Another year, another trip around the Sun!
I have already done more of these trips than I care to recount. But even so, I’m just as fascinated by what our planet looks like from space now as I was more than half a century ago. Then I first saw this:
Earth and the surface of the Moon as photographed from lunar orbit by astronaut William Anders on December 24, 1968 during the Apollo 8 mission. (Credit: NASA/ASU Moonwalk)
This is the iconic “Earthrise” photo. Of course, this is not one of the 2022 images of Earth from space that I show below. But I thought I should start with it – for context. The famous photo was taken in 1968 by astronaut William Anders while he and his two crew members were orbiting the moon during the Apollo 8 mission.
If it looks different than other versions you may have seen, that’s because the photo usually is presented from the side, which makes the lunar horizon horizontal. The above version is different. This is a scan of the original Ektachrome transparency—film gears and all—in the orientation Anders used when he shot it.
Nature photographer Galen Rowell described this image as “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken” and even is credited as “one of the most important photographs ever taken by anyone”.
That’s because it was one of the first images to show us what our planet looks like from very far out in space. And like Anders himself put it on: “The view highlights the beauty of the Earth and its fragility. Helped start the environmental movement. This little atmospheric thing that you and I enjoy is nothing more than the skin of an apple.’
Today, seeing the Earth from space is no longer a new thing. Yet technological innovation continues to make remote sensing images fascinating, perhaps more so than ever before. And not only because the images can be stunningly beautiful. As with the Earthrise photo, they can help remind us that if we’re not careful, we can seriously disrupt the life-support systems of our home planet.
With that in mind, I invite you to check out the images below – some of my favorites from 2022. Also, please be sure to check out Part 1 of this mini-series by clicking here.
Highlights of 2022
Ok, on to the images. Let’s start with the one at the top of the article. Here it is again, so you don’t have to scroll up:
Adair Bay Wetlands in Mexico photographed by the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA Earth Observatory)
With its intricate patterns and highly contrasting bold colors, this image struck me as a beautiful example of ‘eARTh’. At first glance, it may look like a false-color satellite image. But this is actually a photo taken by a crew member aboard the International Space Station on August 1, 2022. The image shows the Mexican wetlands of Adair Bay (also known as Bahia Adair), which mark the transition between the Great Altar Desert, seen above part of the picture and the brilliant turquoise waters of the Gulf of California.
Wetlands provide the perfect environment for mangroves and shrubs, as well as other salt-tolerant vegetation, helping to create a rich coastal environment. The waterways that run through the wetlands have a beautiful fractal-like appearance. (For the full-size, clickable version of this image, see this post at NASA’s Earth Observatory.)
An erupting volcano seen from ~500 miles in space
Some of my favorite images of 2022—and of all time—come from remote sensing specialist Pierre Marcuse, who created the following image using data from the Sentinel-2 satellite:
Satellite view of the erupting Shiveluch volcano in Kamchatka, Russia. (Credit: Copernicus Sentinel data processed by Pierre Markuse)
Combining visible and infrared light, it shows Russia’s height at 10,771 feet Shiveluch Volcano erupting on December 3, 2022. Shiveluch is one of the largest and most active volcanic structures on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, with at least 60 major eruptions during the Holocene epoch (the last 11,700 years of Earth’s history). For the original full-size image, see here.
Here’s a second stunning image from Markuse, of another fiery object:
Infrared satellite view of the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire in New Mexico on May 13, 2022 (Credit: Copernicus Sentinel data processed by Pierre Markuse)
Among many images of him Flickr photostream, this one caught my attention because of its beautiful color and intricate patterns of mountains and waterways. But the subject is quite serious: this is an infrared view of parts of The Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire in New Mexico, obtained by the Sentinel-2 satellite on May 13, 2022. At this point, two fires that started separately in April were being managed like a giant forest fire.
In the image, which is about 150 miles wide, areas of active burning are shown in orange and yellow. Rust-red tones reveal large areas of land that have already been burned. Much more scorched earth lies outside the frame.
By the time the fire was fully contained on August 21, 534 square miles had burned, an area larger than the city of Los Angeles. This made it the largest wildfire in New Mexico history. It was also the most damaging, with at least 903 structures destroyed.
On the same day that Pierre Markuse posted this false-color image, I used Sentinel-2 imagery to create a visualization simulating the flyover of the fire. Here it is:
The Colorado River Basin
Drought conditions played a major role in the spread of the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire. On a much larger scale, these conditions — described as a megadrought by scientists — have left the Colorado River Basin in crisis.
Images of the region from space are often quite beautiful, such as the following, from NASA Earth Observatory websitedemonstrate:
Lake Powell, the second largest reservoir in the United States, as seen by the Landsat-9 satellite on August 6, 2022 (Credit: NASA Earth Observatory)
Here’s how the Landsat-9 satellite saw Lake Powell and much of the surrounding Colorado River basin on August 6, 2022. Diagonally, the image is about 120 miles across. The lake—the second largest reservoir in the United States—is the dark, winding body that contrasts dramatically with the multicolored and intricately patterned desert landscape.
By itself, however, the image does not readily reveal the increasingly dire situation facing the 40 million people who depend on water from the Colorado River Basin. So I paired it with a comparison image acquired by Landsat-8 on August 16, 2017 to create this before and after animation:
A before-and-after animation showing the shrinking of Lake Powell on the Colorado River between August 2017 and August 2022 (Credit: NASA Earth Observatory)
Between the time the two images were acquired, the Lake Powell elevation held by Glenn Canyon Dam, fell nearly 100 feet, reaching its lowest level since it was filled in the mid-1960s. As this happened, the tank shrunk so much that it was easily visible from space – like shows the animation.
Downstream from Lake Powell is Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the US, and it’s also at a record low. The situation has gotten so bad that it comes close to what Bob Martin, deputy energy manager Glen Canyon Dam, has described as “a complete end-of-the-world scenario.”
Now pushed to the brink, policymakers and water managers may finally be able to figure out a way to steer things in the Colorado River Basin onto a more sustainable course.
I’ll leave you with this:
The aurora borealis as seen from space on February 4, 2022 (Credit: NASA Earth Observatory)
As I noticed in the first part of this series, a black and white satellite image like this may not look as compelling as a color one. But to me at least, it’s just as dazzling.
This one was acquired by the Suomi NPP satellite on February 4, 2022. It reveals swirling streams and eddies of light over central Canada and Hudson Bay – the aurora borealis or northern lights.
The night view made possible thanks to a special sensor on board the satellite called “Day-Night Band” which measures nighttime light emissions and reflections, including city lights, reflected moonlight, ships at sea – and the glow from the northern lights. (For an explanation of the aurora borealis, see my November post featuring a similar image: “The view from space as the Northern Lights light up the sky over Canada.”)
I hope you have found some inspiration from the images I have laid out here. I also hope that they convey an idea articulated in a particularly beautiful way by author Jeffrey Kluger in his book, “Apollo 8: The Thrilling Story of the First Mission to the Moon.” Writing about the Earthrise image taken by William Anders, Kluger noted that it would “eventually make people appreciate that worlds—like glass—break, and that the particular world in the picture might have to take care of it more gently than humans ever had before.”