Amusing Monday: Satellites can reveal “Earth as Art” imagery

The latest collection of “Earth as Art” satellite images shows stunning depictions of land, water and ice in both natural and unnatural colors.

Enhanced drone image of algae bloom in Milford Lake, Kansas. // Image: USGS/NASA Landsat

“Earth as Art #6,” produced by the U.S. Geological Survey, is the latest in a series of Landsat images released since 2001. This new series includes for the first time high-altitude photos taken by unmanned aircraft, or drones, as well as satellite depictions.

The satellites are designed to capture both visible and invisible light. The photos are often enhanced with color to provide extra contrast for scientists studying various aspects of the landscape. USGS officials post some of the more interesting images online, allowing the rest of us to see dynamic changes underway in river deltas, wetlands, ice fields, mountain ranges, deserts and more.

Some people choose to display these images in their homes, as they would works of art — and in some ways the true-life stories behind the pictures make them worthy of discussion beyond the beauty of the Earth itself.

Enhanced satellite image of Bangweulu Wetlands in Zambia. // Image: USGS/NASA Landsat

The first image on this page, titled “A Study in Algae,” reveals the annual algae bloom in Milford Lake, the largest man-made lake in Kansas at 15,700 acres. Because the algae can be harmful to fragile wetland ecosystems, the USGS Kansas Water Science Center uses drones with multispectral sensors to monitor changes in the blooms and report their effects on humans and animals.

In the second image, called “Wondrous Wetlands,” we are viewing the Bangweulu Wetlands in Zambia, where 17 rivers flow in but only one drains out. The entire wetlands, which are about the size of Connecticut, include areas dominated by grasslands as well as open water with shorelines featuring dense patches of aquatic vegetation.

All 20 of the newly featured images and their descriptions can be linked from the “Earth as Art #6” webpage. This series also can be downloaded in high-resolution format for framing or purchased as a print for $25 from the USGS Store.

Enhanced satellite image of Solway Firth between Scotland and England. // Image: USGS/NASA Landsat

Previous collections can be found on the “Earth as Art” webpage hosted by the USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center. Near the bottom of this page, I’ve posted a new video, which adds music to a slideshow that features this latest collection.

If you don’t wish to wait for the next “Earth as Art” collection, you might like to peruse the “Image of the Week Gallery” sponsored by EROS. Beyond that is the “Landsat Image Gallery,” which includes the latest up-to-date images as well as many others posted since 1972.

The third and fourth images on this page, posted by EROS on Friday, show the Solway Firth along the coast of Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland, and Cumbria, England. The images, captured in October, provide a spectacular example of a drama that plays out in many estuaries during tidal changes.

Zooming out from above image to view surrounding landscape. // Image: USGS/NASA Landsat

“This sloshing of water into and out of basins can produce visible surges of sediment and floating debris, turbulent mixing of fresh and salty waters, and sometimes distinct lines between different water masses,” states the description on the image page. “The water changes color abruptly offshore where the shallower bay meets deeper waters of the Irish Sea.”

Blending art and science, Norman Kuring of NASA’s Ocean Biology group used software programs with color-filtering aspects to draw out the fine details in the water. The swirls and streamers are real, but the tones are enhanced to better show the sediments and dissolved organic matter. To see the natural colors, go to this lower-resolution image.

Also shown in these images captured by Landsat 8 is the Robin Rigg wind farm, located on a sandy shoal and revealed as a symmetrical pattern of white dots and shadows. Robin Rigg is 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, according to the USGS summary.

In November, the USGS released a new report placing the economic value of the Landsat archive at about $3.45 billion in 2017, compared to $2.19 billion in 2011.

“The analysis is based on the number of scenes downloaded from the USGS and the price that users would be willing to pay per scene,” according to a summary of the report. “It does not include scenes downloaded by cloud vendors or other downstream economic benefits for things such as value-added products and environmental monitoring.”

The report also concludes that much of the value of the Landsat images comes from the open-data policy of allowing users to access as much or as little of the imagery they need. Despite the reported value to users, charging fees per image would likely result in a major decrease in their use, the report says.

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