Great NASA Mapping Stories of 2013

Whether through the lush Amazon rainforest, above the clouds, or under the Saharan desert, Earth scientists are studying the planet to answer the most puzzling Earth mysteries. Mapping tools play an invaluable role in helping them track and understand the changes taking place in the Earth system.

Get inspired as we look back at these fascinating first-hand accounts from Earth explorers using mapping technologies to view the planet like never before:

The Mystery of the Disappearing Forests – Why do people clear tropical rainforests? Biospheric scientist Doug Morton uses satellite data to find out.

New World Meets Old - Go behind the scenes of the NASA ESW poster with its designer Ginger Butcher.

The Mystery of the Sliding Land – Where and when do landslides occur? Can we predict them?  Physical scientist Dalia Kirschbaum wants to find out.

The Mystery of the Rivers in the Desert – Discover hidden lakes and river beds in the desert using radar data with geologist Tom Farr.

Seeing Green: Mapping Vegetation from Space – Explore the latest global vegetation maps with visualization expert Dan Pisut.

Mapping Ice Clouds with Infrared Energy – Atmospheric scientist Brian Kahn explains how scientists map ice clouds and why this is so important!

Interview with Ian Muehlenhaus: Mapmaker  - In this interview, the mapmaker and professor shares insights about about maps, satellites and the basics of good mapmaking!

Will Earth’s Lungs Collapse Under Climate Change? – Climate scientist Josh Fisher describes how NASA studies the impact of climate change on Earth’s lungs: the world’s tropical forests.

Mapping and DISCOVER-AQ – Learn about how mapping the variables influencing air quality near the surface helped scientists determine the flight plan of a recent research airborne campaign with scientist Jim Crawford.

The Mystery of El Niño Diversity - Oceanographer Michelle Gierach explains how NASA maps the different versions of El Niño to understand the diversity of this important phenomenon.

Climate Change and the Coastal Oceans – Oceanographer Jorge Vazquez’ explains how satellite data of the ocean can help to better understand the impact of climate change along critical regions of the ocean.

On How to Read a (Good) Map  – Mapmaker and professor Ian Muehlenhaus explains how to approach a map you encounter for the first time and how to read the signs of good mapmaking.

Bill Patzert’s Love of Maps: A Voyage of Discovery – Learn about how oceanographer Bill Patzert discovered the magic of maps and of the role they play in his own exploration of the ocean.

With more exciting news and discoveries, and the launch of four NASA Earth observation missions in 2014, the new year will be an exciting one for NASA Earth science so stay tuned!

Above: Still from an animation of the Global Precipitation Measurement Mission (GPM) Core satellite over a hurricane. GPM, a NASA-Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) satellite mission to map precipitation worldwide, will be launched from Japan in early 2014. Credit: NASA Scientific Visualization Studio/Goddard Space flight Center.


Earth Explorer or Space Explorer?

As an Earth scientist and former astronaut, Piers Sellers is both!

Originally from the United Kingdom, Dr. Piers Sellers joined NASA as an Earth scientist in the 1980s. The interaction between the biosphere and atmosphere was one of the Earth mysteries that he began exploring. Years later, he joined the astronaut corps and flew on three missions to the International Space Station. Now back at NASA, Piers is the deputy director of the Sciences and Exploration Directorate at the Goddard Space Flight Center. (Image source: NASA Human Space Flight Gallery

He recently sat down with us to talk about his incredible career, the importance of satellites and maps in the study of our planet, and what is like for an Earth scientist to see the planet from orbit.

“The science of Earth science is really good, interesting stuff; it’s intellectually fabulous. But it’s also very important,” he says during the interview, “it’s really important for…the future of the 7 billion – soon to be 10 billion people – living on this planet. So as an Earth scientist, you are really helping.”

Watch this three-minute clip where Piers talks about how scientists use maps to understand and communicate Earth science news and discoveries. Visit our new video page to watch the full-length version.

Want to learn more from Piers? Watch this NASA GLOBE presentation during which he walks us through how to launch a satellite, using his favorite satellite series – Landsat – as an example.


Where is Echo the Bat: Week 10

For those who played along last week, if you guessed that Echo was visiting New Zealand, then congratulations! You are right! Echo had a great time visiting such an interesting island. But where is Echo off to this week? Follow along, and see if you can guess!

Clue #1:

Clue 1

This image was taken as part of a NASA study conducted here on our home planet. Did you know that NASA also uses planes and unmanned aircraft to study climate, weather, and more?

Clue #2:

Clue 2

Captured by MODIS onboard NASA’s Aura mission, this image shows an iceberg the size of Singapore calving from a glacier. Not only is Echo’s current location very cold, it is also the only place on Earth that does not have a population of bats.

Clue #3:

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This ice shelf is one of many studied by a recent NASA mission. Echo’s location is not just cold, it recently gained notoriety for being the location of the coldest temperature recorded on Earth!

Do you think you know where Echo is located this week? Tell us in the comments below!

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Enter NASA’s REEL Science Contest!

Are you a budding video producer passionate about Earth science? Would you like the chance to work with NASA scientists and communication experts to produce a NASA feature? Then don’t miss your chance to enter NASA’s REEL Science Communication Contest!

NASA Earth science missions are kicking off the second annual video contest, by challenging high school students to produce a two-minute video for middle school students that communicates one of the following science concepts: how climate impacts ice and ice impacts climate, forest fires effects on air quality, or water of the water planet.

Your video may use any medium, such as live action or animation, and must incorporate NASA images or visualizations.  Submit your entry by February 21, 2014 by posting your video to YouTube wit the tag “NASAREELscience2014”

Winners will have their videos posted on the NASA website and will also get the opportunity to be a NASA producer working with NASA scientists and communication experts in July 2014 to produce an Earth science feature video.

So get started for your chance to win! For detailed instructions, resources, and prize information, visit


Get inspired with NASA images and visualizations, such as those found on NASA Earth Observatory. The image above shows the rain intensity of Hurricane Sandy as measured by the Tropical Rainfall Measurement Mission (TRMM) on August 22, 2011. Credit: Hal Pierce/ NASA Earth Observatory. 

Where is Echo the Bat? Week 9

Congratulations to Sam Zhang, for correctly identifying Echo’s location – the Himalayas! This week, Echo continues his journey around the globe. Here is our first clue of the week:

Clue 1

This image, created by NASA utilizing data from a number of sources, shows a very clear fault – see the red line between the mountains and the coastline? Echo is in another seismically active region this week, to be sure!

Clue #2:

Clue 2

This image, captured by the ASTER mission, shows a peninsula comprising two extinct volcanoes.

Clue #3:

Clue 3

SeaWiFS captured this colorful image of Echo’s current location. The use of false color shows phytoplankton blooms to the east of this island nation.

Do you know where Echo is? Tell us in the comments below!

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New Aquarius/ SAC-D Concept Maps

Learn the story of Aquarius/SAC-D – an international satellite mission launched in 2011 to measure the salinity of the ocean surface, from the contributions of the different countries involved to the sometimes-surprising mapping stories revealed with its data.

Explore new interactive concept maps used by researchers from NASA and CONAE, Argentina’s space agency, during a recent webinar to tell the story of this unique mission and demonstrate how Aquarius/SAC-D data can be used to map ocean and Earth processes.

Use the concept maps linked below to explore images, video, research discoveries and external links as you travel from the forest landscape of El Impenetrable in Argentina, to the mouth of the Mississippi River in the Gulf of Mexico, all the way to Antarctica!

Click on each concept to check out linked resources and read descriptions. Use the horizontal bar at the left to zoom in or out of each map.


Bill Patzert’s Love of Maps: A Voyage of Discovery

I’m Bill Patzert, oceanographer at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and I’m a map fanatic! I love maps.  Why? It all started with my dad, a captain of deep-sea ships. From an early age he would sit with me, with maps laid out on the dining room table, scrutinizing coastlines, harbors and exotic locales. His travels to Karachi, Murmansk, Cape Town, Marseille, Hong Kong, Suez, Zamboanga and other dreamed-of locales filled me with awe and a hunger to see and know the world. (Above: Section of “Winds and Routes” chart, included in Geography of the Sea (1885) by Matthew Fontaine Maury, published in London by Sampson, Low, Son, & Co.)

My dad would talk to me about geography, history and of the science of making and using maps. He was a great storyteller and would describe in mesmerizing detail how he had used his maps to navigate across dangerous waters, during typhoons and along hazardous coasts. My mom thought he exaggerated, but I was wide-eyed with awe. Very heady stuff! His maps helped me imagine far away places, opened up many possibilities for my future and organized my brain to see how details make up a city, a country, the polar and tropical oceans, the continents and eventually an entire planet. I became a fan for life.

This chart, “Gulf Stream and Drift,” was included in Geography of the Sea (1885) by Matthew Fontaine Maury, published in London by Sampson, Low, Son, & Co. Lieutenant Matthew Fontaine Maury, U. S. Navy, is considered the father of modern oceanography and meteorology. As superintendent of the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., Maury collected and studied thousands of ships logs and charts to produce these amazing maps. His extensive research was published in The Physical Geography of the Sea (1855), which included these path-finding maps of ocean winds and currents. Bill Patzert has a first edition of this beautifully written book and treasures this masterpiece. “I consider Maury one of my heroes!,” he says.

All the great explorers, many of them on expeditions of scientific discovery, created maps of the continents and oceans, as well as the heavens. Since my training is in meteorology and oceanography, my colleagues and I are the latest in a long line of map users and map makers.

At the start of my career, the vast oceans and the global atmosphere were poorly sampled. For the first decade of my career, I was a sea-going scientist. I saw much of the world and had great adventures. In the early 1980s, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was flying satellites that were mapping the atmosphere and revolutionizing weather forecasting. At the same time, NASA was planning for a suite of ocean-observing spacecraft. Taking a gamble in 1983, I hung up my sea boots and cast my future and meager fortune with NASA and JPL.

That gamble has been wildly successful. At NASA JPL, my research is focused on using data from NASA’s satellites to better understand out planet’s climate. The Topex/Poseidon, Jason-1 and Jason-2 ocean satellites have been flying for more than 20 years. These ocean height-measuring observatories have revolutionized oceanography and climate research. To put it simply, I took a big risk and have had a fantastic career.

For the past two decades, NASA scientists have been mapping the height of the global ocean from space. For the first time, we have documented the comings and goings of El Niño and La Niña. We have measured and mapped the unequivocal proof of short-term climate change, as well as global warming: the 20-year 2.5-inch rise in global sea level. These observations and maps have revolutionized oceanography and the understanding of our changing climate.

All this has been a great voyage of discovery. NASA scientists have built on the great discoveries of the past and made a quantum leap in understanding the oceanographic and atmospheric physics of the Home Planet. The next generation will improve these discoveries and use this knowledge to plan for a sensible and healthy future to protect Earth.

Finally, a toast to maps and mapmakers – past, present, and future, my dad, mentors and colleagues.  Thanks for showing me the magic in maps!


Above: Maps of the sea surface height anomaly in the Pacific Ocean during the ‘Godzilla’ El Niño of 1997-1998, which was followed by two years of intense La Niña as measured by the NASA/French TOPEX/Poseidon and Jason-1 satellites. These images highlight the processes that occur on time scales of more than a year, but usually less than 10 years, such as El Niño and La Niña — also known as the inter-annual ocean signal. To show that signal, scientists refined data for these maps by removing trends, seasonal variations and time-averaged signals of large-scale ocean circulation. The height of the sea water relates, in part, to its temperature, and thus is an indicator of the amount of heat stored in the ocean below. As the ocean warms, its level rises; as it cools, its level falls. Yellow and red areas indicate where the waters are relatively warmer and have expanded above normal sea level, while green (which dominates in these images) indicates near-normal sea level, and blue and purple areas show where the waters are relatively colder and sea level is lower than normal. In the top globe, above-normal height variations along the equatorial Pacific indicate El Niño conditions during November 1997, while in the lower globe below-normal height variations indicate La Niña conditions during February 1999. The temperature of the upper ocean can have a significant influence on weather patterns and climate. Click here to learn more.

Post by Bill Patzert, climatologist and oceanographer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Learn more about how Bill got to NASA by reading his ESW 2012 post – California Dreamin.’


Where is Echo the Bat: Week 8

Last week, Echo enjoyed the sights in one of China’s largest cities – Beijing! Great job to everyone who guess the location correctly. This week, Echo is leaving the hustle and bustle of the city for a more remote location. Here’s this week’s first clue:

Clue 1.jpeg

Captured by the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiomenter (ASTER), the image uses near-infrared, red, and green wavelengths to show snow-covered peaks and ridges divided by a series of rivers.

Clue #2:


This image captured by the Multi-angle Imaging Spectroradiometer (MISR) allows you to see Echo’s current location in 3-D! Echo appears to be enjoying the majesty of a mountain range this week!

Clue #3:



This image taken by MODIS onboard NASA’s Terra satellite shows a strong distinction between the haze caused by air-pollution to the south, and the area to the north which is protected from the pollution by a mountain range containing some of the world’s tallest peaks.

Think you know where Echo is this week? Tell us in the comments below!


On How to Read a (Good) Map

Just as you shouldn’t trust everything you read or see on television, you should never blindly trust information just because it is on a map.

All maps posit arguments. Maps present information about how something is. Just as there are no unbiased arguments, there are no unbiased maps. Someone has decided which data to collect. A cartographer, or team of cartographers, has decided how to abstract the data and make it information. Moreover, they have decided how to present and highlight certain elements of a map over others. All of these decisions result in a map that is not objective or neutral. It is designed. What this means is that if the data are false or poor, the message of the map will not be accurate. When certain data sets are abstracted out of the map, you may be missing some key information that might impact how you interpret an environment. (A prime example of this is sidewalks. Why aren’t sidewalks included on most city maps? Surely they are just as important in many cases as roads for getting from point A to point B.)

Sometimes designers highlight certain map elements over others to get you to see a geographical issue or controversy from a particular light. So never trust a map blindly. In sum, if you are going to trust a map, make sure you take the time to critique and verify its usefulness.

Read on for my suggestions on how to approach a map you encounter for the first time and how to find the signs of good mapmaking, as in this great NASA map of the California Rim Fire.

Credit: Robert Simmon, NASA Earth Observatory.

Credit: Robert Simmon, NASA Earth Observatory.

Whenever you are critiquing a map you need to ask yourself four things:

  1. Who made the map?
  2. What is the purpose of the map? That is, what is the map attempting to communicate?
  3. Who is the intended audience? (It is important to remember that the map may not have been designed for you, but a more specialized audience.)
  4. Does the map effectively achieve its communication goals? Does it present an interesting story or argument?

This map by NASA Earth Observatory is a stellar example of map abstraction and effective design. The map accompanied a brief article about the rim fire that engulfed parts of Yosemite National Park in late summer of 2013. (Top: False-color image of the Rim Fire burning on August 30, 2013 as captured by the ASTER instrument on NASA’s Terra satellite. Credit: Jesse Allen, NASA Earth Observatory.) 

The purpose of the map is fairly clear: to give map readers an idea of just how extensive this fire is and how quickly it spread from its inception. The intended audience is the United States public, as NASA is a government-funded institution. So how well does the map achieve its communicative goals?

On its own, without the accompanying article, you can still get information from the map, which is a good sign. Notice how the colors imply heat – yellow to red. Thus, even if you didn’t know this was a map of fire, you would get a sense that it was not mapping rainfall or hydration. The colors used are also very intuitive. The cartographer knew that humans tend to see order in yellow-to-red color variation. We naturally presume that yellow occurs before red. This is used to magnificent effect here. Without even looking at the legend you can see that the map is showing a progression of some sort. Finally, by drawing the boundary of Yosemite National Park, one begins to understand the sheer scale and rapid spread of this fire. It shows the danger that the fire posed to one of the nation’s most well-known national parks.

Tying this back to the definition of a map – abstraction of a spatial environment – we can see that this map is not a true representation of reality. Take a second to think about what is missing from this map, what has been removed to make the information clearer for the map reader. Elevation is shown, as are major water bodies. Yet, roads and trails are missing. Homes and built-up areas are also absent. In fact, signs of life are conspicuously absent on this map. They have been removed to help more clearly communicate the main story of the map – the spread of the fire. The map does not begin to highlight the social, human, and animal suffering affiliated with this fire. This is not a fault with the map, as it was not the goal to present such information to the map reader. However, another cartographer making a map of this event might highlight these aspects instead of the physical geography. Unlike in math, in cartography there are not right or wrong ways of doing things; there are only good and bad decisions. For the intended purpose of this map, many good decisions were made.

By Dr. Ian Muehlenhaus, assistant professor of geography and cartography at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, who recently gave a presentation on designing effective maps at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center. Click here to check out our in-depth interview with Ian where he talks about his love of maps and maps as a communication tool.    


Climate Change and the Coastal Oceans

The last 30 years has seen a revolution in Earth science. That revolution has been defined by the ability to map the planet from orbiting satellites. NASA satellites have enabled an unprecedented view of Earth’s ocean, mapping everything from sea level ocean surface winds, sea surface temperature, movements of mass associated with glacial ice sheets, and most recently, ocean water salinity. (Top image: Landsat scene of the Great Barrier Reef off the Australian Coast. Credit: NASA/USGS.) 

Scientists use these data to understand the changes taking place in the environment and the impacts of those changes. A major challenge to measuring these impacts has been the application of the technology to map the coastal oceans, where the most significant impacts of climate change are felt. Because of the dominant use of coastal areas for recreation, fisheries, local weather forecasts, and more, accurate maps in those areas are critical.

The Eastern Boundary of the Pacific Ocean is associated with some of the most productive fisheries in the world. One particularly rich fishery is found off the Peruvian Coast, where cold, nutrient-rich water at depth comes to the surface. This process, called upwelling, stimulates the growth of phytoplankton, which leads to a productive and healthy fishery. Climatic events such as El Niño and La Niña, however, can have large effects on the upwelling, thus impacting the fisheries.

During El Niño, warm waters from the western Pacific make their way toward the Peruvian/Chilean Coast, weakening or shutting down the upwelling. This can vastly reduce the quantities of fish and can have devastating consequences on the local economy. During La Niña, in turn, the upwelling may strengthen, bringing even colder water to the surface. These changes can be clearly seen in maps of sea surface temperature and sea level as developed with data from NASA’s TOPEX/Poseidon, Jason-1, and Jason-2 satellites. (Learn more about these and other missions studying the ocean at 

Current research along the Peruvian Coast has indicated that changes in the strength of the upwelling may be related to long-term changes in climate associated with major shifts in Pacific Ocean temperatures. One way to map the strength of the upwelling is to compare ocean surface temperature changes from one place to another.  The faster the temperature of the ocean changes going away from the coast, the stronger the upwelling. In upwelling regions such as those found along the Peruvian Coast, the temperature of the ocean surface will get much colder as you approach the coast.

Satellites can map the temperature of the ocean in two ways; one is by measuring the amount of heat coming off the ocean surface. NASA’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instrument onboard NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites creates maps from sea surface temperature readings taken at one kilometer intervals (although not under cloudy conditions). NASA’s Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer – Earth Observing System (AMSR-E) on NASA’s Aqua satellite, can take temperature measurements- regardless of cloud cover, but only every 25 kilometers. Combining information from both of these satellites gives scientists a more complete picture of sea surface temperature conditions.

The figure at left shows the temperature of the ocean surface off the Peruvian/Chilean Coast during the 1997-1998 El Niño. The image at right shows the same for November 2012, a year with normal conditions. Notice the differences. During normal conditions cold water (blue and purple) reaches the surface, indicating healthy upwelling conditions. During the 1997-1998 El Niño, however, warmer waters (in red, orange and yellow), created by the shift of warm water from the Western Pacific to the Eastern Pacific, are a lot more extensive.

The figure at left shows the temperature of the ocean surface off the Peruvian/Chilean Coast during the 1997-1998 El Niño. The image at right shows the same for November 2012, a year with normal conditions. Notice the differences. During normal conditions cold water (blue and purple) reaches the surface, indicating healthy upwelling conditions. During the 1997-1998 El Niño, however, warmer waters (in red, orange and yellow), created by the shift of warm water from the Western Pacific to the Eastern Pacific, are a lot more extensive.

Scientists can also determine sea surface temperature by studying satellite measurements of other characteristics of the ocean surface – such as sea surface height – that are impacted by temperature changes. The images below were developed with data from the OSTM/Jason-2 satellite that shows sea surface height anomalies for the Pacific Ocean, that is a comparison of sea surface height at a given time with average conditions. Since sea-surface height is related to sea surface temperatures, with greater heights indicating warmer temperatures, scientists can use sea surface height measurements to identify large-scale weather patterns, including El Niño. Simply put, warmer waters expand, increasing sea level.

The images above show sea surface height anomalies in for the Pacific Ocean in January and April 2012. Blue shows where the sea level is lower than average, reds show heights that are above average. Click here to learn more. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory.

The images above show sea surface height anomalies in for the Pacific Ocean in January and April 2012. Blue shows where the sea level is lower than average, reds show heights that are above average. Click here to learn more. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory.

One of the future challenges will be to use these types of maps to better understand the impact of climate change along these critical regions of the world’s oceans – a mystery that is yet to be solved.

Post by Jorge Vazquez, oceanographer with the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Learn more about  how ocean data collected from space helps scientists such as Jorge map land and ocean process on Earth by participating in next week’s Aquarius/SAC-D webinar (in Spanish).