions.
- Other patterns in the ice, especially those farther offshore, are caused by natural processes. The bright white spaghetti-like features on the ice just west of the island of Germandön (detailed image) are ridges—areas where ice floes have collided, causing broken pieces to pile up on the sea ice surface. Ridges can stand many meters high and become quite dense across the sea ice, making winter navigation for ships especially challenging and slow. Observations from a Finnish icebreaker from April 18-20 indicate that areas of sea ice east of this image were still heavily ridged.
- In a new research paper accepted for publication in The Cryosphere, researchers described how they could use satellite data to enhance the safety of navigation in ice-covered waters. The research, led by Renée Mie Fredensborg Hansen of the Finnish Meteorological Institute, used high-resolution topographic measurements from NASA’s Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite 2 (ICESat-2) to estimate the degree of ridging in Bothnian Bay sea ice.
- According to study co-author Sinead Farrell of the University of Maryland, the study makes a case for the rapid, near-real-time release of ICESat-2 data for similar uses in the Arctic and other ice-covered seas.
• May 1, 2021: With its rocky terrain, mountain caves, and beautiful beaches, Hingol National Park is one of the natural wonders of Pakistan. It is also has significant cultural importance. 31)
Figure 15: The images on this page show sections of Hingol National Park as observed on February 13, 2021, by the OLI instrument on Landsat-8. Hingol spans around 6,200 km2 (2,400 square miles) across three districts of the Balochistan Province: Lasbela, Awaran, and Gwadar (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey. Story by Kasha Patel)
- The park is named for the Hingol River, which flows through this dry region year round and is the longest in Balochistan. Before emptying into the Arabian Sea, the Hingol flows into an estuary that supports threatened fish, birds, and crocodiles. It is part of the largest national park for the protection of endangered species in the country. The park is also home to wild Sindh Ibex, Balochistan Urial, and Chinkara Gazelle.
- Located approximately 200 km (120 miles) northwest of Karachi, Hingol National Park features several distinct ecosystems. In the north, it includes an arid subtropical forest, while dry, mountainous terrain covers the western portion. In the east, the park is renowned for a group of mud volcanoes that spew methane and mud instead of lava. Along the coast, Hingol includes caves, beaches, and a marine ecological zone that is home to dolphins, sea turtles, and mangroves. The water body in the image above is an ephemeral lake near Sapat Beach.
Figure 16: Detail image of the Hingol National Park observed by Landsat-8 on 13 February 2021 (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory)
- Many Hindus travel to the park to visit the Hinglaj Mata Mandar, a famous religious site located in a mountain cave on the banks of the Hingol River. On their pilgrimage, worshippers walk on rock outcrops and between steep cliffs, while also performing ritual bathing in the river.
- The park is also well known for its unique rock statues (just out of the image to the west). One formation, called the Princess of Hope, resembles a woman looking into the distance. The Balochistan Sphinx is a natural rock formation that looks like the Great Sphinx of Giza. A portion of the national Makran Coastal Highway runs through the park and provides drivers with a front row seat to the many of these rock formations and landscapes.
• April 29, 2021: Beginning on April 9, 2021, intermittent explosive eruptions from La Soufriére volcano have hurled plumes of ash and gas high into the air above the Caribbean island of Saint Vincent. Although winds have carried some ash plumes great distances, clouds of the tiny pulverized rock and glass shards have also rained down on the island and the Atlantic Ocean. 32)
Figure 17: Following several explosive eruptions on the Caribbean island of Saint Vincent, volcanic ash poses myriad hazards in the air and on the ground. The fallout has coated large parts of Saint Vincent. The images, acquired by the OLI on Landsat-8, show the northwestern part of the island before and after two weeks of powerful eruptions and ashfalls. The brown scar in the vegetation in the image on the left was caused by damage from gases leaked by the volcano before it erupted explosively (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey. Story by Adam Voiland)
- Volcanic ash is quite different than the soft, fluffy material you might find in a fireplace, and the sharp edges and other properties of volcanic particles make them especially problematic. Ash plumes pose a threat to aircraft because the particles can damage jet engines, propellers, and other aircraft systems in ways that can cause them to fail. Roughly ten times denser than snow, ash also can accumulate into heavy layers that can smother crops, collapse roofs, and taint water supplies. When soaked by rain, it can form slurries of muddy debris called lahars that rush down slopes and into valleys. Wet volcanic ash can even conduct electricity, meaning it can trigger short circuits and the failure of some electronic equipment.
- The layers of ash that fell on Saint Vincent in April 2021—along with several pyroclastic flows of hot debris rushing down La Soufriére’s slopes—have caused widespread destruction. Most island residents and tourists evacuated the most affected areas in time, but large numbers of buildings were flattened and farms and infrastructure have sustained extensive damage.
Figure 18: The data visualization above offers a view of the vertical distribution of ash in the atmosphere over the Atlantic Ocean about 300 km downwind from La Soufriére. The data were collected on April 12, 2021, by the Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System (ATLAS) on NASA’s ICESat-2. Note that much of the ash lingered at heights ranging from 4 to 10 km (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory, the ICESat-2 data are from the National Snow & Ice Center courtesy of Stephen Palm/NASA GSFC)
- The ATLAS instrument was designed to measure changes—on the scale of centimeters—in ice and land surfaces. In fact, volcanologists at the University of Buffalo are using ICESat-2 data to identify small bulges in volcanic domes that can precede explosive eruptions. They hope such observations might someday aid warnings about imminent eruptions.
- ATLAS can make observations of the atmosphere up to a height of 14 km. Though the ICESat-2 mission is focused on measurements of icy surfaces, it collects data relevant to atmospheric features like wildfire smoke, dust, clouds, blowing snow, and the height of the planetary boundary layer. Since real-time data showing the height of volcanic plumes is often scarce, data like this can serve as an important tool for atmospheric scientists developing ash dispersion models.
- A few other satellite sensors can also measure plume height, but having multiple sensors tracking an eruption increases the chances that one will make a measurement in near-real time, which is useful for aviation safety and air quality warnings. “One of the most important things about this type data is that it shows the vertical distribution of the plume,” said Stephen Palm, a research meteorologist based at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “That’s key to getting warnings to aircraft pilots.”
- “I don’t think the volcanology community is well aware of ICESat-2 atmospheric data,” said Michigan Tech volcanologist Simon Carn. “However, it certainly provides useful atmospheric observations, especially when ash is dense and at night.”
• April 28, 2021: In northwestern China’s Gansu province, at the northernmost extent of the Tibetan Plateau, the landscape offers layer upon layer of spectacularly colorful rocks. The formations have a compelling geological history that dates back tens of millions of years and involves a continental collision more than 2,000 kilometers away. 33)
- The image of Figure 19 shows Zhangye National Geological Park, which spans 322 km2 (124 square miles) of the prefecture of Zhangye. The widespread rusty color is sandstone, which was colored deep red during its formation by iron oxide. Other oxides imparted browns, yellows, and even greens to the various layers of rocks.
- It is a geologic marvel that the park’s colorful layers—deposited tens of millions of years ago during the Cretaceous Period—are visible at all. Folding and faulting processes have since lifted and deformed the rock, exposing layers that would otherwise have remained out of sight. Much of this crumpling and disruption of the stratigraphy is thought to have resulted from the “recent” collision of the Indian and Eurasian plates about 50 million years ago during the Cenozoic Era. Recent research suggests, however, that some of the deformation is even older.
- “The implications are that there was somewhat rugged, pre-existing topography prior to the India-Asia collision,” said Andrew Zuza, a scientist at the University of Nevada. “The Qinghai-Gansu province areas of the northern Tibetan Plateau may have already had some topography before development of the Tibetan Plateau.”
- Erosion from wind and water have continued to shape the rock, sculpting natural pillars, towers, and ravines. In July 2020 the site was designated as a UNESCO Global Geopark due to its geological significance.
- Colorful rocks are not confined within the park boundaries. The second image shows an area about 150 km (100 miles) northwest of the geological park. Like the park’s rusty rocks, these sandstones are from the Cretaceous and appear strikingly red. But even just a hundred miles away, different geological and erosional processes have played out. “That region just doesn’t have the same tilted colorful beds and small-scale rugged topography that the park area has.”
Figure 19: The landscape of the Quilian Mountains exhibits layer upon layer of spectacularly colorful rocks. OLI on Landsat-8 acquired these images on September 17, 2020. The reds and browns of exposed sandstones and other sedimentary rocks poke out from the range’s northern foothills, where the mountains meet a flat basin to the north known as the Hexi Corridor (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Lauren Dauphin, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey. Story by Kathryn Hansen)
Figure 20: Colorful rocks are not confined within the park boundaries. This image shows an area about 150 km (100 miles) northwest of the geological park. Like the park’s rusty rocks, these sandstones are from the Cretaceous and appear strikingly red. But even just a hundred miles away, different geological and erosional processes have played out. “That region just doesn’t have the same tilted colorful beds and small-scale rugged topography that the park area has.” (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory)
• April 20, 2021: Fertilizers used in farming contain high amounts of nutrients, such as phosphorous, to help crops grow. But these same nutrients can cause unwanted plant growth and potentially harm ecosystems miles away if agricultural runoff flows into nearby rivers, lakes, or coastal waters. 34)
- These effects represent one of the many ways that the different parts of the Earth system are connected. Waterways like rivers and streams are natural highways that connect areas hundreds to thousands of miles apart. They are also essential ecosystems for fish and other aquatic life, as well as sources of drinking water and recreational areas for people. Earth-observing satellites from NASA and its partners have a unique perspective from which to study the links between water and other parts of the Earth system – and are uniquely poised to help researchers address the consequences of those links, namely water quality.
- Most bodies of water contain microscopic, photosynthesizing organisms called cyanobacteria, which are harmless at normal levels. Individual cyanobacteria are tiny, visible only under a microscope. But certain conditions – lots of sunlight, stagnant water, and high amounts of nutrients like those in fertilizers – allow cyanobacteria populations to grow exponentially. The result is scummy green water that can be seen from space. These events, called harmful algal blooms, can lead to economic losses and poor water quality, and pose a health risk to humans and animals.
Figure 21: From space, satellites such as the NASA and USGS Landsat 8 can help scientists identify where an algal bloom has formed in lakes or rivers. It’s a complicated data analysis process, but one that researchers are automating so resource managers around the country can use the satellite data to identify potential problems (video credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center)
Green Lakes and Satellites
- Cyanobacteria have a photosynthesizing pigment called chlorophyll-a, which gives algal blooms a green hue when seen from space. Satellites can measure the concentration of chlorophyll-a in a body of water, allowing scientists to estimate the amount of cyanobacteria in the water. Several Earth-observing satellites are used to monitor algal blooms from space: NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites, the joint NASA/USGS Landsat satellites, and the European Space Agency’s Copernicus Sentinel-2 and Copernicus Sentinel-3 satellites. Which one is used often depends on the resolution of the satellite instrument and which satellite passes over the algal bloom at the right time to capture a cloud-free image.
- Harmful algal blooms are often hard to predict. NASA is part of a multi-agency Cyanobacteria Assessment Network (CyAN project), which includes the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), to monitor harmful algal blooms and other water quality issues. In 2021, NASA will launch Landsat 9, gaining another Earth-observing satellite to help track algal blooms from space.
The Cost of Harmful Algal Blooms
- During an algal bloom, the water becomes covered with clumpy green scum that gives off a musty smell. Aquatic recreation like swimming and water sports are often suspended until the levels of cyanobacteria return to safe levels. Harmful algal blooms also lead to economic losses in a less obvious sector: healthcare.
- A NASA-funded study found that detecting harmful algal blooms early led to significant savings on healthcare, lost work hours and other economic losses totaling approximately $370,000. The study, published in the journal GeoHealth, focused on a 2017 algal bloom in Utah Lake. The team compared the economic losses from two scenarios: the real-world scenario in which satellites detected the bloom, and a hypothetical scenario in which the decision was based on human observers and on-site testing.
- Satellite data showed the beginnings of an algal bloom in time for Utah public health officials to put up warning posters by June 29, 2017 to alert visitors to use caution while boating, not to swim or water ski, and how to fish safely. In the hypothetical scenario, scientists calculated what would’ve happened if officials waited for human observers to report the bloom and confirm with on-site testing, then posted signs on July 6. The week-long delay would have cost $370,000 according to health economics models, showing how detecting harmful algal blooms early can result in significant savings on healthcare and other economic costs.
- Harmful algal blooms pose a health risk to fish and other wildlife as well as humans. During an algal bloom, cyanobacteria grow exponentially. That algae uses up oxygen in the water as it decomposes, which decreases the amount of oxygen dissolved in the water and can asphyxiate fish and other aquatic animals. The most severe cases lead to massive fish die offs. In 2016, some lagoons in Florida became obscured by the upturned white bellies of thousands of dead fish after an algal bloom.
- Instances like these are a reminder that ecosystems on Earth are interconnected, and actions in one part of the planet have downstream impacts on other ecosystems and humans.
Figure 22: Seen from space, large numbers of cyanobacteria look like swaths or patches of green in a body of water – like this algal bloom in Lake Erie captured by Landsat-8 on Sept. 26, 2017 (image credit: Joshua Stevens / NASA Earth Observatory using Landsat-8 data from the U.S. Geological Survey)
• April 14, 2021: Eruptions at La Soufrière volcano have propelled ash and gas high into the air over the Caribbean islands of Saint Vincent and Barbados. The eruption—the volcano’s first explosive event since 1979—prompted thousands of people to evacuate. 35)
Figure 23: Explosive activity has propelled ash and gas high into the air over the Caribbean islands of Saint Vincent and Barbados. The recent bout of explosive activity began on April 9, 2021. At about 10:30 a.m. local time that day, the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat-8 acquired this image of volcanic ash billowing from La Soufrière. The plume obscures the volcano below, a peak that stands 1178 meters (3,864 feet) above sea level on the northern side of Saint Vincent (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory images by Lauren Dauphin, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey and MODIS data from NASA EOSDIS LANCE and GIBS/Worldview. Story by Kathryn Hansen)
- According to Jean-Paul Vernier, an atmospheric scientist with NASA’s Earth Applied Sciences Disasters Program, activity was apparent months before the explosive eruptions. It started with an effusive eruption in which magma that reached the surface slowly built up a lava dome. In April, the dome “finally turned out a massive explosion without many precursor signs,” Vernier said. Explosive eruptions result from the rapid expansion of pressurized gasses trapped in the rock or magma; the pressure violently breaks rocks apart and produces a plume of rock, ash, and gas.
Figure 24: Winds carried much of the ash and gas east from Saint Vincent. On the afternoon of April 10, 2021, the MODIS instrument on NASA’s Aqua satellite acquired this image showing ash reaching Barbados, 190 km (120 miles) away. Clouds (white) are also abundant in this view (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory)
- These images show ash aloft in the atmosphere, but some of it fell back to the ground. According to news reports, ashfall has blanketed parts of Saint Vincent and Barbados. It also has threatened food and water supplies on Saint Vincent and has reduced visibility, which can complicate evacuation efforts. People displaced to the island’s southern side—away from the volcano and generally safer—still had to contend with falling ash and poor air quality.
- Scientists are investigating the extent and height reached of the ash and gas plume. They think some ash has risen all the way into the stratosphere, where strong winds can potentially carry it great distances. Other satellite instruments have detected sulfur dioxide reaching Cape Verde, an archipelago in the central Atlantic Ocean. Sulfur dioxide near ground level can irritate the human nose and throat; higher in the atmosphere it can make sulfuric acid aerosols and, in extreme cases, lead to a cooling effect.
- The NASA Disasters team is working with several science institutions and agencies to continue assessing the eruption and to make data available to emergency responders and aid groups. “Our program has been working with stakeholders in the region since the first signs of the eruption,” Vernier said.
• April 3, 2021: Located along the southwest coast of South Korea, Sinan County attracts people from many walks of life. Its world-renowned tidal flats host unique marine life as well a thriving salt production industry. Meanwhile, purple-painted islands draw tourists from around the country. 36)
- Sinan County includes more than 1,000 islands, about a quarter of all islands in the country. The majority are surrounded by shallow tidal flats that are alternately covered or exposed by the rise and fall of tides. Depending on the time of the year, the flats can be muddier, sandier, or a combination of both. Finer mud tends to build in the zones during the summer, then erodes in the winter. Monsoons and strong waves in the winter create sandier flats.
Figure 25: From expansive tidal flats to purple-painted towns, southwestern South Korea features unique ecosystems for salt production, wildlife, and tourists. The images show portions of Sinan County, or Shinan-gun, on October 15, 2020. The images were acquired by the OLI instrument on the Landsat-8 satellite (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory images by Lauren Dauphin, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey. Story by Kasha Patel)
- Reclaimed mudflats are also used for commercial salt production. The region’s fresh air, clean seawater, and abundant sunshine create prime conditions for making salt. Salt production begins by storing sea water in reservoirs and moving it to evaporation ponds (appearing as checkered fields) to naturally increase the water’s salinity with the help of the Sun and wind. On crystallization ponds, the saline water turns into salt crystals, which are stored in silos for two to three years to remove the bitter-tasting solution and improve the taste.
- Shinean sea salt contains low concentrations of sodium chloride, but relatively high amounts of moisture, calcium, potassium, magnesium, and sulfuric acid ions that help bring out the flavor in traditional Korean foods. Jeungdo Island (Figure 26), which contains the most extensive mudflat in South Korea, is home to the country’s largest sun-dried salt producer. The island also contains a salt museum and sea salt ice cream shop.
Figure 26: Detail 1. The tidal flats, or getbol in Korean, are highly productive ecosystems. The mineral-rich sediments are full of microorganisms that attract marine animals such as clams and mud octopuses. The flats serve also as an important stopover for many migratory birds (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory)
Figure 27: Detail 2. The image shows another unique aspect of the region: the brightly-colored Banwol and Bakji Islands. Nicknamed the "the purple islands," they are known for displays of purple paint on their buildings, roofs, phone booths, and bridge. There is even a restaurant that serves purple food. The purple complements the native bellflowers called campanula, which cover the landscape in lilac. The Korean government launched the purple initiative to improve tourism on the two islands, which collectively have a population of around 250 people. Since 2018, more than 490,000 people have visited Banwol and Bakji (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory)
• March 25, 2021: Persistent, heavy rain fell for several days in late summer in New South Wales, Australia, leading to the region’s worst flooding in six decades. The Australian Bureau of Meteorology reported that areas around Sydney and in the Hunter and Mid North Coast regions were drenched with 400 to 600 mm (16 to 24 inches) of rain across four days, with the most extreme totals approaching one meter. 37)
- Water levels rose to major flood levels along the Clarence, Gwydir, Mehi, Lower Hunter, Manning, and Colo rivers, among others. The Hawkesbury-Nepean River system around Sydney saw its highest crests since 1961. At least 40,000 people were evacuated and several died across New South Wales (NSW) state, while farmers suffered significant crop and livestock losses.
- Upstream from Sydney, the Warragamba Dam has been overflowing since March 20 and is expected to continue doing so for a week. The BBC reported: “Warragamba Dam discharged 500 gigalitres on Sydney—equivalent to the volume of Sydney Harbour.” The downstream Hawkesbury-Nepean valley has several choke points that cause river water to pile up and rise onto floodplains west of Sydney in what emergency management authorities refer to as a bathtub effect.
Figure 28: Persistent heavy rain raised rivers to levels not seen since 1961. On March 23, 2021, the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat-8 acquired a natural-color image of flooding in the Hawkesbury-Nepean River system along the western edge of Sydney [image credit: NASA Earth Observatory, images by Lauren Dauphin, using modified Copernicus Sentinel data (2021), processed by ESA and analyzed by the National Central University of Taiwan in collaboration with NASA-JPL and Caltech. Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey and topographic data from the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM). Story by Michael Carlowicz]
Figure 29: The flood proxy maps (Figures 29 and 30) highlight areas of the Mid North Coast region that were likely to be flooded (indicated in blue) on March 20, 2021. The maps were derived from synthetic aperture radar (SAR) data acquired by the Copernicus Sentinel-1 satellites, operated by the European Space Agency (ESA). The maps were created by the National Central University of Taiwan in collaboration with the Advanced Rapid Imaging and Analysis (ARIA) team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Caltech. The ARIA team is supported by NASA’s Earth Science Disasters Program (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory)
Figure 30: Radar signals can penetrate cloud cover, allowing researchers to observe landscapes that are obscured from other satellite sensors. The team created the maps by comparing radar observations collected before and after the rainfall. Specifically, the researchers look for changes in brightness: if a normally rough ground surface is replaced with a smooth water surface, the brightness of those pixels will change (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory)
- Many of the areas affected by floods in March 2021 were afflicted with extreme drought and wildfire in the summer of 2020. Burn-scarred landscapes often produce more runoff during extreme rain events because the heat from fires reduces the capacity of the soil to absorb and hold on to water. Furthermore, fire strips away plants and trees that could intercept raindrops before they reach the ground.
Figure 31: The animation shows rainfall rates and accumulation across eastern Australia from March 16-23, 2021. Those data are overlaid on shades of white and gray from NOAA infrared satellite observations of cloudiness. The rainfall data are remotely-sensed estimates that come from the Integrated Multi-Satellite Retrievals for GPM (IMERG), a product of the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) mission. Rainfall rates are marked in blue, while accumulation is represented in green. Due to averaging of the satellite data, local rainfall amounts may be significantly higher when measured from the ground (video credit: NASA)
- Preliminary estimates from NASA’s IMERG analysis indicate that more than 600 mm (24 inches) of rain fell just off the coast across the week, with accumulations in coastal areas exceeding 400 mm (16 inches). The region usually sees 1000 to 1500 mm (40 to 60 inches) of rainfall in a year.
- La Niña patterns in the tropical Pacific have brought more rain than usual to eastern and southeastern Australia this summer. That extra rain likely left the soils and waterways with less capacity for absorbing new rainfall in March.
• March 24, 2021: Few rivers carry as much sediment as the Huang He (Yellow River) in China. The name itself comes from the muddy color of the water—a consequence of the river’s upper and middle reaches flowing through a region in northwestern China with unusually fine and powdery soil called loess. 38)
- All of the silt in the water supercharges the river’s ability to build new land at its delta, the area where it dumps its sediment into the shallows of the Bo Hai Sea. In this pair of Landsat images, note how much the easternmost lobe of the delta changed shape between 1989 and 2020 as the river delivered new sediment to some parts of the delta and erosion ate away at older coastlines. (Read our Yellow River Delta World of Change story to see more imagery of the delta.)
- One of the most noticeable changes resulted from a diversion project that Chinese engineers completed in 1996, blocking the main channel and steering water and sediment to the northeast. The project’s purpose was to create new land in an area with offshore oil and gas to make the resource easier to extract. Before completion, new land formed along a rounded peninsula oriented to the southeast; afterward, the abandoned channel narrowed and new land began forming to the northeast, even as erosion ate away at parts of the older peninsula.
- Other features in this area have seen equally dramatic changes. Aquaculture and salt evaporation ponds—the green and blue rectangular features along the coasts—have proliferated. So has oil drilling infrastructure (small rectangular features) due to the rapid expansion of Shengli Oil Field, now China’s largest. Several smooth-edged sea walls and dykes have been built along the coast in an attempt to protect the new oil, aquaculture, and other infrastructure from encroaching tides.
- On the youngest land, different types of vegetation&mdash:notably the cordgrass Spartina alterniflora—have spread widely, creating dense new pockets of green in the 2020 image. The invasive cordgrass first reached the Yellow River Delta in the late-1980s, and began to spread rapidly in the intertidal zone in the early 2000s. While the grass does stabilize the shoreline, it has crowded out a local reed species (Phragmites australis) and an annual plant (Suaeda salsa), significantly reducing how much carbon the delta ecosystem stores and increasing methane emissions. By replacing S. salsa, the cordgrass has also made the area less habitable for certain rare birds, including red-crowned cranes and black-billed gulls.
- Like many deltas around the world, the Yellow River Delta faces growing pressure from the sea for several reasons. By 2020, many of the coastlines shown here had retreated inland by a few kilometers as the sea overwhelmed tidal mud flats and marshes. This is partly because the delta itself is sinking. Freshly deposited mud naturally settles and compresses over time.
- Human activity—particularly the pumping of groundwater for aquaculture—has accelerated the process. Though less influential, the process of pumping oil from below the surface and bringing in heavy equipment may have contributed to the subsidence as well. For much of the area shown in this image, scientists have reported subsidence rates of 20 millimeters (0.8 inches) per year. Layered onto both phenomena is global warming and sea level rise. Warming ocean water and the addition of fresh water to the oceans from melting ice sheets and glaciers is thought to contribute about 3 millimeters of sea level rise per year in this area.
- Finally, the Yellow River now carries only a tenth of the sediment that it did during the 1960s and about half of what it did in the 1980s. Several dams, erosion-control projects, and reforestation projects in upstream farming areas now trap much of the water and sediment that would otherwise reach the delta naturally.
- Efforts to flush sediment from clogged reservoirs and to scour sediment from the river bed led to a spurt of accelerated land formation in the delta between 2002-2014. However, the volume of sediment reaching the delta began dwindling in 2014 as coarser sediments coated and “armored” the river channel in key areas, preventing additional scouring. Since 2014, the delta has once again begun to lose more land each year than it gains.
Figure 32: Landsat-4 TM image of the Yellow River delta acquired on February 13, 1989 (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory images by Lauren Dauphin, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey. Story by Adam Voiland)
Figure 33: Landsat-8 OLI image of the Yellow River delta acquired on 24 October 2020. Changes in sediment load, vegetation, and the river’s course have brought stark changes to this dynamic river delta (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory)
• March 22, 2021: Come summer, Utahns will flock to the state’s lakes and reservoirs to boat, swim and picnic along the shore. And every week, if not every day, scientists like Kate Fickas of Utah State University in Logan will use satellite images and other data to monitor recreation sites to check for rapid growth of algae into a bloom, and make sure the water is safe for people and pets. 39)
Figure 34: Data from the Landsat-8 satellite can help resource managers identify potentially harmful algal blooms in water bodies like Utah Lake, seen here (image credit: NASA/USGS)
- From the vantage point of space, satellites, including the NASA and U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) Landsat 8, can help scientists identify lakes where a bloom has formed. It’s a complicated data analysis process, but one that researchers are automating to assist resource managers in identifying potential problems.
- “I grew up swimming in the Willamette River in Oregon, and diving in lakes over the summer,” said Fickas. “So it means a lot to me that I’m able to not only help develop algorithms for monitoring cyanobacteria blooms, which is interesting in itself, but to be able to take that next step and keep the public safe, and allow them to safely recreate and enjoy the water the way that I do.”
Figure 35: From space, satellites such as the NASA and USGS Landsat 8 can help scientists identify where an algal bloom has formed in lakes or rivers. It’s a complicated data analysis process, but one that researchers are automating so resource managers around the country can use the satellite data to identify potential problems (video credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center)
- Blooms are made up of naturally occurring algae, phytoplankton, and cyanobacteria that explode in number under the right conditions: warm temperatures, lots of nutrients, and calm waters. Many water bodies in Utah meet those conditions, Fickas said, especially with warming temperatures due to climate change, as well as nutrient-rich runoff from agricultural fields and other sources.
- Satellites including Landsat-8 and ESA's (the European Space Agency) Sentinel-3 can detect when a lake changes color due to the mats of greenish organisms – allowing scientists like Fickas to tell water managers where to test to see if the waters are harmful or not. The two satellites have different strengths: Sentinel-3 collects data on individual lakes more frequently and measures wavelengths of light that are more indicative of phytoplankton, but Landsat-8 has a higher spatial resolution, so it can observe smaller lakes and identify specific problem areas within a larger lake.
- Landsat satellite-based detection of a 2017 bloom in Lake Utah helped save an estimated $370,000 in healthcare and related costs for the area, according to a 2020 study published in the journal GeoHealth. The case study builds on a larger multi-agency project to track algal blooms.
- When Landsat-8 measures a bloom, it detects chlorophyll-a, a green pigment found in phytoplankton, said Nima Pahlevan, a scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Water is a tricky thing for Landsat satellites to measure since it’s dark compared to brightly reflective trees, buildings, and other landscapes. But Landsat-8 is more sensitive than its predecessors, able to distinguish between many more intensities of light, essentially detecting more shades of green.
- “Any increased level of chlorophyll-a over the norm could be alarming, and that’s what we’re looking for from the satellite data,” he said.
- Nima and his team have developed an algorithm to take the data collected by Landsat-8 over lakes, analyze it, and create a product that tells local water or recreation managers where that increase in chlorophyll-a might be. To get from the raw data to the usable product involves multiple steps, including accounting for atmospheric particles and gases that might otherwise skew the results.
- “Not everyone has access to the computing power to be able to process satellite images, or the time or expertise,” Pahlevan said. “Having these products readily available to the community will significantly increase the number of people who can use the satellite data products.”
- These Landsat aquatic reflectance products are still provisional, he stressed, but they are newly available from the USGS, which provides all Landsat data as well as other data products for free.
- While this data product could help decision-makers spot potential problem areas for boaters and swimmers, other Landsat data products measure things like forested areas, burned areas, and snow cover.
- “Data products convert the complex observations made by the instrument to the kind of information people need,” said Jeff Masek of NASA Goddard, project scientist for the upcoming Landsat 9 satellite. “They allow allow people who aren’t as familiar with remote sensing complexities to make use of the data.”
- Landsat-9, which is scheduled to launch in September 2021, has all the attributes of Landsat-8 that allow it to quantify chlorophyll-a, and will have added capabilities to distinguish between even more intensities of light reflecting from water bodies and other surfaces. Scientists are looking forward to future satellites as well. Landsat Next, the satellite following Landsat-9, could have additional capabilities that allow it to better detect the specific organisms that cause harmful blooms, and not just benign phytoplankton growth that doesn’t release any concerning toxins.
- “We’re seeing more water quality issues around the world,” Masek said, “which is why we’re so interested in the capability to monitor them.”
• March 17, 2021: Humans have inhabited Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula since prehistoric times. As a land bridge between Asia and Africa, the Sinai has provided a path to countless travelers, conquerors, and settlers over the centuries. The southwestern region still has traces of some of the peninsula’s earliest inhabitants, from fragments of an ancient alphabet to remnants of turquoise mines. 40)
Figure 36: The mountains in the southwestern Sinai Peninsula hold ancient relics of temples and turquoise mining. This detail image shows the southwest Sinai on March 11, 2021, as captured by the OLI instrument on Landsat-8. Mountains dominate the region, making it difficult terrain to traverse (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory images by Lauren Dauphin, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey. Caption by Kasha Patel)
- The Sinai Peninsula has a dry desert climate, yet is also one of the colder provinces of Egypt due to its topography and relatively high elevation. Not many animals live in the area, but species of ibex, gazelles, wildcats, jackals, and sand foxes have been spotted there. Shrubs grow on steep slopes in the south, while succulents and salt-tolerant plants are found on coastal plains. The mountains of the Sinai have long been a destination for human hermits and mystics. Today, people make a living on the peninsula through the petroleum industry, agriculture, mining, fishing, and tourism.
Figure 37: The wider image shows the intersection of the mountains and El Ramla, the largest sand desert in the southern part of the Sinai Peninsula (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory)
- Archeologists estimate the earliest inhabitants in the southwestern Sinai were miners who excavated copper and turquoise deposits around 3,500 B.C.E. Two popular mining locations were Serabit el-Khadim and Wadi Maghareh (also known as the “Valley of Caves”). In many cases, the miners were slaves captured by Egyptians in war. They mined turquoise by hollowing out portions of the mountains, and then transported the mineral to the Egyptian mainland. The turquoise was used for jewelry and color pigments. Ancient Egyptians called the Sinai Mafkat, meaning “Country of Turquoise.”
- Serabit el-Khadim is well-known today for its ancient ruins. Excavators have found scattered relics of a temple, including a red sandstone sphinx. Dedicated to the goddess Hathor, the temple is one of the few known monuments to a pharaoh in the Sinai.
- The temple ruins also contain inscriptions believed to be precursors to an alphabet. The scripts were hieroglyphic signs—symbols were used to represent sounds. For example, linguists determined an inscription on the sphinx read “mahbalt,” meaning “beloved of the Lady.” An ox-head character is thought to be a forerunner of the letter a in the Latin alphabet. The script may also have been used to write the names of miners and keep track of their labors. There are also multiple engravings near the temple, including drawings of ships carrying turquoise.
• March 9, 2021: Though it covers just 1 percent of Earth’s land surfaces, Indonesia’s rainforest is believed to shelter 10 percent of the world’s known plant species, 12 percent of mammal species, and 17 percent of bird species. Spread across 18,000 islands, it covers an area large enough to make it the world’s third-largest rainforest, trailing only those in the Amazon and Congo basins. 41)
Figure 38: The data used in this earlier image was acquired by the Thematic Mapper (TM) on Landsat 5 in 2002 (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory images by Lauren Dauphin, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey and forest loss data from the University of Maryland. Story by Adam Voiland)
- While satellite data indicate that Indonesia has had high rates of forest loss in recent decades, the situation seems to be changing. Deforestation declined significantly between 2017-2019, according to data from Global Forest Watch. The forest change data used in the analysis was collected by Landsat satellites and processed by a team from the University of Maryland.
- But even as deforestation slows on major Indonesian islands such as Sumatra and Kalimantan, there are signs of a shift to other areas. One of those areas is Papua (also called Western New Guinea). Papua’s rugged terrain and scarcity of transportation infrastructure has led to less development and economic growth than in other parts of Indonesia. But in some parts of the island, there has been noticeable new activity in the past decade.
Figure 39: While the region has seen less deforestation than other parts of Indonesia, large-scale clearing is still evident. The image shows forest clearing along the Digul River near Banamepe, an area that was cleared between 2011 and 2016.This image was acquired by the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat-8 in 2020 (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory)
Figure 40: This map, based on forest change data from the University of Maryland, shows part of southern Papua where lowland rainforest and swamp forest have been cleared to establish several large plantations. While large-scale deforestation has been happening in this area for about two decades, several particularly large plots were cleared in the past few years, including some near the river town Tanahmerah.
- The smaller, more scattered clearings along rivers are likely associated with selective logging, natural shifts in water courses, and small-scale clearing by subsistence farmers, explained remote sensing scientist David Gaveau, the author of a new study about deforestation trends in Papua. In the lower third of the map, an area where forests transition into the Trans-Fly savanna and grasslands, some of the changes are likely associated with seasonal fires.
- “The slowdown in Sumatra and Kalimantan is due, at least in part, to the exhaustion of available suitable land for plantation agriculture and increasing land prices on these islands,” explained Kemen Austin, an analyst with the non-profit research organization RTI International and the author of a 2019 study about the drivers of deforestation in Indonesia. “Papua is seen as the next frontier, and recent investments in infrastructure have made plantation agriculture in the region more economically compelling.”
- According to Gaveau’s analysis of two decades of Landsat data, nearly 750,000 hectares of forest were cleared in Papua between 2001-2019—about 2 percent of the island’s forests. Of that total, the analysis found that about 28 percent was cleared for industrial plantations (oil palm and pulpwood), 23 percent for shifting cultivation, 16 percent for selective logging, 11 percent for rivers and lakes expanding or changing course, 15 percent for urban expansion and roads, 5 percent for fires, and 2 percent for mining. (Shifting cultivation is a type of farming where fields are only used temporarily and then left to regrow naturally for a number of years before being cleared again.)
- Biological surveys have been rare on the relatively undeveloped New Guinea, so the island’s immense biodiversity remains only partly catalogued and understood. Since the island was once connected to Australia, it is home to unusual marsupials, such as tree kangaroos and forest wallabies. Among the island’s more notable animals are two species of egg-laying mammals (monotremes) called echidna.
• March 8, 2021: Since late January 2021, blue-green algae have spread across Lake Burrinjuck in New South Wales, Australia. Authorities issued warnings to stay out of the lake, which usually attracts many people for waterskiing and fishing around this time of the year. 42)
- Blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria, typically appear as greenish clumps or scum on the surface of the water and have a strong musty odor. They occur naturally in modest numbers but can reproduce quickly under favorable circumstances—namely sufficient sunlight, stagnant water, and high amounts of dissolved nutrients, such as fertilizer runoff.
- Blue-green algae blooms can be fatal for pets and can cause stomach problems, rashes, and even vomiting for humans, if ingested. They could also harm the fish population at the lake, which is known for its golden perch, Murray cod, rainbow trout, and more. When the algae die, they sink to the bottom of the lake, where they are decomposed by bacteria. If the concentrations of algae and bacteria are high enough, the process can deplete oxygen concentrations in the water, causing fish to suffocate.
- Based on algal samples, the state-owned water supplier and river operator WaterNSW issued alerts in late January and February to stay out of the water and to stop recreational activities in the lake. As of March 2, it reported lower concentrations of algae but still advised people not to drink untreated lake water and to exercise caution if partaking in water activities.
- Longtime local residents told The Canberra Times that the algal outbreaks were the worst they have seen in more than a decade. According to WaterNSW, the blooms were somewhat unusual since the lake is located in a cooler part of the state and the Burrinjuck Dam recently received a large inflow of water. A spokesperson for WaterNSW said, however, the inflows may have brought in nutrients from other catchments.
Figure 41: On February 10, 2021, the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat-8 captured imagery of algae blooms in Lake Burrinjuck and the Murrumbidgee River (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory images by Lauren Dauphin, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey. Story by Kasha Patel)
• March 3, 2021: Antarctica’s Brunt Ice Shelf finally calved a large iceberg in February 2021, two years after rifts opened rapidly across the ice and raised concerns about the shelf’s stability. 43)
Figure 42: The break was first detected by GPS equipment on February 26, 2021, and then confirmed the next day with radar images from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1A satellite. On March 1, clouds were sparse enough for the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat-8 to acquire this natural-color image of the new iceberg [image credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey and data © OpenStreetMap contributors via CC BY-SA 2.0. Story by Kathryn Hansen with information from Christopher Shuman (NASA GSFC/UMBC JCET)]
- Named A-74, the berg spans about 1270 km2 (490 square miles), or about twice the size of Chicago. That’s a large piece of ice for the Brunt Ice Shelf, but Antarctica is known for churning out some enormous bergs. For comparison, Iceberg A-68A was almost five times that size when it calved from the Larsen C Ice Shelf in 2017.
- A-74 broke from the ice shelf northeast of the McDonald Ice Rumples—an area where the flow of ice is impeded by an underwater formation that causes pressure waves, crevasses, and rifts to form at the surface. The rift that spawned the new berg appeared near the rumples in satellite images in September 2019, and it advanced across the ice shelf with remarkable speed during the austral summer of 2020-2021.
- “I would not have thought that this rift could go zipping across the northeast side of the Brunt Ice Shelf and cause a significant calving—all in a tiny fraction of the time it has taken Chasm 1 to extend toward the ice rumples from the south,” said Christopher Shuman, a University of Maryland, Baltimore County, glaciologist based at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
- Chasm 1 is a separate rift located south of the ice rumples and the Halloween Crack. After decades of growth and then a rapid acceleration in 2019, that rift appeared poised to spawn its own iceberg, prompting safety concerns for researchers “upstream” at the British Antarctic Survey’s Halley VI Research Station. This section of the shelf is still holding on, but when it eventually breaks the berg will likely measure about 1700 km2 (660 square miles).
- Scientists are waiting to see how the complex structure responds to the recent calving. “The Halloween Crack may or may not be the first to respond,” Shuman said. “We’ll be closely watching that pinning point for changes to the larger Brunt Ice Shelf remnant.”
- It also remains to be seen what will become of the new iceberg. Most likely, it will eventually get caught up in the Weddell Gyre—similar to the fate of A-68. But first it needs to be pushed offshore, and to date it does not appear to have moved very far.
• February 25, 2021: Sheer, glacier-covered ridges separated by gorges soar over the Chamoli district in northern India. On the morning of February 7, 2021, this spectacular terrain in Uttarakhand turned deadly when a torrent of rock, ice, sediment, and water surged through the Rishiganga River valley past multiple villages and slammed into two hydropower stations. 44)
Figure 43: On February 21, 2021, the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat-8 captured a view of the landscape in the wake of the event. In the image, natural-color Landsat-8 data were overlaid on a digital elevation model from the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM) to depict the rugged topography [image credit: NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey and topographic data from the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM). Story by Adam Voiland, with information from Dan Shugar (University of Calgary) and Christopher Shuman (NASA GSFC/UMBC JCET)]
- The scale of the damage in the Himalayan district was devastating. Hundreds of people were swept away by the chaotic rush of water and debris. Dozens of people, many of them workers at the power plants, lost their lives; others ended up trapped in tunnels, prompting dramatic rescue attempts. Numerous homes, bridges, and roads were ruined.
Figure 44: The torrent of debris from a mountain in the Himalaya devastated remote valleys in Uttarakhand. The image pair above shows a closeup of the same area before and after the debris flow. Note the dark scar near the origin of the landslide and the trail of dust and debris that blanketed the valley walls downstream (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory)
- Initially, there was some confusion about what caused the catastrophe, but a group of remote sensing scientists have mined satellite data for clues to fill in the sequence of events.
- Months before the landslide, satellite images showed a crack opening on an ice-covered flank of Ronti, a 6,029-meter (19,780-foot) mountain peak. On February 7, 2021, a huge chunk of a steep slope broke off from the peak, bringing down part of a hanging glacier perched on the ridge. After freefalling for roughly two kilometers, the rock and ice shattered as it slammed into the ground, producing an enormous landslide and dust cloud. As the accelerating rock and ice raced through Ronti Gad and then Rishiganga River valley, it picked up glacial sediments and melted snow. All the materials mixed into a fast-moving slurry that overwhelmed the river and churned wildly as it rushed through the river valley.
- What triggered the rock and hanging glacier to fall in Uttarakhand remains an open question. University of Calgary geomorphologist Dan Shugar is among a group of scientists trying to find an answer to that and other questions about the disaster. As part of the effort, they are analyzing several types of meteorological, geologic, and modeling data to supplement and contextualize the satellite imagery. They hope to determine what role weather conditions, the tectonic environment, and shifting climate conditions might have played in priming the rock and ice for collapse.
- “Unfortunately, there were no weather stations that we know of that were nearby, but we are looking at things like whether cycles of ongoing freezing and thawing may have weakened the rock,” said Shugar. “Climate change may have even helped destabilize the rock face through increased water infiltration over a period of years and by thawing permafrost. For now, we can hypothesize about these possibilities, but careful work is required to understand exactly what happened.”
• February 23, 2021: Earth science satellites are generally used to observe certain features of the planet—landforms, atmospheric chemistry, ocean patterns. But at the same time, they periodically show us things that few people have seen or even looked for. 45)
- In February 2020, our team noticed a twitter message with a peculiar and beautiful image from Russia near 66 degrees north latitude. It turned into a scientific detective story and an unresolved case.
Figure 45: In this OLI image on Landsat-8, acquired on 15 September 2016, stripe patterns twist and turn around the hills of the northern Central Siberian Plateau. On steeper hills, the stripes form tight loops that spiral from the top of the hill to the bottom. As they descend toward the riverbanks, they start to fade. Eventually, the stripes disappear at lower elevations and at latitudes. There are several possible causes for the distinctive striping pattern, and the answers vary by the season and by the expertise of the researcher (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory, images by Joshua Stevens, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey and topographic information from the ArcticDEM Project at the Polar Geospatial Center, University of Minnesota. Story by Andi Brinn Thomas, with Mike Carlowicz)
- There are several possible causes for the distinctive striping pattern, and the answers vary by the season and by the expertise of the researcher.
- This portion of the Central Siberian Plateau lies within the Arctic Circle, where air temperatures remain below freezing for most of the year. Much of the landscape is covered in permafrost that can stretch tens to hundreds of meters below the surface. There are different levels of intensity, but this area generally has permafrost coverage for 90 percent of the year.
- The land does occasionally thaw, and cycles of freezing and thawing are known to create polygon, circle, and stripe patterns on the surface (referred to as “patterned ground”). In the case of the images above, the stripes could be elongated circles stretched out on the slopes by such thawing cycles. Yet studies have shown that this type of striping usually occurs at a much smaller scale and tends to be oriented downslope.
Figure 47: OLI images on Landsat-8, acquired in the period 15 September 2016 and 29 October 2020 (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory)
- To geomorphologists, the nature of the soil offers another explanation for the stripes. In regions this cold, soils can turn into Gelisols—soils with permafrost in their top two meters and often with darker and lighter layers distinguished by more organic matter or more mineral and sediment content. As the ground freezes and thaws, the layers break up and mix vertically in a process called cryoturbation. The persistent freezing and thawing action through the seasons can cause layers to align in a striping pattern. Different tundra vegetation—lichens, low shrubs, and moss—might grow preferentially on these Gelisol layers, accentuating the stripes we see from above. But this hypothesis has not been proven at large scales.
Figure 48: Several rivers cut across the plateau, including the Markha, and as the stripe pattern moves closer to the river, it starts to fade. This could be a result of sediment buildup along the riverbanks from millions of years of erosion (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory)
- From a geologist’s perspective, the different stripes appear similar to sedimentary rock layers. Thomas Crafford of the U.S. Geological Survey called the pattern “layer cake geology,” where sedimentary rock layers have been exposed and dissected by erosion. As snowmelt or rain travels downhill, pieces of sedimentary rock are chipped away and sent down to the ravines below. Such erosion could cause a step-like pattern that appears as stripes from space similar to a slice of layer cake. This pattern is also referred to as “cliff and bench topography.”
- In the winter Landsat image of Figure 46, snow causes the striping pattern to stand out more than in other seasons. The benches would be the lighter stripes (covered in snow) and the cliffs would be darker stripes. The Arctic digital elevation map above, based on data from the ArcticDEM Project, gives a clearer perspective on the possible cliff and bench features.
- “It looks like small canyons, maybe like the Badlands of South Dakota. The horizontal striping appears to be different layers of sedimentary rock,” said Walt Meier, an ice specialist at the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center. “The shape of the erosion pattern looks a bit different than standard sedimentary erosion, but my guess is that is due to the permafrost. The rivers are eroding through frozen ground. There could also be some effect from frost heaves affecting the topography.”
- Louise Farquharson, an Arctic geologist at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, pointed to a region in northern Alaska with a very similar stripe pattern that could be formed by a similar process.
• February 15, 2021: For much of the year, an efflorescent salt crust makes Lake Lefroy stand out as a bright, white spot in satellite images. But after heavy rains, the ephemeral lake in Western Australia takes on a different look. 46)
Figure 49: When the OLI instrument on Landsat-8 acquired this natural-color image on February 9, 2021, water had pooled in the playa’s lowest points. The rain fell as part of a tropical low that soaked the Eastern Goldfields region in early February. The water was discolored by some combination of suspended sediments from the region’s red soils, light reflecting off the rust-colored lake bed, or bacterial activity in the salty water (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory images by Lauren Dauphin, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey. Story by Adam Voiland)
- The smaller pools of green water in the center of the lake are areas where a mine discharges groundwater, a process called mine dewatering. The mine, built along a causeway that bisects the lake, taps into rich deposits of gold and nickel. Mining pits, roads, tailing ponds, and other mining infrastructure are visible along the causeway.
Figure 50: Spectacular patterns emerged as stormwater pooled on the salt crust of this ephemeral lake in Western Australia (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory)
- Large volumes of water do not persist for long in Lake Lefroy because the region’s hot, dry climate encourages evaporation. While water pooled in early February in a pattern that resembles a tropical fish, it’s unlikely the pattern will last. Lake Lefroy is frequently reshaped by changes in the prevailing winds that transport water back and forth between different parts of the playa. Nor are fish often found in these waters. Aside from certain flies, small crustaceans, phytoplankton, and algae, not much thrives in the hypersaline and impermanent waters.
• February 12, 2021: Beneath Earth’s crust lies 2,900 km (1,800 miles) of viscous mineral and rock known as the mantle. Famous and fanciful literature aside, no human is likely to visit the mantle or deep interior of Earth. But at Gros Morne National Park, people can step on fragments of the mantle without having to dig an inch. 47)
- Gros Morne provides some of the world’s best exhibits of the process of plate tectonics. The park contains a portion of the Long Range Mountains, a subrange of the Canadian Appalachians that dates back to around 1.2 billion years ago, when present-day North America collided with another continent. Those mountains have since eroded and left behind the gneiss and granite peaks of the Long Range. The park contains some of the tallest peaks of the Long Range mountains, including Big Level and Gros Morne Mountain (French for “great somber”).
- The Tablelands, located on the south end of the park, are considered one of its most striking features. The flat-topped, rust-colored land is rich with peridotite rock from the upper part of Earth’s mantle. The rock was thrust towards the surface around 500 million years ago through a process known as subduction. When two plates on Earth’s crust collide, one is often pushed back (subducted) toward the mantle. Standing out amid the lush green park, the yellowish-red Tablelands played a crucial role in confirming the theory of plate tectonics.
- The Canadian Space Agency has also studied the area to aid in the search for life beyond Earth. Scientists study how microscopic life forms can survive in the iron-rich Tablelands to better understand how they might survive on the extreme environment on Mars.
- Gros Morne National Park also features some recent geologic history at the Western Brook Pond. The freshwater fjord was carved by advancing glaciers tens of thousands of years ago during the most recent ice age. After the glaciers melted and receded, the land rebounded and cut off the outlet from the sea. Saltwater was slowly and naturally flushed from the 30 km (20-mile) long pond. Today, the fjord is surrounded by steep rock walls up to 600 meters (2,000 feet) high and contains nearly pure fresh water. The setting is a favorite for photographers.
- Today, the park is protected by the Canada National Parks Act. One of the biggest natural threats to the park is a large moose population, which is five to 20 times higher here than in other parts of Canada. Introduced into the area about 100 years ago, the hungry population has eaten through large portions of the boreal forest and hindered regrowth.
Figure 51: A geologist’s dream, Gros Morne National Park is one of the few places where you can set foot on the Earth's mantle without digging an inch. On October 3, 2017, the OLI instrument on Landsat-8 acquired natural-color imagery of Gros Morne National Park. The UNESCO World Heritage site covers 1,800 km2 (690 square miles) in the Great Northern Peninsula of western Newfoundland (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory images by Lauren Dauphin, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey. Story by Kasha Patel)
Figure 52: A detailed view of the Tablelands, in the southern portion of the Gros Morne National Park (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory)
• February 9, 2021: Snow is not as rare as you might think in the Hawaiian Islands. But it never stops being beautiful. 48)
- Starting with a moderate storm on January 18, 2021, snow has fallen three times on the highlands of Hawai'i in the past three weeks. The snow cover has persisted on Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa—the two tallest volcanoes in the island chain—since January 25. Some snow also briefly crowned Haleakalā volcano (elevation 10,000 feet/3000 meters) on the island of Maui.
Figure 53: Three storms in three weeks have left abundant snow atop Hawaii’s tallest volcanic mountains. On February 6, 2021, the OLI instrument on Landsat-8 acquired natural-color images of the “Big Island” of Hawai'i with abundant snow on its two tallest peaks. Nearly every year, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa (elevation above 13,600 feet/4200 meters) receive at least a dusting that lasts a few days. Sometimes, like this year, it is more like a winter blanket of snow (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey and data from the National Snow and Ice Data Center. Story by Michael Carlowicz)
Figure 54: The bar chart below shows the Normalized Difference Snow Index (NDSI) for Hawai'i as observed by NASA’s Terra satellite. NDSI incorporates a blend of visible light and shortwave infrared to assess the amount of snow within a given geographic area. The chart shows the combined NDSI for Mauna Loa (teal) and Mauna Kea (blue) for the first week of February in each year from 2001 to 2021. The combined weekly NDSI in 2021 for the two volcanoes is the highest since 2014 and second-highest in the record (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory)
- According to news and social media accounts, Hawaiians have found their way up the volcanic mountains with snowboards and boogie boards to sled through the fluffy white blanket. Others have filled their pickup truck beds to bring snow down to friends. Hawaiian weather blogger Weatherboy posted several photos from the scene.
- Snowfall in Hawai'i is often associated with a weather phenomenon referred to as a Kona low. Winds that typically blow out of the northeast shift and blow from the southwest. The winds from the leeward or “Kona” side draw moisture from the tropical Pacific, turning it from rain to snow as the air rises up into the high elevations.
- With the recent snowfall in Hawai'i, Florida is now the only state that has not yet seen snow this winter, according to The Weather Channel.
• February 3, 2021: In late January 2021, Tropical Cyclone Eloise caused widespread damage and heavy flooding in central Mozambique. The storm displaced more than 16,000 people, damaged around 17,000 houses, and killed more than a dozen people across a few countries in southeast Africa. 49)
Figure 55: These images show flooding on January 30, 2021, seven days after Eloise made landfall near the coastal city of Beira. The images from December 2019 are provided to compare the area under non-flooded conditions in the same season. The false-color images, acquired by the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat-8, use a combination of visible and infrared light (bands 7-5-3) to help differentiate flood water (dark blue), bare land (brown), and vegetation (bright green), image credit: NASA Earth Observatory images by Lauren Dauphin, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey. Story by Kasha Patel.
- After crossing northern Madagascar and before making landfall on mainland Africa, Eloise slightly strengthened due to warm waters in the Mozambique Channel. Stations in Beira recorded 25 cm (10 inches) of rain in 24 hours. Several rivers burst their banks, and roads became impassable. Tens of thousands of hectares of farmland were submerged in brown water, which could affect harvest this April. The storm, which brought winds up to 160 kilometers (100 miles) per hour, also blew over trees, power lines, and signs.
- Most of the areas hit by Eloise are still recovering from cyclones Idai and Kenneth in 2019, which claimed hundreds of lives. When Eloise hit, some villages were already flooded. In Dec. 2020, Beira and other surrounding areas endured heavy rains and flooding from severe weather.
Figure 56: Landsat-8 image of Mozambique on 27 December 2019 (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory)
Figure 57: Landsat-8 image of Mozambique on 30 January 2021 (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory)
- After making landfall in Mozambique, Eloise continued across southern Africa, though in a weakened state. The storm caused damage and flooding to South Africa, Eswatini, and Zimbabwe.
• January 30, 2021: Gold has been found on every continent except Antarctica, but the lustrous yellow metal is not exactly ubiquitous. The element (Au on the periodic table) is actually quite rare, accounting for just one out of every billion atoms in Earth’s crust. But in places such as the Central Aldan ore district in the Russian Far East—where concentrations of the precious metal have been discovered — mining operations are large enough to be seen from space. 50)
Figure 58: On September 11, 2019, the OLI instrument on Landsat-8 acquired this natural-color image showing part of the ore district in the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia). The image is centered about 25 kilometers (15 miles) northwest of the gold-mining town of Aldan, and about 450 kilometers southwest of the regional capital city, Yakutsk (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey. Story by Kathryn Hansen)
- Central Aldan is one of Russia’s largest gold ore districts, with the mineral occurring in numerous deposits, or “lodes,” in the fractured rock. One of the largest lodes lies in the Kuranakh deposit, a shallow, ribbon-like orebody (up to 50 meters thick and 25 kilometers long) sandwiched between Cambrian limestone below and Jurassic sandstone above. Mining sites developed to to extract this gold are visible in the detailed images of Figures 59 and 60).
- The Kuranakh gold deposit was discovered in 1947, and a moderate amount of gold was extracted by 1955. Ten years later, large-scale open-pit mining began and continues today. Open-cut, drilling, and blasting techniques are now used to access the ore, which is processed at an onsite mill. In 2019, the Kuranakh mine produced 224,700 ounces of refined gold.
- Not all of the region’s gold shows up as lode deposits. In areas where a lode has been eroded, pieces of gold can become concentrated by rivers and streams into placer deposits.
- To excavate the placer, bucket-lined dredges scoop up material in the front and dump the tailings behind in curved piles. The accumulation of arc-shaped piles forms the long, maze like-pattern, which is visible in the image above. From April to December in the 2019 mining season, three dredges extracted 18,600 ounces of gold from the Bolshoy Kuranakh placer deposit.
• January 20, 2021: Two years after the Brunt Ice Shelf seemed poised to produce a berg twice the size of New York City, the ice is still hanging on. But the calving of one, maybe two, large icebergs is inevitable. The question is: when? Ice scientists are watching to see if a rapidly accelerating crack will cause the shelf to rip apart before the sunlit summer season ends. 51)
Figure 61: The OLI instrument on Landsat-8 acquired this image of the Brunt Ice Shelf on January 12, 2021. The ice flows away from the Antarctic mainland and floats on the eastern Weddell Sea. The main shelf area has long been home to the British Antarctic Survey’s Halley Research Station, from which scientists study Earth, atmospheric, and space weather processes (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory images by Lauren Dauphin, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey. Story by Kathryn Hansen)
- The breaking, or “calving,” of icebergs from ice shelves is part of a natural, cyclical process of growth and decay at the limits of Earth’s ice sheets. As glacial ice flows from land and spreads out over the sea, shelf areas farthest from shore grow thinner. These areas are stretched thin, and can be melted from above or below, making them more prone to forming rifts and eventually breaking away. The Brunt Ice Shelf appears to be in a period of instability, with cracks spreading across its surface.
- The major rifts are visible in the wide view of Figure 61. In late October 2016, the “Halloween crack” appeared and rapidly extended eastward. In early 2019, Chasm 1 extended northward as fast as 4 km per year. Now, a new crack is zippering across the shelf north of the Halloween crack, far faster than the fissure to its south.
- “It is impossible to know exactly what caused this new rift to extend so quickly,” said Christopher Shuman, a University of Maryland, Baltimore County, glaciologist based at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “It’s likely that fracture dynamics near the McDonald Ice Rumples played a role, as they did in the quick propagation of the ‘Halloween Crack’ in 2016. The unusual mix of ice blocks and mélange in this part of the Brunt Ice Shelf ‘system’ is another factor.”
- The rumples are the result of ice that flows over an underwater formation, where the bedrock rises high enough to reach into the underside of the floating ice shelf. This rocky formation impedes the flow of ice and causes pressure waves, crevasses, and rifts to form at the surface.
- All of these cracks, combined with a recent speed up at the leading edge of the ice shelf (detected by ESA’s Sentinel-1), point to an instability that is likely to spawn a new iceberg or two. The exact timing is uncertain, but until the break occurs and the shelf has been reformed, Halley Research Station is being kept minimally staffed for safety reasons. In 2016-2017, the Halley VI station was relocated to a safer location (Halley VIa) upstream of the then-growing Chasm 1.
- “I think we are going to see big changes here,” Shuman said. And with more than two months left of sunlight, changes should be visible in natural-color satellite images for a while longer before the onset of winter darkness.
Figure 62: The detailed view shows the new rift growing away from an area known as the McDonald Ice Rumples. The rift shows up in satellite images as early as September 2019, when it had grown just over 2 kilometers longer during the austral winter. But the biggest growth just occurred recently. Between November 18 and December 22, 2020, the rift grew in length by about 20 kilometers. Then it jogged toward the north and grew an additional 8 kilometers by January 12, 2021 (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory)
• January 19, 2021: Smooth, stationary clouds are occasionally reported by the public as sightings of “unidentified flying objects.” But these clouds are not as mysterious as they might first seem. 52)
Figure 63: On December 29, 2020, the OLI instrument on Landsat-8 acquired these images of soft-edged clouds hovering over the Eisenhower Range of Antarctica’s Transantarctic Mountains. The range is bounded to the north by Priestley Glacier and to the south by Reeves Glacier, both of which feed into the Nansen Ice Shelf on Terra Nova Bay [image credit: NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey. Story by Kathryn Hansen with image interpretation by Bastiaan Van Diedenhoven (NASA GISS/Columbia) and Jan Lenaerts (CU Boulder)]
- The clouds have the hallmarks of lenticular clouds that can form along the crests of mountain waves. Mountain waves form when fast moving wind is disturbed by a topographic barrier—in this case, the Eisenhower Range. Air is forced to flow up and over the mountains, causing waves of rising and falling air downwind of the range. The rising air cools and water vapor condenses into clouds. Conversely, falling air leads to evaporation.
- Adding to their mystique, this cloud type appears to stay put—sometimes for hours—defying the strong horizontal winds. In reality, the clouds are constantly building around the crest of the wave and then dissipating just beyond.
Figure 64: Detail image of smooth, soft-edged clouds hovered over the Eisenhower Range in Victoria Land, Antarctica (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory)
- In the United States, lenticular clouds are particularly common around the Rocky Mountains. They have been known to occur over Antarctic mountains, too, but there are not many witnesses besides satellites. The white-on-white color of clouds over ice make the Antarctic versions harder to discern, even in satellite images. This natural-color image has been enhanced with infrared light to separate the white clouds from the white snow and ice below. The clouds also threw rounded shadows on the landscape.
- Still, a few people have witnessed lenticular clouds in Antarctica firsthand. Scientists working with NASA’s Operation IceBridge shot photos of the phenomenon near Mount Discovery in 2013 and over Penny Ice Cap in 2015.
• January 11, 2021: With its population rising three times faster than the national average, the Charleston metropolitan area in South Carolina is among the fastest growing places in the United States. 53)
Figure 65: Large tracts of coastal forests and farmland have been cleared and developed in recent decades to accommodate new residents to the area. The pair of natural-color Landsat images above—this image from 1985 (on Landsat-5, TM) and the image of Figure 66 from 27 December 2020—show some of the changes. Forests and marshes appear green; developed areas are gray. Places where widespread development has occurred include James Island, Johns Island, Daniel Island, West Ashley, and Mount Pleasant (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory images by Lauren Dauphin, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey)
Figure 66: Sea level rise and new development are on a collision course in South Carolina lowcountry.. Charleston metropolitan area observed by OLI on Landsat-8 on 27 December 2020 (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory)
- A similar story is playing out in cities all across the United States, but the Charleston area stands out in one critical way—much of the new development has happened on low-lying land that is especially vulnerable to sea level rise and flooding. Older, more established parts of Charleston—often on slightly higher land but surrounded by water on three sides—faces similar challenges. As one form of remediation, local and federal government officials are moving forward with plans to build a seawall to protect the city’s historic downtown from encroaching water.
- “Other southeastern coastal cities face similar problems but with one caveat: the lowcountry of South Carolina is low,” said Norman Levine, director of the Santee Cooper GIS Laboratory and Lowcountry Hazards Center at the College of Charleston. “Over one-third of all homes are built on land that sits below 10 feet (3 meters) of elevation.”
- High tide, or “nuisance flooding,” is already far more common now than it was decades ago, according to Dale Morris, the coauthor of a 2019 report that assessed the region’s flood risks. On average, Charleston saw 10 to 25 tidal floods per year in the 1990s. There were 89 such events in 2019 and 69 in 2020, he said. In other words, the city now sees tidal flooding every 4 to 5 days.
- “If you look at a lot of the recent development, it impinges upon or is in low-lying floodplains and adjacent land,” said Morris. “These areas used to flood and no one really noticed. Now they flood and impact people’s lives, resources, and livelihoods.”
- The report offers some general principals and recommendations for future development. Development should respect the landscape's natural drainage patterns and soil qualities. Coastal forests—which sponge up water—should be preserved wherever possible. And according to the report authors, development on the lowest-lying areas should not happen.
- “We are not saying don’t develop at all,” said Morris. “We are saying to develop wisely, carefully, sensibly given the current and future flood risks. Those risks are not going to decrease.”
• January 7, 2021: Popocatépetl volcano—the name is Aztec for “smoking mountain”—is one of Mexico’s most active volcanoes. The glacier-clad stratovolcano has been erupting since January 2005, with daily low-intensity emissions of gas, steam, and ash. 54)
Figure 67: Ash and gas emissions continue from one of Mexico’s most active volcanoes. On January 2, 2021, the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat-8 captured this image of a plume rising from Popocatépetl (nicknamed El Popo), image credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Lauren Dauphin, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey. Story by Kasha Patel
- On January 6, the Washington Volcanic Ash Advisory Center (VAAC) reported a volcanic ash plume that rose to around 6,400 meters (21,000 feet) above the volcano. Mexico’s National Center for Prevention of Disasters (CENAPRED), which continuously monitors Popo, warned people not to approach the volcano or its crater due to falling ash and rock fragments. Some ashfall was blown downwind to the city of Puebla, located about 45 kilometers (30 miles) away from the volcano.
- At 5,426 meters (17,802 feet) above sea level, Popocatépetl is the second tallest volcano in Mexico (after Citlaltépetl). It is comprised of alternating layers of volcanic ash, lava, and rocks from earlier eruptions. The volcano is located around 70 kilometers (40 miles) southeast of Mexico City and more than 20 million people live close enough to be affected by a major eruption. However, most of the eruptions in the past 600 years have been relatively mild.
Landsat-8 Initial imagery until May 2013 when Landsat-8 was declared operational
• Landsat-8 is operational — LDCM was officially renamed to Landsat-8. On May 30, 2013, NASA transferred operational control of the Landsat-8 satellite to the USGS (U.S. Geological Survey ) in Sioux Falls, S.D. This marks the beginning of the operational phase of the Landsat-8. The USGS now manages the satellite flight operations team within the Mission Operations Center, which remains located at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD.
The mission carries on a long tradition of Landsat satellites that for more than 40 years have helped to study how Earth works, to understand how humans are affecting it and to make wiser decisions for the future. The USGS will collect at least 400 Landsat-8 scenes every day from around the world to be processed and archived at the USGS/EROS (Earth Resources Observation and Science Center) in Sioux Falls. 55)
• May 22, 2013: One of two new spectral bands identifies high-altitude, wispy cirrus clouds that are not apparent in the images from any of the other spectral bands. The March 24, 2013, natural color image of the Aral Sea, for example, appears to be from a relatively clear day. But when viewed in the cirrus-detecting band, bright white clouds appear. 56)
The SWIR band No 9 (1360-1390 nm) is the cirrus detection band of the OLI (Operational Land Imager) instrument. Cirrus clouds are composed of ice crystals. The radiation in this band bounces off of ice crystals of the high altitude clouds, but in the lower regions, the radiation is absorbed by the water vapor in the air closer to the ground. The information in the cirrus band is to alert scientists and other Landsat users to the presence of cirrus clouds, so they know the data in the pixels under the high-altitude clouds could be slightly askew. Scientists could instead use images taken on a cloud-free day, or correct data from the other spectral bands to account for any cirrus clouds detected in the new band.
Figures 68 and 69 are simultaneous OLI observations of the same area of the Aral Sea region in Central Asia which illustrate the power of interpretation of a scene. The cirrus clouds of Figure 69 are simply not visible in the natural color image of Figure 68. This new analysis feature will give scientists a better handle to study the changing environment.
• May 9, 2013: Availability of free long-term Landsat imagery to the public. Today, Google released more than a quarter-century of images, provided free to the public, of Earth taken from space and compiled into an interactive time-lapse experience. Working with data from the Landsat Program managed by the USGS (U.S. Geological Survey), the images display a historical perspective on changes to Earth's surface over time. 57) 58) 59) 60)
The long-term archive of Landsat images of every spot on Earth is a treasure trove of scientific information that can form the basis for a myriad of useful applications by commercial enterprises, government scientists and managers, the academic community, and the public at large.
In 2009, Google started working with USGS to make this historic archive of Earth imagery available online. Using Google Earth Engine technology, the Google team sifted through 2,068,467 images—a total of 909 terabytes of data—to find the highest-quality pixels (e.g., those without clouds), for every year since 1984 and for every spot on Earth. The team then compiled these into enormous planetary images, 1.78 terapixels each, one for each year.
• May 6, 2013: As the LDCM satellite flew over Indonesia's Flores Sea on April 29, it captured an image of Paluweh volcano spewing ash into the air. The satellite's OLI instrument detected the white cloud of smoke and ash drifting northwest, over the green forests of the island and the blue waters of the tropical sea. The TIRS (Thermal Infrared Sensor) on LDCM picked up even more. 61) 62)
Figure 70: An ash plume drifts from Paluweh volcano in Indonesia in this image, taken April 29, 2013 with OLI (image credit: NASA)
By imaging the heat emanating from the 5-mile-wide volcanic island, TIRS revealed a hot spot at the top of the volcano where lava has been oozing in recent months (Figure 71).
Legend to Figure 71: A bright white hot spot, surrounded by cooler dark ash clouds, shows the volcanic activity at Paluweh volcano in the Flores Sea, Indonesia. The image of Paluweh also illuminates TIRS' abilities to capture the boundaries between the hot volcanic activity and the cooler volcanic ash without the signal from the hot spot bleeding over into pixels imaging the cooler surrounding areas.
• May 2, 2013: All spacecraft and instrument systems continue to perform normally. LDCM continues to collect more than 400 scenes per day and the U.S. Geological Survey Data Processing and Archive System continues to test its ability to process the data flow while waiting for the validation and delivery of on-orbit calibration, which convert raw data into reliable data products. 63)
• On April 12, 2013, LDCM (Landsat Data Continuity Mission) reached its final altitude of 705 km. One week later, the satellite’s natural-color imager (OLI) scanned a swath of land 185 km wide and 9,000 km long. 64) 65)
• Since April 4, 2013, LDCM is on WRS-2 (Worldwide Reference System-2),
Figure 72: These images show a portion of the Great Salt Lake, Utah as seen by LS-7 (left) and LS-8 (LDCM) satellites (right); both images were acquired on March 29, 2013 (image credit: USGS, Ref. 65)
Legend to Figure 72: On March 29-30, 2013, the LDCM was in position under the Landsat 7 satellite. This provided opportunities for near-coincident data collection from both satellites. The images below show a portion of the Great Salt Lake in Utah, and the Dolan Springs, Arizona area, the latter of which is used in Landsat calibration activities. 66)
• March 21, 2013: Since launch, LDCM has been going through on-orbit testing. The mission operations team has completed its review of all major spacecraft and instrument subsystems, and performed multiple spacecraft attitude maneuvers to verify the ability to accurately point the instruments. 67)
- As planned, LDCM currently is flying in an orbit slightly lower than its operational orbit of 705 km above Earth's surface. As the spacecraft's thrusters raise its orbit, the NASA-USGS team will take the opportunity to collect imagery while LDCM is flying under Landsat 7, also operating in orbit. Measurements collected simultaneously from both satellites will allow the team to cross-calibrate the LDCM sensors with Landsat 7's Enhanced Thematic Mapper-Plus instrument.
- After its checkout and commissioning phase is complete, LDCM will begin its normal operations in May. At that time, NASA will hand over control of the satellite to the USGS, which will operate it throughout its planned five-year mission life. The satellite will be renamed Landsat 8. USGS will process data from OLI and TIRS and add it to the Landsat Data Archive at the USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science Center, where it will be distributed for free via the Internet.
Figure 73: First image of LDCM released in March 2013 (image credit: NASA) 68)
Legend to Figure 73:
The first image shows the meeting of the Great Plains with the Front
Ranges of the Rocky Mountains in Wyoming and Colorado. The
natural-color image shows the green coniferous forest of the mountains
coming down to the dormant brown plains. The cities of Cheyenne, Fort
Collins, Loveland, Longmont, Boulder and Denver string out from north
to south. Popcorn clouds dot the plains while more complete cloud cover
obscures the mountains.
• March 18, 2013: First day of simultaneous OLI and TIRS Earth imaging (Ref. 65).
• Feb. 21, 2013: The LDCM mission operations team successfully completed the first phase of spacecraft activation. All spacecraft subsystems have been turned on, including propulsion, and power has been supplied to the OLI (Operational Land Imager) and TIRS (Thermal Infrared Sensor) instruments. 69)
• LDCM will go through a check-out phase for the next three months. Afterward, operational control will be transferred to NASA's mission partner, the USGS (U.S. Geological Survey), and the satellite will be renamed to Landsat-8. The data will be archived and distributed free over the Internet from the EROS (Earth Resources Observation and Science) center in Sioux Falls, S.D. Distribution of Landsat-8 data from the USGS archive is expected to begin within 100 days of launch.
• The LDCM spacecraft separated from the rocket 79 minutes after launch and the first signal was received 3 minutes later at the ground station in Svalbard, Norway. The solar arrays deployed 86 minutes after launch, and the spacecraft is generating power from them (Ref. 25).