The 44th Earth Day is here, so take just a few moments to consider these game-changing views of our planet. Why? Their significance begins in the visual statement created through science and technology and persists through cultural awareness and human action.
The first Earth Day in 1970 symbolized the beginning of the modern environmental movement. It galvanized the growing awareness and recognition that our species’ survival on this planet requires the planet to be habitable, the air breathable, the water drinkable.
My first Earth Day celebration was over twenty years later. It was the early nineties and I had an amazing Environmental Science teacher in high school. Along with learning each species of bird and plant in the area, we carried bags of aluminum soda cans to the recycling bins and built sustainable trail systems. We hopped in canoes and paddled the tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay, armed with binoculars, field guides and bird lists. And of course, we planted trees.
And then there was the 25th Earth Day. Festivities were planned for months, and I wonder if we might’ve failed the entire course had we not shown up to contribute. But no one had to be told, we all were there. And we loved it. April 22 never comes and goes without a fond recollection of those days and an evaluation of my own connection to this planet and its resources.
Fast forward a bit, and somewhere around the 30th Earth Day I was working with pioneering scientists that had been using a revolutionary method of looking at the planet: Remote sensing from space. NASA and NOAA’s Earth orbiting satellites were giving humanity a truly global perspective, offering data sets that could bring entire systems and climate patterns into focus and force us to realize that we are all connected.
So here we are, it’s the 44th Earth Day and I’d like give tribute to some of the most inspirational images of Earth from space: some old, some new, and most importantly, all blue (well, except for the black and white shot).
1. TIROS 1 marked the dawn of Earth-obeserving satellites, and provided the first images of clouds and weather patterns from the vantage point of space. It was truly a revolution in forecasting (video) which continues to impact our daily lives.
2. Humanity has forever looked up from the Earth. Finally, as we began to leave it to travel to other worlds, we had a chance to look back and see it from afar and in color: it was whole, it was fragile, it was beautiful. It was home.
Here’s the fascinating story (video) behind the making of this famous photograph, with a stunning new re-creation of the event and the recording of the astronauts themselves as their hearts raced to capture the moment.
3. This is the first full image of Earth’s disk ever captured. The word iconic is an understatement. Like many, I grew up with this image. It was central to my awareness and even part of a pastel painting that garnered me my very first art award. I’m sure everyone has a story about what this image means to them. I honestly couldn’t imagine a world where we didn’t know what the world looked like. So here it is, once again photographed by astronauts. And here’s a great story about the making of by Al Reinert in The Atlantic.
4. As penned so perfectly by Carl Sagan: “Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives….To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”
5. This image captures our blue planet and its closest neighbor, the Moon. Taken about 6.2 million kilometers away as the Galileo spacecraft was racing toward the Jupiter system in 1992, it still stands as one of the most striking images of the sister worlds.
6. This image, unlike the original Blue Marble by the Apollo 17 astronauts (#3), is not a photograph. Instead, it is a mosaic of months of satellite observations painstakingly stitched together by scientific visualizers. In 2002, it represented the most detailed true-color view of the planet to date. To see the entire collection and learn more about the process, check out NASA’s site.
7. Another striking perspective of our Earth and Moon was achieved by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Earth and Mars were about 142 million kilometers apart. Personally, this image is a powerful statement of isolation. The Moon seems so distant from Earth, and the black void of space is almost overwhelming.
8. NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio (SVS) prepared a mesmerizing visualization of Earth’s ocean currents based on high-tech model data (ECCO2). This image represents an array of satellite observations that are then fed into models running on world class super computers. The swirling eddies of the Gulf Stream and Equatorial currents, along with countless others, seem to invoke a moving painting by Van Gogh. Check out the video here!
9. This new image of the Earth at night provides a powerful visual acknowledgment of where humans are making an impact. It’s easy to pick out coastlines and major cities, and even the network of highways connecting them. Gas flares and wildfires also make the wavelength cut. This is only the western hemisphere, and there are more composites available and some close-up views revealing just how bright the Earth can be at night.
10. This 2012 version of The Blue Marble was also generated by the Suomi NPP mission. While not a photograph, it is much more of a snap-shot in time than the 2002 Blue Marble (#6). How so? Even though multiple bands of the electromagnetic spectrum were captured by the satellite (visible, infrared, thermal infrared – 22 in all) they were all acquired on the same day – January 4, 2012. NASA’s Norman Kuring composited the multiple layers of high resolution, ultimately revealing this breathtaking image of our planet.
11. August 2013 – Arctic Sea Ice Coverage Minimum from 1979 to 2013 – NASA Goddard Space Flight Center – Video
Every year the area of the polar ice cap shrinks to what scientists call a minimum extent. Comparing this minimum coverage from year to year is a vital tool used by scientists in understanding climate change. It is not a photograph, but it’s not a model. It’s the actual ice. The images in this video are composed of passive microwave measurements which are processed and visualized to give us a clear view of the data. The ice is then composited onto an Earth background, also composed of satellite imagery. This NASA visualization shows the minimum sea ice coverage in the Arctic from 1979 to 2013, and the graphic overlay illustrates its downward trend.
Learn the basics about the changing Arctic with this succinct explanation from NASA’s Tom Wagner (video). And remember, this visualization shows the area – not the depth or thickness. That’s declining as well, but it’s a story for another post.
12. And finally, I’ll leave you with a modern Pale Blue Dot image, one that the late Carl Sagan would most definitely have written about. This one was taken by the Cassini spacecraft as it orbited Saturn. There, dwarfed by the giant planet’s rings, is Earth. A tiny speck. In Sagan’s words, as they apply entirely to this image as to the original Pale Blue Dot (#4):
“The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.”– Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space
Of course there are many other images of the Earth, as technology has so greatly advanced since the first Earth Day in 1970. Offering a greater perspective, scientific insights, and the falling away of political boundaries, these images will never lose their touch.
If you’ve enjoyed the collection or have a favorite not mentioned, please comment and share!
Happy Earth Day 2014!