NASA has revealed stunning visualizations of our ‘breathing’ planet, showing how vegetation has changed over the course of 20 years.
Through ongoing satellite observations of Earth’s surface, scientists have spotted long-term changes that could have major impacts on the different habitats and ecosystems across the globe.
The maps also show drastic seasonal changes that take place on both land and water, as plant life blossoms and dies down over the course of each year.
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The visualization shows 20 years of observations, dating back to 1997. Vegetation on land is shown on a scale of brown (low) to dark green (high). On the ocean’s surface, phytoplankton are indicated on a scale from purple (low) to yellow (high)
HOW TO READ THEM
The maps from NASA reveal how plant life both on land and water has changed.
This revealed both seasonal changes, and long-term changes.
Vegetation on land is shown on a scale of brown (low) to dark green (high).
Phytoplankton levels are shown from purple (low) to yellow (high).
White indicates areas covered in snow.
‘These are incredibly evocative visualizations of our living planet,’ said Gene Carl Feldman, an oceanographer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
‘That’s the Earth, that is it breathing every single day, changing with the seasons, responding to the sun, to the changing winds, ocean currents and temperatures.’
According to NASA, the space agency has continuously observed land and ocean plant life with satellites for 20 years, as of this fall, after the 1997 launch of the Sea-viewing Wide Field-of-view Sensor (SeaWiFS).
Over the years, the observations have seen the Arctic getting greener as temperatures rise, along with other phenomenon, including the expansion of ‘biological deserts.’
These are regions in which little life can thrive, and have been seen in phytoplankton populations in the oceans.
While satellites had been used before 1997 to monitor Earth, the SeaWiFS launch kickstarted the first continuous global effort.
When the data first began to emerge, many were skeptical.
At the time, people were unsure of whether Earth’s surface could be seen clearly from space, NASA says.
The maps also show drastic seasonal changes that take place on both land and water, as plant life blossoms and dies down over the course of each year. The map above shows vegetation in North America as it ‘wakes up’ in the spring
‘We were astounded when we saw the first images,’ said NASA Goddard scientist Compton Tucker, in regards to a 1985 study on the greening and die-back of grasslands in Senegal.
The researcher developed a way to compare satellite data from two wavelengths, for a greenness measurement known as the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index.
‘They were amazing because they showed how vegetation changed annually, year after year,’ Tucker said.
‘When we produced this paper, people accused us of “painting by numbers,” or fudging data.
‘But for the first time, you could study vegetation from space based on their photosynthetic capacity.’
In 1998, an instrument called the Coastal Zone Color Scanner allowed for the first view ocean color.
This revealed remarkable changes as Earth experienced a shift from El Nino to La Nina conditions in 1998.
In 1998, an instrument called the Coastal Zone Color Scanner allowed for the first view ocean color. The map above shows how the Eastern Equatorial Pacific changed during the 1998 El Nino – La Nina
‘The entire Eastern Pacific, from the coast of South America all the way to the dateline, transitioned form what was the equivalent of a biological desert to a thriving rainforest,’ said Feldman.
‘And we watched it happen in real time. For me, that was the first demonstration of the power of this kind of observation, to see how the ocean responds to one of the most significant environment perturbations it could experience, over the course of just a few weeks.
‘It also showed that the ocean and all the life within it is amazingly resilient – if given half a chance.’
The data show how phytoplankton in the oceans have changed over the years as well.
In some regions, known as ‘biological deserts’, the organisms experience low growth in the center of slow-moving currents.
According to NASA, the space agency has continuously observed land and ocean plant life with satellites for 20 years, as of this fall, after the 1997 launch of the Sea-viewing Wide Field-of-view Sensor (SeaWiFS)
The satellite data can also help to reveal the influence of climate change on crops around the world.
Moving forward, the space agency is looking to study photosynthesis from space, as well.
This could help them better understand where and when plants start converting sunlight into sugars.
“It was kind of a revelation that yes, you can measure it,” said Joanna Joiner, a NASA Goddard research scientist.
The US Corn Belt, for example, fluoresces ‘like crazy.’
“Those plants have some of the highest fluorescence rates on Earth at their peak,’ Joiner said.
‘One of the big questions that still remains is how much carbon are the plants taking up, why does it vary year to year, and which areas are contributing to that variability.’