Cyclones and Phytoplankton Bloom off the Coast of Alaska

The entire universe in blog form
May 29 2014 7:30 AM

Unicorn Chaser: Two Cyclones off the Coast of Alaska

After the past few days’ unpleasantries, how about just a jaw-dropping rockin’ photo of the Earth …  from spaaaaaccce?

Here you go, courtesy of the Aqua Earth-observing satellite: Alaska and the north Pacific taken on May 2, 2014:

Alaska and the Pacific seen from space
May I present our planet, or at least one piece of it, seen by the Aqua satellite. And my oh my, yes, you want to click to dihydrogenmonoxidenate.

All photos by Norman Kuring, NASA’sOcean Color web

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Seriously. Look, I shrank this image to 590 pixels wide to fit the blog, but the original is a ridiculous 13 MB file that’s 17,300 x 12,000 pixels. So yeah, you want the hi-res version. It’s staggering.

Aqua keeps an orbital eye on the Earth’s water: oceans, rivers, clouds, and the way water cycles between them. This image is actually a mosaic taken over several orbits, but the compositing job is really good. Dominating the image are two, vast low-pressure systems—the counterclockwise rotation is a dead giveaway for that. The one on the right shows clouds circling all the way in to the center of the system, while the one on the left has a ridge of clouds piling up on the eastern edge.

The detail you can see in this image is simply wonderful to behold. The clouds in the first cyclonic system show features hundreds of kilometers long down to small puffs just a few kilometers across, and the organization of the system is gorgeous.

contrails
Contrails from airplanes, easily seen in the full-res image.

Looking more closely at the full-res image, I actually laughed out loud in delight to see a couple of airplane contrails, vapor trails caused by condensation in a jet’s wake. You can see the white contrails, and even their shadows on the water!

phytoplankton blooms
Tiny microscopic algae were fruitful, and multiplied. (Note: I brightened the image a bit and enhanced the contrast to better show the phytoplankton blooms.)

Toward the top is the familiar outline of Alaska’s southern coast, and the Alaska Peninsula that stretches out into the Aleutian Islands, more than a thousand kilometers long. Just south of the coast are several greenish swirls in the water. Those are phytoplankton blooms, microscopic plants that can undergo explosive growth in warmer water. Pictures of them from space can be incredibly beautiful (see Related Posts below for more), and useful; they track water conditions, which can be used to get insight on climate change. These plankton are also food for many species of marine life, so knowing where they are helps scientists understand the aquatic biomes.

Sometimes I get my head buried in all the problems we humans cause for ourselves down here. That’s why it’s important to occasionally pull your head out of the muck, wipe off your eyes, shake the goo out of your brain, and be reminded that it can be devastatingly beautiful out there as well.

[The title of this post refers to the idea of a mental palate cleanser useful after an article dealing with a nasty topic, popularized at Boing Boing.]

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