Was 2019 an eventful year for you? It certainly was for our home planet. Earth experienced volcanic eruptions, tropical cyclones and melting glaciers. From space, NASA saw a surge in Amazon rainforest wildfires as well as a total solar eclipse in the South Pacific.
What better way to reflect on the events of 2019 than through the “eyes” of NASA’s fleet of Earth-observing satellites and instruments on the International Space Station? These space assets constantly orbit our globe and provide invaluable information to scientists, government agencies and people like you.
These satellites monitor many of the ways that our planet is changing. These views of Earth from 2019 were taken with a variety of different science instruments and data tools, all helping us see our planet more clearly.
The Solway Firth, the third largest estuary in the United Kingdom, is located off the southwest coast of Scotland. The Operational Land Imager (OLI) on the Landsat 8 satellite captured this image on Oct. 2, 2019, when the waters along the coast were rich with sediment, such as sand or silt. The tides also likely stirred up dissolved organic matter, such as plant debris, soils and plankton. The water changes color abruptly offshore where the shallower bay meets deeper waters of the Irish Sea.
The image above is a blend of art and science. Like a photographer who adjusts lighting in a studio, Norman Kuring of NASA’s Ocean Biology group works with various software programs and color-filtering techniques to draw out the fine details in the water. The swirls and streamers in Solway Firth are real, but Kuring has separated and enhanced certain shades and tones in the data to make the sediments and dissolved organic matter stand out.
If you look closely at the water, you may be able to spot a pattern of symmetrical white dots and shadows. This is the Robin Rigg wind farm. Robin Rigg was Scotland’s first offshore wind farm, coming online in 2010. It can generate up to 174 megawatts of power, enough to supply 117,000 homes.
Satellite data like what is shown in this image can help scientists learn more about how the movement of water affects surges of sediment and floating debris.
In March 2019, Tropical Cyclone Idai pummeled through southeastern Africa to become one of the deadliest storms ever recorded to hit the Southern Hemisphere. The storm caused catastrophic flooding, landslides and hundreds of casualties across Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe. One of the most affected areas was Beira, Mozambique’s second-largest port city, where the cyclone made landfall on March 14. As of March 20, an estimated million people were without electricity in Mozambique.
This image shows the extent of the damage inflicted on the region’s electric lighting. Despite the fact that the grid almost completely covers the area of land shown in the image, the only part of the city that had electricity at the time is in the southwest corner. The data was acquired for this image on March 24, three days after the storm had passed. Nearly all electricity and internet went out, except near the airport where relief organizations had set up a server.
These images of Beira’s nighttime lights are based on data captured by the Suomi NPP satellite, which is managed by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The data was acquired by the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) “day-night band,” which detects light in a range of wavelengths from green to near-infrared. It can pick up everything from reflected moonlight to light from fires to lightning.
A team of scientists from Goddard Space Flight Center and Marshall Space Flight Center processed and corrected the raw VIIRS data to filter out atmospheric interference, such as dust, haze and thin clouds. The base map makes use of data collected by the Landsat satellite.
Satellite images like these can help inform emergency responders where to best implement efforts to restore electricity to the region.
The Lena River Delta is a vast wetland that starts from northeast Siberia and ends at the Arctic Ocean. After seven months encased in snow and ice, the delta emerges for a short Arctic summer.
Relatively warm water flows northward from the Lena River, breaking up and melting river ice. The ice gets flushed out of the Lena’s branching river channels, and the snow and ice on the surface of the delta also begin to melt. As the sea ice near the coast melts completely, dark blue seawater is exposed. Green areas are likely the result of organic matter (debris from leaves, branches, and peat) dissolved in the water.
In this image acquired June 4, 2019, by the OLI on Landsat 8, you can also see where the modern, active part of the delta meets the older, drier parts. Water ponds in depressions in the ground form from thawed permafrost.
Satellite images like this one help scientists track how the seasons affect water resources, especially in the face of Earth’s rapidly changing climate.
2019 saw a sharp increase of fire activity throughout South America, including in parts of the Amazon. Fire activity in much of South America often coincides with a dry season from July through October. In this Landsat 8 satellite image from August 2019, active fires can be seen near the border of Bolivia, Paraguay and Brazil. (Note that this area is not in the Amazon rainforest.)
This image was created by combining data from the OLI bands 4-3-2 (visible light), as well as observations of shortwave-infrared light in order to highlight the active fire. Recently burned areas appear black. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) sensor on the Aqua satellite provided data that indicated this fire likely burned first in Paraguay and then spread into Bolivia and Brazil by Aug. 19, 2019.
A 2019 NASA study has concluded that the atmosphere above the Amazon rainforest has been drying out due to humans burning the forests to clear land for agriculture, leaving ecosystems vulnerable to fires and drought. Satellite-based forest monitoring systems have played a key role in slowing deforestation by providing data to the citizens, scientists, and government agencies, spurring outrage and action throughout the region.
Flash droughts dry out soil extremely quickly, due to a combination of unusually warm temperatures, low humidity and windy conditions. That’s exactly what happened this past September, when a stubborn ridge of high-pressure air hung over the Southeast United States and brought record-breaking temperatures, dry air and very little rain.
This map, which shows the period between Sept. 10 and Oct. 8, reveals the peak of the drought.
Evaporative Stress Index data is used to indicate droughts with observations of land surface temperatures. These observations come from NOAA’s geostationary satellites, leaf area index data from Terra and Aqua satellites and the VIIRS on Suomi NPP. The combination of observation tools makes it possible to gauge evapotranspiration—how much water is evaporating from the land surface and from the leaves of plants.
Other flash droughts that have had major impacts on farmers occurred in the central United States in 2012, in the Southeast in 2016 and the Northern High Plains in 2017.
For about 30 minutes on April 10, 2019, the ever-restless Shiveluch volcano lofted a plume of volcanic gas and ash around 5 miles (8 kilometers) into the chilly Siberian air.
Although the airborne plume only lasted about thirteen hours, the eruption left an unmistakable signature on the snow below. Many satellites got a chance to observe the scene during and after the eruption, including our Aqua and Landsat 8 satellites, Japan’s Himawari 8 and the European Space Agency’s Sentinel 2 and 3.
The volcanoes of Kamchatka are defined by their inaccessibility. Fewer than 350,000 people live on the peninsula. The lack of roads mean that helicopters are the only way to get around in many areas. As a result, satellites are necessary for monitoring Kamchatka’s volcanoes.
Juliette. Fernand. Dorian. Gabrielle.
On Sept. 4, 2019, when this image was taken, the world watched as a chain of tropical cyclones lined up across the Western hemisphere. Dorian peaked as a Category 5 hurricane on Sept. 1 as it moved through the Bahamas, causing dozens of causalities and billions of dollars of damage. Juliette eventually weakened to a tropical storm as it moved away from the Mexican coast. At the time this image was taken, Hurricane Juliette in the East Pacific and Hurricane Dorian in the Atlantic were both Category 2 storms.
Meanwhile, Tropical Storm Fernand had just recently made landfall over northeastern Mexico, causing severe flooding in the region. Gabrielle strengthened into a tropical storm on Sept. 4 over the eastern Atlantic, and had sustained winds of 50 miles per hour (80 kilometers per hour) around the time of this image.
Data for the simulated natural-color image were acquired with the Advanced Baseline Imager on the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) 16. GOES-16 is operated by NOAA; NASA helps develop and launch the GOES series of satellites.
Earth satellite imagery is crucial for scientists tracking tropical cyclones so that they can better predict what direction they’re headed in, in order to best prepare the public.
Although the Sahara Desert in Northern Africa is one of the world’s most major sources of dust, southern Africa still gets hit with intense dust storms from time to time. When this image was taken on Sept. 25, 2019, people in coastal towns along the west coast of Namibia and South Africa watched skies turn red as fierce winds carried plumes of sand toward the Atlantic Ocean.
The winds lofted enough particles to cloud the air and impede visibility. According to news reports, aircraft were unable to land at nearby airports.
Dust is an important indicator of climate change. Satellites can help track the movement of dust, which can in turn help us examine likely climate drivers for dust variations in different regions.
As spring turns to summer in the Northern Hemisphere each year, unusual streaks of clouds form high in the atmosphere around sunset in the world’s high latitudes. This image reveals a satellite view of noctilucent clouds centered over the North Pole on June 12, 2019. Noctilucent — or “night shining” — clouds are so aptly named because they appear in the twilight hour before sundown.
The data for this image was acquired by NASA’s Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere (AIM) spacecraft. The instrument measures albedo, or the amount of sunlight reflected back into space. The map is a composite view stitched together from several satellite passes. In this AIM map, noctilucent clouds appear in various shades of light blue to white, depending on the density of ice particles in the air.
Since the launch of AIM in 2007, researchers have found that noctilucent clouds are stretching to lower latitudes with greater frequency. There is some evidence that this is a result of changes in the atmosphere, including more water vapor, due to climate change.
On July 2, 2019, the region of South Pacific, Chile and Argentina had the rare opportunity to experience a total solar eclipse. A total solar eclipse occurs when a New Moon comes between the Earth and Sun, completely blocking out the entire disc of the Sun in the sky. The Sun, Moon and Earth must be in a direct line for a total eclipse to take place.
A total solar eclipse is a spectacular event that is only visible from a small area on Earth. On average, the exact same spot on Earth sees a solar eclipse for a few minutes about every 375 years, although a total eclipse happens about every year and a half somewhere on Earth.
As skywatchers watched a black circle move front of the Sun and the rest of the sky darken in twilight, our satellites were watching the scene from up above. The MODIS sensor on the Aqua satellite captured this view of the Moon’s shadow as it traveled eastward across the South Pacific.
The shadow cast by an eclipse consists of the completely darkened umbra, the dark center portion of the Moon’s shadow. The reason why solar eclipses are so rare is that the Moon's umbra rarely hits the Earth's surface. Even during a total solar eclipse, the umbra only covers a small area on Earth.
Aqua has a polar orbit and the MODIS sensor collects imagery in swaths that are roughly 1,450 miles (2,330 kilometers) wide. This image is a mosaic comprised of data collected at three different times. The middle swath reveals when the eclipse was in progress over the South Pacific (roughly 20:00 Universal Time.)