Tag Archives: NASA

Visual Geographies: Auto-photography and the Earth at Night

Earth_at_Nightby Fiona Ferbrache

New images of the Earth at night have been released by scientists at NASA.  With lighting levels recording 250 times better resolution, these are said to be the most detailed images ever produced. This means that faint lights, such as an isolated highway lamp or a fishing boat, are being detected by the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership satellite, which was launched in October 2011.  NASA claims that the lights detected from space include human settlement, wildfires and volcanoes, oil and gas wells, auroras, and light of the moon and stars reflected from water, snow, cloud and desert surfaces.

As well as identifying sources of night light, the same satellite is able to take measurements of light emissions and reflections to help assess the human footprint from a global perspective.

These global images link to the theme of photography in an early view Area paper.  Lombard’s (2012) article on auto-photography opens with the suggestion “that visual methods are becoming increasingly prevalent in geographical research”.  Accordingly, Lombard argues for auto-photography as an important component of a mixed-methods approach to certain forms of geographical enquiry.

Lombard draws on her own research among Mexican residents to illustrate how auto-photography provides an understanding of residents’ perceptions of place.  These people are portrayed as relatively powerless individuals, but the camera acts as a tool enabling them to convey their experiences to others.  For researchers, Lombard argues that auto-photography complements alternative qualitative methods such as interviews, not only by igniting discussion of themes captured in the image, but also through improved relations between the researcher and the researched.

While Lombard’s paper contributes an understanding of Mexican residents’ sense of place, it is also significant in terms of situating auto-photography as a useful method  in human geography’s ‘visual turn’.

globe42  NASA’s images

globe42  Earth Observatory

books_icon  Dodman, D. 2003. Shooting in the city: an autophotographic exploration of the urban environment in Kingston, Jamaica

Area 35 293–304

books_icon  Johnsen, S. May, J. and Cloke, P. 2008 Imag(in)ing ‘homeless places’: using auto-photography to (re)examine the geographies of homelessness Area 40 194–207

books_icon  Lombard M. (2012) Using auto-photograph to understand place: reflections from research in urban informal settlements in Mexico. Area. doi: 10.1111/j.1475-4762.2012.01115.

Why Cartographic Accuracy Still Matters

A cartographic error that nearly started a war between Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

Benjamin Sacks

THE DIGITIZATION of maps in recent years has radically altered how we interact with our world. Such formal atlases as The Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World continue to provide high-quality, trusted reference charts for geographers and political scientists. But for millions of tourists, armchair geographers, and students, Google Earth, NASA’s World Wind, Skyline Globe and Microsoft’s Bing Maps provide an unrivaled global lens. Coupled with advances in Geographical Information Systems (GIS) and satellite topographic imagery, digital map platforms serve in a wide range of applications. Rahul Rakshit and Yelena Ogneva-Himmelberger (Clark University) highlighted the use of GIS ‘virtual earths’ in an October 2008 Geography Compass article. They are unequivocal in their analysis of virtual earth possibilities: ‘Since the release of Google Earth in 2005, virtual globes have become one of the hottest topics within the professional geographic community…Virtual globes provide a lot of new avenues for spatial education both for teachers and students’ (pp. 1995-1996). Similarly, another Geography Compass article, authored by Benjamin T Tuttle (University of Denver), Sharolyn Anderson (University of Denver), and Russell Huff (University of Colorado), reviewed virtual globes from a holistic perspective, suggesting a range of ‘technical advances, data availability, and end-user expectations’.

Limitations to this new technology, however, do exist. Satellite imagery models, such as those used by Google, are often little more than haphazard photographic puzzles, pieced together complete with clouds, lens- and heat-based distortions, and other cartographic obstacles. Even when using official data (e.g. that provided by the United States Department of State), they are intended as educational and investigative tools, not as legal arbitrators in international dispute resolution.

These limitations were underscored last week when, according to the BBC, a Nicaraguan army officer led fifty troops across a low-lying island known to them as Harbour Head in order to tear down a Costa Rican flag. Citing Google Maps, the officer argued that the Costa Rican flag was illegally flying in Nicaraguan territory. Costa Rica responded that it had been invaded and demanded the withdrawal of Nicaraguan troops. Acknowledging the error, Google admitted that they (and their data source, the United States Department of State) had drawn the border according to contemporary Nicaraguan national maps, ignoring (or, at the very least, unaware of) an 1888 resolution and 1897 map survey both favouring Costa Rica: ‘The right bank of the San Juan river is Costa Rican territory but the river itself is Nicaraguan’. Although the Organization of American States (OAS) is currently mediating the dispute towards a peaceful resolution, future military officers should think twice before relying on internet maps.

Rahul Rakshit and Yelena Ogneva-Himmelberger, ‘Application of Virtual Globes in Education‘, Geography Compass 2 no. 6 (2008): pp. 1995-2010.

Benjamin T Tuttle, Sharolyn Anderson and Russell Huff, ‘Virtual Globes: An Overview of Their History, Uses, and Future Challenges‘, Geography Compass 2 no. 5 (Jul., 2008): pp. 1478-1505.

Google Goofs‘, The Economist ‘Daily Chart’, 17 November 2010.

Troop pull-out urged in Nicaragua-Costa Rica border row‘, BBC News, 14 November 2010.

Geography provides an Opportunity to study other worlds

Surface of Mars taken by Viking 1

By Paulette Cully

Until  now, the record for the longest surviving mission of a lander on Mars was held by the Viking 1 Lander,  the first spacecraft to touch down on the planet. The Lander successfully performed its mission, which was to take soil samples and search for life, over a period of 6 years and 116 days until in 1982 a faulty command sent by ground control resulted in loss of contact. But this month, the record has been bettered by a NASA robot buggy called Opportunity which landed on Mars in 2004. Opportunity’s twin rover Spirit, on the other side of Mars has not been heard from since March 22nd after becoming trapped in sand. Scheduled to last only three months, Opportunity is showing no signs of stopping and at the moment is slowly travelling from a crater called Victoria to another crater called Endeavour, eight kilometres away. The scientific objective of the mission is to search for and characterise rocks and soils that hold clues to past water activity on Mars. This information in turn will be used to help identify observed landforms such as gullies, channels and gorges.

Interestingly, according to Goro Komatsu writing in “Geography Compass”, on other planetary bodies, a wide range of fluids can be involved in creating landforms. For instance on the Moon, Venus, Mars, Io, and Titan, fluids including water, lava of varying compositions, carbon dioxide, and hydrocarbons, have been proposed for the origins of channels and valleys. On Earth, water either as a liquid or ice, is the most common fluid which produces landforms, although lava flows can also create surface features. Additionally, on Earth it is generally clear which fluid is responsible for surface features, because the formation process is in the main observable. On other planetary bodies however, planetary geologists and geomorphologists have to rely on their knowledge of geomorphology and the environment to infer which liquids were involved in the process of formation.

Click here to read about Opportunity and Spirit and their mission

Click here to read more about Opportunity

Click here to read the article by Goro Komatsu in Geography Compass

Emission monitoring reveals a pattern of under-reporting

By Clare Boston

Scientists have revealed that the actual amount of emissions produced by companies and countries is much greater than those reported.  Under the UN Kyoto Protocol, rich countries and companies are able to increase their emissions by paying companies in developing countries to reduce theirs.  This is carried out through the protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which is intended to assist poorer countries with development.  However, it appears that atmospheric concentrations of industrial gases such as sulphur hexafluoride (SF6), hydroflurocarbons (HFCs) and carbon tetrafluoride(CF4) are much higher than the reported emissions data would suggest, implying that this data is often under-reported.

Professor Ray Weiss from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California and others have been monitoring regional and global concentrations of these greenhouse gases and are now able to locate problem areas.  This study is just one of many greenhouse gas monitoring programs.  In a recent article in Geography Compass, Marc Imhoff and others discuss the results from the Terra Mission satellite, part of NASA’s Earth Observing System, which provides data on the carbon cycle.  This data includes global and regional primary production, ecosystem structure, biomass, and the distribution of fires, abundance of smoke and CO.  This will greatly increase our understanding of the carbon cycle and the relationship between vegetation, soils and fires and atmospheric CO2 concentrations, therefore helping to understand the effect of industrial emissions on the carbon cycle and other earth systems.

Read Richard Black’s report on under-reported industry emissions on BBC News Online

Read Marc Imhoff et al. (2009). An overview of Terra Mission results related to the carbon cycle. Geography Compass