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NASA Offers Virtual View of Global Climate Change
April 4, 2012

By Lea Terhune
IIP Staff Writer

A satellite image of tsunami damage
Phuket, Thailand, shown before and after the 2004 tsunami washed over 25 kilometers of coastline. Satellite monitoring provides critical information about extreme events.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, aims to satisfy the curiosity of anyone seeking a bird’s-eye view of the Earth’s transformation through decades of climate change and global warming.

Interactive tools developed by JPL, now available online, track environmental changes — like the impact that Greenland ice sheet melt may have on vulnerable coastlines around the world. For the admission price of a mouse click, the Climate Time Machine displays satellite imagery of the annual expansion and contraction of Arctic sea ice, viewed on a changing timeline from 1979 to 2010. The average global temperatures from 1840 to 2007 and the increase of carbon emissions between 2003 and 2009 may also be tracked.

The Climate Time Machine is one of several interactive tools accessible on NASA’s Global Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet website. The tools visualize complex scientific data so it may be understood easily by nonscientists. Another tool, Eyes on the Earth 2.0, offers real-time imagery that shows the rotation of the Earth and the orbits of satellites that provide continuous image feeds giving scientists critical data. There is even a feature that allows 3D viewing.

Image galleries include State of Flux: Images of Change, which compares images of locations around the world to highlight changes over time periods ranging from days to decades. Cities, extreme events, human impact, receding glaciers are all represented.

Rich in information and spectacular imagery, the Global Climate Change website informs and entertains, whether the topics are key indicators and effects of climate change or uncertainties in climate science. The website won the 2011 Webby Award for best science website and the Webby People’s Voice Award in 2010. The Webby was instituted in 1996 by the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences to honor excellence on the Internet.For people on the go, NASA’s new Earth Now app for iPhone and iPad features key data about the Earth obtained by satellites whose orbits are displayed on color maps projected over a 3D Earth model that turns at a touch. Regular updates reflect the most recent information on carbon emissions, weather and the effects of catastrophic fires, floods and volcanic eruptions, or the intensity of the Earth’s gravity field and ozone levels. Additional facts are supplied in accompanying text. A month after its debut, it had 184,000 downloads, according to JPL Internet manager Randal Jackson, who said in an email interview, “The level of  popularity has been a bit of a surprise.”

Other apps include the popular Space Images. Aquarius tracks the Earth satellite that measures sea salinity; Cassini explores Saturn; GRAIL Mission offers lunar data; and Comet Quest is a challenging game. There are more to come. “We’re nearing completion of an app called Satellite Hunter — a game that will allow you to search the sky with your smartphone and try to home in on all of NASA’s Earth science satellites.” Apart from competing on satellite capture, Jackson says, “we hope people will become aware of the diversity of NASA’s Earth science missions and curious to learn about the purpose of those birds in their ‘collection.’”

Education and accurate information sharing are chief goals. Jackson says traffic on NASA’s Global Climate Change website has doubled in the past year and is increasing, “so maybe there is a growing public interest in this subject. We strive to provide the public with an engaging, unbiased, reliable and up-to-the minute source of data and information.”