August 3, 2012
For 40 years Landsat satellites have been circling the Earth, taking pictures from roughly 440 miles above us. Each loop lasts about 99 minutes and it takes about 16 days to capture the entire planet. Which means that Landsats have been recording, in 16-day intervals, the ebb and flow of our relationship with the planet since the early 1970s.
It’s been, as they say in the relationship business, a rough stretch, but for most of it, only scientists have been paying much attention. These were people tracking the explosion of cities or the scarring of rainforests or the melting of glaciers. As for the rest of us, well, we may have been aware that things were changing, and not for the better, but we had little sense of the scale or pace of change.
Now we can see for ourselves, thanks to a joint project of Google, the U.S. Geological Survey and Carnegie-Mellon University. Google has already stored 1.5 Landsat million images in its Google Earth Engine and now CMU scientists have refined software that allows many of those images to be watched as zoomable, time-lapse videos.
It’s an experience both fascinating and sobering. Take, for instance, a satellite timelapse of Las Vegas since 1999. You see the city speading like kudzu into the desert, while nearby, Lake Mead shrinks a bit more every year. The two aren’t directly related–the lake’s being drained by drought and warm winters upstream on the Colorado River. But if you live anywhere near there, it couldn’t be a comforting juxtaposition.
Or consider a time lapse of the Amazon rainforest during the same period. You watch as farmers’ fields spider out like veins from a road built through the green canopy. And when brown fields take over an area, another road is cut and more fields follow. As Carnegie Mellon scientist Randy Sargent put it, “You can continue to argue about why deforestation has happened, but you no longer will be able to argue whether it happened.”
Archaeology from space
It turns out that satellite photography isn’t just a powerful tool for tracking recent Earth events; it’s also a way to look deep into the past. A report published earlier this year revealed that archaeologists are able to see traces of now-buried ancient settlements by applying a computer program to satellite photos. This works because human settlements, specifically organic waste and decayed mud bricks, leave behind a unique signature in the soil. Under infrared analysis, it tends to be much denser than the soil around it.
Using this technique, Harvard archaeologist Jason Ur was able to spot as many as 9,000 potential hidden settlements in a 23,000-kilometer area of northeastern Syria alone. “Traditional archaeology goes straight to the biggest features — the palaces or cities — but we tend to ignore the settlements at the other end of the social spectrum,” said Ur. “The people who migrated to cities came from somewhere; we have to put these people back on the map.”
Another scientist using satellite images, Sarah Parcak, of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, actually refers to herself as a “space archaeologist.” Last year she located as many as 17 possible small pyramids buried under the sand in Egypt through a satellite survey. Said Parcak, “It’s an important tool to focus where we’re excavating. It gives us a much bigger perspective on archaeological sites. We have to think bigger and that’s what the satellites allow us to do.”
Here’s a sampling of some of the more memorable images captured by satellite cameras:
- An Olympian effort: In the spirit of the Games, NASA has pulled together aerial views of the 22 cities that have hosted the Summer Olympics since the modern games began in 1896.
- Growth spurts: While we’re peering down at cities, here are 11 more that have seen explosive growth in recent decades, from Chandler, Arizona, which has eight times as many residents as it did in 1980, to the Pearl River Delta in China, which was completely rural in the 1970s and now has a population of more than 36 million.
- Scorched Earth: Only a satellite image can give you a true sense of how much devastation the Waldo Canyon fire did in Colorado earlier this summer.
- Beetle mania: More ugliness in Colorado: A satellite’s view of the destruction done by the tiny pine bark beetle.
- Breaking away: A series of satellite images captures an ice island twice the size of Manhattan breaking away from the Petermann Glacier in Greenland a few weeks ago.
- Dust never sleeps: This will make you throat go dry: A dust storm bridging the Red Sea.
- Is this place beautiful or what?: And finally…to mark Landsat’s 40th birthday, NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey asked people to vote for the Landsat image that best presented Earth as a work of art. Here are the five top choices. .
Video bonus: Check out more stunning Landsat images in this clip about how the Google Earth Engine will make it much easier for people like you and me to to follow the Earth’s transformation.
More from Smithsonian.com
July 9, 2012
Remember the moment in The Wizard of Oz when Glinda, the good witch, warns the Wicked Witch of the West that someone might drop a house on her, too. For a fleeting instant, the wicked one is all vulnerability, glancing nervously at the sky for signs of another descending domecile.
That’s the image that popped into my brain this weekend when a guy on the radio mentioned the threat of “severe thunderstorms” later in the day. It probably helped that at that moment I was across the street from a house upon which a huge elm had toppled during the freakish derecho a week earlier. Most of the tree had been hauled away, but its giant tangle of roots remained, still attached to the large chunk of sidewalk it had ripped out of the ground, a jarring reminder of how powerful the winds that night had been.
I pay a lot more attention to weather reports these days, wondering if the next “severe” storm will knock out power for days–again–or worse, bring the big maple out back down on to our roof. My guess is that most people are feeling more wary about the weather, with what used to be seen as extreme now seemingly becoming our new normal.
So, if we should expect longer heat waves and droughts, more intense rainfalls and floods and, to put it bluntly, increasingly violent nature, what innovative thinking might help us cope with what’s coming?
Here comes trouble
For starters, the National Weather Service is rolling out new alerts that will pop up on your smart phone. To make sure you get the message, your phone will vibrate and sound a tone.
You don’t need to sign up for them or download an app. Alerts are sent to cell towers which then automatically broadcast them to any cell phones in the area. Doesn’t matter if you have an out-of-state number, either. If you’re driving through Kansas and there’s a twister coming, you’ll get buzzed.
For now, the weather service will send alerts warning people about tornadoes, flash floods, hurricanes, extreme wind, blizzards and ice storms, tsunamis, and dust storms. They won’t flag us about severe thunderstorms, however, because, they say, they happen so often. (Don’t remind me.)
Everyone’s a weatherman
But what if we could start using our smartphones to crowdsource the weather? That’s what Nokia EVP Michael Halbherr proposed during a recent interview. His thinking is that smartphones could be equipped with sensors that register humidity levels and barometric pressure.
I know, that’s nice, but what are you going to do with knowing the barometric pressure, right? Halbherr’s idea is to turn each phone into a mini weather station.
His take: “If millions of phones were transmitting real-time barometric pressure and air moisture readings, tagged with geo-location data, then the art of weather prediction could become much more a science.”
The tricorder lives?
If you like the idea of knowing as much as possible about your immediate surroundings, there’s an invention in the works that may be the closet thing we’ll have to the old Star Trek tricorder. Called the Sensordrone, it’s a device that attaches to your key chain and it’s loaded with sensors.
Through a Bluetooth connection to your smartphone, it will be able to tell you not just the temperature, the humidity, and the barometric pressure, but also the quality of the air you’re breathing and level of light to which you’re being exposed. And, if you think you may have had too much to drink, it could serve as a pocket breathalyzer.
You can get instant readings, but the data can also be stored on your phone, so you’ll be able to make graphs of your own personal space. If that sounds like we’re entering into Too Much Information territory, well, maybe so. But the Sensordrone, being marketed as the “sixth sense of your smartphone,” is another idea that’s been a winner on Kickstarter. Its inventors had hoped to raise $25,000, but so far, with almost two weeks to go, they’ve roused up almost $120,000 in pledges.
Doing something about the weather
Here’s more on using technology to track Mother Nature:
- Where there’s smoke: High-res optical sensors originally designed in Germany to analyze comet emissions have been adapted to create a device called FireWatch. Already in use in Europe, it can detect a plume of smoke up to 20 miles away, usually within 10 minutes, although it takes slightly longer at night.
- But they will not give interviews: This hurricane season, for the first time, NOAA will use robotic boats to track tropical storms and hurricanes. The drones, a water scooter named Emily and a kind of surfboard called Wave Glider, will be sent out into the middle of the nasty weather where they’ll gather data and take pictures.
- Something in the air: Intel is developing sensors that can be placed on lampposts and traffic lights and will be able to tell your smartphone how polluted the air is at street level.
- Sensor and sensibility: Chemists from the University of California, Berkeley, are installing 40 sensors around the city of Oakland, creating the first network that will provide real-time, neighborhood-by-neighborhood readings of greenhouse gas levels in an urban area.
- Taking the long view: Construction is underway in Florida and Massachusetts on the first two of what will be 20 monitoring stations around the U.S. that will track climate change, the spread of invasive species and other environmental trends over the next 30 years.
- We’ve even got space weather covered: We may soon be able to accurately estimate when radiation from solar storms will hit us. Scientists say neutron sensors at the South Pole will be able to provide the data they need to make solid predictions on the timing and impact of space weather.
Video bonus: I’m betting you’ve probably never seen lightning quite like this. During a thunderstorm last August, it took aim at the CN Tower in Toronto and never let up.
More from Smithsonian.com:
June 26, 2012
The planet probably won’t become dramatically more sustainable as a result of what happened last week at the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro. Yes, lofty speeches were delivered and hundreds of billions of dollars of pledges were made, but the chance of a meaningful climate change treaty coming out of one of these events is now none and noner.
Yet one thing that has become painfully clearer with each passing U.N. climate summit is that the key to sustaining life on Earth is to get smarter about how we develop and reshape cities. Today, more than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas; by mid-century it will be closer to three out of four people.
The need to find more space, along with the desire to develop cleaner and more efficient ways to keep cities running, is spurring urban planners to look for unconventional solutions. And they’re finding that more of the answers may be beneath their feet. It’s a big shift. As Leon Neyfakh wrote recently in the Boston Globe: “In a world where most people are accustomed to thinking of progress as pointing toward the heavens, it can be hard to retrain the imagination to aim downward.”
But cities around the world are adjusting their aim; the underground is becoming the next urban frontier.
Here are a handful of projects pushing the possibilities:
1) When there’s no place to go but down: The showpiece of all the potential underground projects is a 65-story inverted pyramid known as the “Earthscraper.” Instead of reaching for the sky, it would burrow 1,000 feet into the ground beneath Mexico City’s main square, the Zocalo. Taking an elevator 40 floors down into the Earth may not sound like anyone’s idea of an awesome way to start the day, but it can be much better than it might seem, insists architect Esteban Suarez, of BNKR Arquitectura, who imagined this plan.
As he sees it, the Zocalo plaza would be covered with glass that would serve as the building’s ceiling. The Earthscraper’s center would be left as open space to allow natural light and ventilation to flow through each floor. And every 10 floors, there’d be an “Earth Lobby” of plant beds and vertical gardens to help filter the air down there. Suarez envisions the first 10 floors nearest the surface as a museum, with the next 10 down reserved for condos and shops and the next 35 floors designed as office space. The Earthscraper faces a lot of challenges, including an estimated cost of $800 million, and plenty of skeptics think it will be true its vision and never see the light of day. But urban designers are keeping an eye on this one to see if it’s the project that moves cities in a whole new direction.
2) When progress means going back into caves: The hands-down leader in plumbing the possibilities of subterranean life is Helsinki, the only city in the world that actually has a master plan for underground development. The Finnish capital sits above bedrock close to the surface, which has allowed it to start building out another city beneath itself. It’s carved through the rock to create an underground pool, a hockey rink, a church, shopping mall, water treatment plant and what are known as “parking caverns.”
But the most innovative feature of this netherworld is, believe it or not, a data center. Usually, data centers are energy hogs, burning up massive amounts of power to keep machines from overheating. Not under Helsinki. There the computers are kept cool with sea water, and the heat they do generate is used to warm homes on the surface. Both Singapore and Hong Kong are looking to follow Helsinki’s lead in moving the unsightly parts of urban life–treatment plants, garbage transfer centers, fuel storage depots, data centers–into underground caverns.
3) When cities suck, but in a good way: The small, but fast-growing city of Almere in the Netherlands has become a model for cities dealing with the mountains of garbage they generate every day. For years Almere has whisked away its trash through a network of underground suction tubes, but more recently it has added litter cans to the system. The bins automatically drop their trash into the vacuum tubes once sensors indicate that they’re full. So the litter never overflows or ends up in piles that make only the rats happy.
A similar underground trash suction system, also designed by the Swedish firm Envac, has been handling garbage from New York’s Roosevelt Island for years and now feasibility studies are underway to see if it can be extended to serve the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan and Coney Island’s boardwalk.
4) When a walk in the park gets really deep: Among the many things most people couldn’t imagine doing underground, having a picnic likely would be high on the list. But that hasn’t deterred two innovative thinkers, Dan Barasch and James Ramsey, from pushing for the creation of New York’s first underground park. Their idea is to take a dank, subterranean trolley terminal that’s been abandoned since 1948 and turn it into a place where people can stroll under Delancey Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
The key to making this work, says Barasch, is using the latest fiber-optic technology to direct natural sunlight into the space–enough sunlight, he insists, to grow grass and plants. To spark the public’s imagination, they’ve been calling it the “LowLine,” an echo of the celebrated elevated High Line park on the city’s West Side. And while the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which owns the property, would have to buy into the plan, it got a nice little boost in April. Barasch and Ramsey pitched their idea on Kickstarter, hoping to raise $100,000 to start the design work. Instead, they’ve raised $150,000 in pledges from 3,300 people.
In the land down under
More notes from underground:
- I love the smell of mocha blend in the morning: Researchers at the City College of New York say they’ve found a way to take the stink out of sewers. Their remedy? Coffee grounds cooked to about 800 degrees Celsius.
- A fungus among us: A pair of “horitcultural artists” have created some truly authentic underground art in an abandoned London railway station. It’s been designed so that mold, fungi and even edible mushrooms will sprout from and spread across the surface over the summer.
- And such a tasteful way to hide the unsightly tourists: You know that going underground is coming into fashion when you hear the Paris city council is considering building a welcome center and ticket counter underneath the Eiffel Tower. It would be designed to reduce the crowds in the plaza around the tower and allow tourists to line up in dry, air-conditioned comfort.
- A nice little place from which to rule the world: And here’s a bit more evidence that going beneath the surface is trending glamorous. Apple’s new spaceship-esque research center to be built in Cupertino, California will include a huge underground auditorium. And it is there where Apple will unveil its latest products to the universe.
Video bonus: For a closer look at how Helsinki is setting the pace for tapping underground potential, this CNN report takes you down below.
June 8, 2012
You may soon, if you haven’t already, be making your first visit to the beach since last summer. A lot has happened out in the ocean since then, although most of us probably haven’t been paying much attention. Truth is, the sea doesn’t get a whole lot of press, unless a tsunami or shark attack happens.
But, like I said, a lot of unusual things are going on in the ocean these days. Scientists have been doing some innovative research to a get handle on where all this is headed, but they are truly in uncharted waters. As marine biologist Callum Roberts wrote in Newsweek, “With an ever-accelerating tide of human impact, the oceans have changed more in the last 30 years than in all of human history before. In most places, the seas have lost upwards of 75 percent of their megafauna—large animals such as whales, dolphins, sharks, rays, and turtles—as fishing and hunting spread in waves across the face of the planet.”
Since today is World Oceans Day, here’s a rundown of 10 things we now know about the sea that we didn’t a year ago.
1. The oceans are getting more acidic every day. In fact, according to researchers at Columbia University, acidification is occurring at a rate faster than any time in the last 300 million years, a period that includes four mass extinctions. As the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases, oceans absorb it, and it turns into a carbon acid. And that is putting sea creatures at risk, particularly coral, oysters and salmon.
2. The “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” is even greater. The latest on that massive swirl of plastic particles in the North Pacific? It’s way bigger than scientists thought. They’ve known that it’s roughly the size of Texas. But in a new study researchers collected samples from the below the surface, in some cases 100 feet down, and they’ve concluded that the size of the mass may have been underestimated by 2.5 to 27 times. Another study found that small insects known as sea skaters have taken to laying their eggs on the plastic and that that could end up harming crabs that feed on them.
3. Coming soon: Deep sea mining. Advances in robotics, computer mapping and underwater drilling are stirring up interest in mining metals and minerals under the ocean floor. For mining companies, the prospect of finding rich veins of high-quality copper is particularly enticing. Also, later this month three Chinese scientists in a submersible will dive into the Marianas Trench, the deepest place on Earth–which is seen as a prelude to gearing up an underwater mining industry.
4. The Arctic meltdown could make harsh winters more likely. Yes, it’s counter-intuitive, but yet another study, this one by researchers at Cornell, reinforces the theory that warmer water in the Arctic sets off a climatic chain reaction that can result in brutal winters, like last year in Europe, or relentless snowfalls, like those that buried America’s East Coast in February, 2010.
5. Sea life needs to swim farther to survive climate change. After analyzing 50 years of global temperature changes, scientists at the University of Queensland concluded that both the velocity of climate change and the shift in seasonal temperatures will be higher at sea than on land at certain latitudes. And that means that if sea creatures can’t adapt to the rising temperatures, they may have to migrate hundreds of miles if they hope to survive.
6. Looks like tough times ahead for leatherback turtles. They’ve been around for more than 100 million years but some scientists believe leatherback turtles, the largest sea turtles in the world, may not make it through the rest of this century. They’re already threatened by the warmer and drier climate that accompanies El Nino cycles in their nesting grounds in Costa Rica, and scientists are predicting a climate that’s 5 degrees warmer and 25 percent drier on the country’s Pacific coast in coming decades.
7. And not such a happy future for the Great Barrier Reef, either. Industrial development in Australia is a growing threat to the Great Barrier Reef, so much so that it may be designated a world heritage site “in danger” later this year. Australia is experiencing an investment boom from Asia, with over $400 billion worth of projects on the horizon, including coal and natural gas plants and development of new ports.
8. Fukushima radiation is showing up in tuna caught off the California coast. A new study published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says that bluefin tuna caught off America’s West Coast are carrying radiation from the nuclear power plant in Fukushima badly damaged in a tsunami last year. Fortunately, the radiation is not at levels that would be harmful to humans.
9. Melting of ice sheets caused an ancient global flood. Analysis of coral reefs near Tahiti has linked the collapse of massive ice sheets more than 14,000 years ago to a global flood when sea levels around the world rose an average of 46 feet, at a rate 10 times more quickly than they are now. Scientists hope to create a computer model of the mega-flood, which will help them make better predictions of coastal flooding from our modern-day meltdown.
10. And yet, some creatures still find a way to survive. Scientists have known for awhile that microbes have survived for millions of years in the mud of the ocean bottom. But they couldn’t figure out how they stayed alive. Now they know. After probing sediment at the bottom of the Pacific with oxygen sensors, researchers from Denmark found the bacteria are consuming oxygen at extremely slow rates, and that what they’re consuming is organic matter that’s been trapped with them since dinosaurs walked the Earth. Yes, they’ve been chowing on the same meal for millions of years.
Video bonus: It’s hard to find a better ambassador for the sea than Sylvia Earle, who’s been exploring the deep for more than 40 years. Here’s her TED talk from a few years ago, but it’s more relevant than ever. And as a Bonus Bonus, here’s a video slideshow of some of the stranger creatures you’ll ever see, all living under the sea.
March 20, 2012
Every so often, when I’m disappointed that I don’t have superpowers, I’ve found that it helps to watch a nature documentary. Not that it makes me fly or see through walls or fly through walls I’m seeing through, but usually it does let me speed up time or slow down motion and that’s not too shabby.
It happened again the other night when the latest BBC nature mega-series, Frozen Planet began airing on the Discovery Channel. It’s from the same team that brought us Planet Earth, which became the best-selling high-def DVD of all time. This time they’ve focused exclusively on life in Antarctica and the Arctic, and while neither is in my vacation plans, I have a new appreciation for both because I’m seeing them through time-tricked eyes.
This was a reminder of how filmmaking innovations over the past decade or so have dramatically enhanced our ability to perceive the imperceptible of the natural world. Thanks to cutting-edge time lapse filming and high-speed cameras, I was able to watch ice grow and caterpillars freeze and thaw and penguins skim through the surf with a sea lion giving chase. It was the ultimate reality show. It just hadn’t been part of our reality–until technological innovation let us see it.
Consider, for instance, what is probably the most remarkable image of the Frozen Planet series, one that has yet to air on Discovery, but has been on the Web since last fall when the BBC broadcast the program. The subject is brinicles, bizarre stalactites that form when heavy brine from sea ice on the surface freezes on its way down to the bottom. They’re referred to in the show as “icy fingers of death” because anything they touch become encased in ice.
Not surprisingly, no one had ever filmed brinicles in action. But the filmmakers took on the challenge and built, on site, a time lapse camera that was both watertight and able to withstand the ridiculously cold temperatures. Overnight, the camera captured the stunning scene of a brinicle growing downward until it reached the ocean floor where it spread out in an icy line, killing dozens of starfish unable to scramble out of the way.
Another groundbreaking device is the heligimbal, a camera mounted underneath the front of a helicopter and equipped with a gyroscope that keeps it stable during even the bumpiest of rides. Once the BBC crew added a powerful zoom lens, it was able to capture closeups from the air, but from far enough way that the animals weren’t frightened. For Frozen Planet they figured out how to attach it to a boat, allowing them to film polar bears at close range, no matter how rough the seas got.
“There are images in this series that feel like Narnia,” Alastair Fothergill, Frozen Planet’s executive producer, told an interviewer. “In a world where so much cinema is about magical places, it’s amazing that on our planet, in reality there are spectacles that match anything some crazy Hollywood guy can dream up.”
Shots in the dark
Turns out that someone who fits the description of a “crazy Hollywood guy” is doing his own nature film, one that will go where not even Fothergill and his team have dared to travel. This week James Cameron, best known as the director of Titanic and Avatar, hopes to dive solo to the deepest part of the ocean, the Mariana Trench in the South Pacific.
When Cameron drops almost seven miles under the sea in his specially-designed sub, the DeepSea Challenger, he will become only the third person to reach that depth. The other two, Swiss oceanographer Jacques Piccard and U.S. Navy Lt. Don Walsh, took the plunge more than 50 years ago, but strictly as explorers.
Cameron, naturally, will be making a movie, in partnership with the National Geographic, and so he’ll be taking with him not only customized 3-D, high-definition cameras, but also–because he’ll be filming in total darkness–an eight-foot tall array of LED lights.
Tricks and treats
Here are other examples of how cameras are letting us see the world in a different way:
- Slow down, you’re movin’ too fast: Filmmaker Ann Prum explains how a high-speed camera made it possible to enter the world of hummingbirds for the PBS special, “Hummingbirds: Magic in the Air.”
- Yosemite in motion: Photographers Sheldon Neill and Colin Delehanty spent weeks filming day and night throughout Yosemite National Park. The result is one heaping bowl of eye candy, especially the images of shooting stars in the night sky.
- Camera on board: Critter cams have been around for a while, but they’ve become more and more sophisticated. Watch as a sea lion, with a camera attached, takes on an octopus.
Video bonus: When Piccard and Walsh made their historic dive into the Mariana Trench, they took along a Rolex watch. Rolex was more than happy to make a little movie/ad to commemorate it.