Science

Earth As Art: 'How Did Nature Do That?'

Satellites are powerful tools. They beam our TV signals, phone calls and data around the planet. They help us spy, they track storms, they power the GPS signals in our cars and on our phones. But they also send back striking, totally disarming images of planet Earth.

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    Kalahari Desert, Southern Africa, 2000

    The large stretch of semiarid, sandy savanna covers part of Botswana, Namibia and South Africa. The desert has vast areas covered by red sand without any permanent surface water. The red dot near the Nossob River in the center of this image represents a farm made possible by a center-pivot irrigation system.

    NASA
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    Bombetoka Bay, Madagascar, 2000

    Islands and sandbars have formed where the Betsiboka River flows into the Mozambique Channel. The past few decades have seen a dramatic increase in the amount of sediment moved by the river and deposited in the estuary. Dense vegetation is deep green, and water is sapphire, tinged with pink where sediment is particularly thick.

    NASA
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    Great Salt Desert, Iran, 2003

    A mix of salt marshes, mud flats, wadis, steppes and desert plateaus color the landscape of Iran'’s Great Salt Desert, Dasht-e Kavir. The region covers an area of more than 29,000 square miles. Dramatic daily temperature swings and violent storms are the norm, and extreme heat leaves the marshes and mud grounds with crusts of salt.

    NASA
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    Carnegie Lake, Australia, 1999

    Carnegie Lake in Western Australia fills with water only during periods of significant rainfall. In dry years, it is reduced to a muddy marsh. Flooded areas appear dark blue or black, vegetation appears in shades of dark and light green, and sands, soils and minerals appear in a variety of colors.

    NASA
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    Ice Waves, Greenland, 2001

    The undulating swirls shown here along the eastern coast of Greenland are slurries of sea ice, newly calved icebergs, and older weathered bergs. During the summer melting season, the southward-flowing East Greenland Current twirls these mixtures into stunning shapes. The exposed rock of mountain peaks are tinted red.

    NASA
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    Lena River Delta, Russia, 2000

    The Delta extends 62 miles into the Laptev Sea and Arctic Ocean, and includes a protected wilderness area and wildlife refuge. The delta is frozen tundra for about seven months of the year, and spring transforms it into a lush wetland. Vegetation appears as shades of green, sandy areas as shades of red, and water as purples and blues.

    NASA
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    Nazca Lines, Peru, 2000

    The ancient geoglyphs, located in southern Peru, are estimated to be created by the Nazca culture between 400 and 650 A.D. The Nazca Lines were made by removing reddish iron-oxide pebbles that cover the surface of the desert. When the gravel is removed, the lines contrast with the light color underneath.

    NASA
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    Meandering Mississippi, U.S., 2003

    Graceful swirls and whorls of the Mississippi River encircle fields and pastures on the border between Arkansas and Mississippi. The Mississippi is the largest river system in North America and forms the second largest watershed in the world.

    NASA
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    Garden City, Kan., U.S., 2000

    Garden City, Kan., has a semi-arid steppe climate with hot, dry summers and cold, dry winters. Center-pivot irrigation systems created the circular patterns. The red circles indicate irrigated crops of healthy vegetation, and the light-colored circles denote harvested crops.

    NASA
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    Mayn River, Russia, 2000

    The Mayn River is a tributary of the larger Anadyr River, which flows through the far northeastern corner of Siberia. While these rivers are frozen for about eight to nine months in a year, they are home to chum and sockeye salmon during the summer months.

    NASA
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    Von Kármán Vortices, Southern Pacific Ocean, 1999

    Swirling clouds line up in a formation known as a von Kármán street. They appear when wind-driven clouds encounter an obstacle, in this instance Alexander Selkirk Island in the southern Pacific Ocean.

    NASA
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    Terkezi Oasis, Chad, 2000

    A series of rocky outcroppings emerge from the sand in the Sahara Desert near the Terkezi Oasis. Stretching across the immense desert are vast plains of sand and gravel; seas of sand dunes; and barren, rocky mountains. Only 10,000 years ago, grasses covered the region, and mammals such as lions and elephants roamed the land.

    NASA
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    Kalahari Desert, Southern Africa, 2000

    The large stretch of semiarid, sandy savanna covers part of Botswana, Namibia and South Africa. The desert has vast areas covered by red sand without any permanent surface water. The red dot near the Nossob River in the center of this image represents a farm made possible by a center-pivot irrigation system.

    NASA
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    Himalayas, Central Asia, 2001

    The soaring, snow-capped peaks and ridges of the eastern Himalaya Mountains create an irregular patchwork between major rivers in Tibet and southwestern China. Covered by snow and glaciers, the mountains here rise to altitudes of more than 16,000 feet. Vegetation at lower elevations is colored red.

    NASA

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This set of images is all about showing off the "beauty of the Earth," says Lawrence Friedl, the director of NASA's Applied Sciences Program and the editor of a project called Earth as Art. "We want people to look at these images and say, 'How did nature do that?' "

The project, which NASA has released in iPad and book form, spans the world, from cold peaks to desolate deserts to ocean islands. But these aren't your typical snapshots.

Look again. Deep reds outline Greenland's ice. Golds, oranges, greens and purples color a desert. Electric blues swirl against blacks.

Are these images real?

Friedl says NASA maintains a fleet of Earth-observing probes trained on our planet that constantly monitor the "Earth system" — the oceans, the atmosphere, the land, the plants. These satellites — 16 in all — ship back loads of data and images.

Some of the instruments aboard the satellites collect data in different ranges of wavelengths of light. These "spectral bands" break up all the visible and invisible light into chunks: the reds, the blues, the greens and even infrared, a wavelength of light that humans can't see.

When researchers piece the image data back together, they can be selective about which "bands" of light are displayed in the final image. "The selection depends on the intent of the analysis," Friedl wrote in an email. "An analysis of vegetation would probably select the red, green and infrared bands — vegetation is 'bright' in those bands and the analyst could differentiate between the types or health of vegetation."

Friedl says analysts generally don't go out of their way to make images look surreal, but this kind of spectral analysis can be used to great effect. "There are whole books written on what band combinations to use to bring out certain features," he told me. Like rocks: When studying the retreat of the glaciers of the Himalayas, Friedl says, you can train software to recognize the light signature of exposed rock. And instead of directly measuring the glaciers themselves, you can see where new rock is getting exposed year over year.

Friedl says the 75 images in the Earth as Art collection don't have an explicit scientific purpose: "These are for visual entertainment purposes," he says. "Part of it is to try to get images of the Earth in front of people who aren't scientists and researchers."

But beyond this collection, images like these can be really valuable to scientists, Friedl says. "We now have 40-plus years of data, and we can look at trends on the decadal scale, put that into a model and start doing predictions."

And what's hanging on his wall? A blown-up version of this phytoplankton bloom in the Baltic Sea.

Phytoplankton Bloom, Baltic Sea, 2005 Massive congregations of greenish phytoplankton swirl in the dark water around Gotland, a Swedish island in the Baltic Sea. Phytoplankton are microscopic marine plants that form the first link in nearly all ocean food chains. Blooms of phytoplankton, occur when deep currents bring nutrients up to sunlit surface waters. i i

Phytoplankton Bloom, Baltic Sea, 2005 Massive congregations of greenish phytoplankton swirl in the dark water around Gotland, a Swedish island in the Baltic Sea. Phytoplankton are microscopic marine plants that form the first link in nearly all ocean food chains. Blooms of phytoplankton, occur when deep currents bring nutrients up to sunlit surface waters. NASA hide caption

itoggle caption NASA
Phytoplankton Bloom, Baltic Sea, 2005 Massive congregations of greenish phytoplankton swirl in the dark water around Gotland, a Swedish island in the Baltic Sea. Phytoplankton are microscopic marine plants that form the first link in nearly all ocean food chains. Blooms of phytoplankton, occur when deep currents bring nutrients up to sunlit surface waters.

Phytoplankton Bloom, Baltic Sea, 2005 Massive congregations of greenish phytoplankton swirl in the dark water around Gotland, a Swedish island in the Baltic Sea. Phytoplankton are microscopic marine plants that form the first link in nearly all ocean food chains. Blooms of phytoplankton, occur when deep currents bring nutrients up to sunlit surface waters.

NASA

"It's land. It's ocean. The patterns that are on it are so symmetrical — it seems like they're almost rhyming," Friedl says.

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