NASA Makes Surreal Global Map Animation of Atmospheric Particles

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
Nov. 17 2012 8:30 AM

Dust. Wind. Dude.

The other day I posted an amazing picture, showing the output of a computer model displaying a global map of atmospheric aerosols—particles suspended in Earth’s air.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

Still frame from NASA's global aerosol map animation
Still frame from NASA's global aerosol map animation.

Image credit:William Putman, NASA/Goddard

First, a mea culpa. I said the computer program was used to make climate predictions, but in this case that’s not quite right. It used actual data from Earth-observing satellites to model the transport of the aerosols and calculate their density as they moved around, distributed by winds. Models similar to this are used for climate prediction, but in this specific case it wasn’t. It’s just one step in the process.

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And as it turns out, the picture I showed is literally one step in the process: It’s actually part of a series of calculations the program did, modeling the density of the particles over the time period of Aug. 2006 to Apr. 2007. And what do you get if you take these individual images and string them together into a single animation?

[Make sure to set the video to 720p resolution.]

Remember, red is dust, green is soot, white is sulfates (from fossil fuel burning and volcanoes), and blue is sea salt whipped up from the ocean surface.

I annotated the video to point out some interesting bits, like how you can watch the Saharan dust blow west to Florida. I was also amazed when a huge white (sulfate) bloom appeared to the northwest of Madagascar in January 2007, and then found out there was a big eruption of the Karthala volcano at that time. You can also see lots of sulfates (presumably from fossil fuel burning) over the U.S., Europe, and China. Seeing all these aerosols whipped around into cyclonic shapes and moving across land and sea is simply mesmerizing.

When you see the Earth laid out like this, and the particles in our atmosphere swept around, you cannot help but see that no part of the Earth stands alone. Every point on our planet touches every other point in one way or another.

And even if I made an error in that last post, the overall message is still the same: we need to monitor our world. The effect we are having on it is profound, and while we might have difficulty in detail understanding it all, the overwhelming evidence is that we’re heating the planet up, and this is affecting everything. Everything.

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