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Hyper Earth: NASA Satellite Visualizations Create Stunning Video

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Numerous satellites in orbit around Earth are collecting data constantly of many different facets of the forces of air and water we all live around and in.

The video “Hyper Earth: the New World in 4k UHD, has put together some of the most stunning animations and visualizations that have been created from the NASA Scientific Visualization Studio, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Global Modeling and Assimilation Office and the Image Science and Analysis Laboratory at NASA Johnson Space Center.

The youtube channel SpaceRip has uploaded a dramatically narrated video that ties these visualizations together. Take a look.

In my desire to double check the facts in the narration, I decided to run this video by one of University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s best educators in the internationally well-regarded Department of Atmospheric Sciences.

Eric Snodgrass, who teaches the very popular introductory course Severe and Hazardous Weather, (so popular in fact that it will be offered as MOOC through Coursera in the near future), so kindly provided a brief analysis of the video.

Interesting video! There were a few things in the video that are misleading and scientifically inaccurate but these details would be lost on someone who does not have a strong science education or background.

Here were the problems I saw after watching just once.

1. The narrator calls the eddies that spin up in the Gulf Stream “whirlpools”. To many people, this may conjure up images of massive whirlpools like those you see in movies that are capable of sucking down ships and such. The animation then shows these eddies and to a causal observer they look like whirlpools. I would have said they were eddies. This is nit-picky, but it was the first thing that jumped out at me.

2. 2012 did have 19 named storms, but this was not record tying. The record for the number of named storms in the Atlantic is 28 set in 2005.

3. There is a part that says, “Water vapor traps solar energy keeping the Earth warm.” This statement is inaccurate. While water vapor can partially absorb near infrared radiation (which is from the sun) this is not how the Earth stays warm. In addition, water vapor is almost transparent to the peak in solar energy, which is visible light. Instead, water vapor is the most abundant greenhouse gas in the climate system and is responsible for 50% of the greenhouse effect. It absorbs terrestrial, thermal IR radiation which keeps the Earth warm.

4. There is also the part that says, “CO2 traps enough heat to stabilize water vapor.” This is a really misleading part and I am not even sure why they wrote that in there. CO2 is responsible for better than 20% of the greenhouse effect and it does help regulate the Earth’s temperature which in turn determines the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere, but I have no idea why it was stated that way. I was really confused by this and it totally missed the point I think they were trying to make.

Many thanks to Eric Snodgrass, for input and clarification of the science presented within the video! The video is GOREGEOUS thanks to the advances of satellite imagery and hard work by the folks at NASA. Definitely worth sharing!

Joanne Manaster About the Author: Joanne Manaster is a university level cell and molecular biology lecturer with an insatiable passion for science outreach to all ages. Enjoy her quirky videos at www.joannelovesscience.com, on twitter @sciencegoddess and on her Facebook page at JoanneLovesScience Follow on Twitter @sciencegoddess.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. stargene 3:49 am 07/19/2013

    Yes, absolutely gorgeous. While I found the voice
    narrative rather melodramatic, I hope the overall
    effect is to alert the general public that indeed
    we have initiated a global climate change which
    will be disastrous in many ways. And though I
    found it difficult to judge what was satellite
    data and what was computer generated, I enjoyed
    the spectacular tour. Each passing scene just
    begs for detailed narrative and explanation, in
    detail. Such videos, with more sustained science
    in them would be tremendously important for the
    public and for students too.

    Link to this
  2. 2. @Nancy 8:32 am 07/19/2013

    Wonderful,I suppose.Even though I kown little about the stunning video,the pure stimulation from sense of visual,we can appreciate the beautiful type.

    Link to this
  3. 3. jtdwyer 10:51 am 07/19/2013

    Very nice article!

    The video is invaluable in providing the public with a global perspective of the dynamic processes that produce the Earth’s climate.

    One picky point about the video – when hurricane Sandy showed up, the narrator said (@ 5:00 min.) that as Sandy moved to the North it was slowed by a dome of high pressure. It seemed obvious to me that the video frame rate was significantly slowed at that point for dramatic effect. By itself this is a minor point, but it makes one wonder whether any other manipulations were missed…

    Also, the presentation switches shortly thereafter to video produced not by satellite imaging but by simulation models. In my experience the predictions of models that have not been formally validated over time against actual results cannot be entirely relied upon. This has little to do with modeler’s expertise or intentions…

    A small point – the narrator states that the amount of atmospheric co2 contributed by human activities “now” exceed that from volcanoes by “over 200 times”. I have no idea what period of time is represented, but I’m pretty sure that this meaningful point could be suddenly wiped out by one supervolcano eruption. Certainly, it is important to realize how much the human population contributes to atmospheric co2 since the start of the industrial revolution (a period which also corresponds to a rarely considered _7-fold_ population increase)!

    Lastly, I’m very simply confused by problem 3 mentioned by Prof. Snodgrass. He says that the statement, “Water vapor traps solar energy keeping the Earth warm” is inaccurate. He then goes on to explain that:
    “… water vapor is the most abundant greenhouse gas in the climate system and is responsible for 50% of the greenhouse effect. It absorbs terrestrial, thermal IR radiation which keeps the Earth warm.”
    Those statements just seem indistinguishable to me from “Water vapor traps solar energy keeping the Earth warm.” Perhaps I’m missing something…

    Good article and great video!

    Link to this
  4. 4. icezzz 1:25 pm 07/19/2013

    ” There is also the part that says, “CO2 traps enough heat to stabilize water vapor.” This is a really misleading part” WOW GET A CLUE, nothing misleading about this at all, if you dont know how it works dont saying anything or else you just sound stupid. Svante Arrhenius in Stockholm was attracted by the great riddle of the prehistoric ice ages, and he saw CO2 as the key. Why focus on that rare gas rather than water vapor, which was far more abundant? Because the level of water vapor in the atmosphere fluctuated daily, whereas the level of CO2 was set over a geological timescale by emissions from volcanoes. If the emissions changed, the alteration in the CO2 greenhouse effect would only slightly change the global temperature—but that would almost instantly change the average amount of water vapor in the air, which would bring further change through its own greenhouse effect. Thus the level of CO2 acted as a regulator of water vapor, and ultimately determined the planet’s long-term equilibrium temperature.

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  5. 5. Jerry2 1:19 am 07/21/2013

    @jtdwyer — You say “I’m very simply confused by problem 3 mentioned by Prof. Snodgrass.” I agree that the good professor did not do an exceptional job of describing what he didn’t like. So I will try … in a rather long-winded and somewhat detailed way, for which I apologize if such detail was not necessary. The problem that bothers the professor is the claim that what gets trapped is “solar energy” … plus he might not even like the term “trap” (note that he doesn’t use it).

    First, let’s address “trap”, since that’s easier. Climate people prefer to talk about “absorbing” energy and “emitting” energy, each in the form of electromagnetic radiation. The greenhouse effect does not work by the “trapping” of electromagnetic radiation by water vapor (and CO2), but rather by absorbing the radiation and then re-emitting it, where the re-emission can be at different wavelengths than what was absorbed. (The wavelengths of the emitted radiation depend on the temperature of the object doing the emitting. Think of 2 people playing catch, where the stronger/hotter person throws the ball harder than the weaker/cooler one.)

    Now let’s go on to “solar energy” (or “solar radiation”). To climate people, this term means the electromagnetic radiation from the sun – i.e., what we normally call “light”, because it is what our eyes are adapted to sense/see. But it is not this radiation which can be absorbed by water vapor and CO2. Instead, water vapor and CO2 absorb “terrestrial radiation”, which is the electromagnetic radiation emitted by the surface and atmosphere of our planet. (Our eyes cannot see this radiation, so we don’t usually call it “light”.) The electromagnetic radiation emitted by these 2 sources (sun and planet) is at quite different wavelengths, due to the quite different temperatures of the sources. And it so happens that water vapor and CO2 readily absorb electromagnetic radiation at some of the wavelengths emitted by the planet, but not much at the wavelengths emitted by the sun. So solar radiation passes through the atmosphere mostly unimpeded, and is absorbed by the surface of the planet, and the surface warms because of the energy it gains in this way from the sun. That’s when the greenhouse effect kicks in – i.e., the energy gained at the surface is emitted back toward space in the form of terrestrial radiation (at a different wavelength than the incoming solar radiation), and a percentage of that radiation is absorbed by water vapor and CO2, which then re-emit a percentage of what they absorbed back toward the surface. The surface absorbs that returning radiation, thus getting back some of the energy it “tried” to expel to space. So the surface then tries to expel energy again, but again gets some percentage of that energy back, etc., in a decaying fashion. In this way, the surface stays warmer than it would without any water vapor or CO2 in the atmosphere. (In fact, contrary to intuition (mine, at least), it is believed that the surface is warmed more by the greenhouse effect than by the sun!)

    Hope that helps.

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