Mapping the California Heat Wave

NASA Earth Observatory: California Heatwave 2020
NASA Earth Observatory (Joshua Stevens)

NASA Earth Observatory: “The map above shows air temperatures across the United States on September 6, 2020, when much of the Southwest roasted in a dramatic heatwave. The map was derived from the Goddard Earth Observing System (GEOS) model and represents temperatures at 2 meters (about 6.5 feet) above the ground. The darkest red areas are where the model shows temperatures surpassing 113°F (45°C).” Heat waves in southern California have become “more frequent, intense, and longer-lasting,” the article goes on to say.

More on the Western U.S. Wildfires

NASA Earth Observatory

NASA Earth Observatory has had several stories on the western U.S. wildfires, gathered here. This story summarizes the situation; satellite images of the smoke generated by the fires can be seen here, here and here.

Marena Brinkhurst of Mapbox has a comprehensive list of open data sources relating to the wildfires, smoke, and air quality.

Mark Altaweel at GIS Lounge looks at how GIS is being used to map wildfires, smoke and air pollution.

Previously: California Wildfires, 2020 Edition.

Drought Affects One-Third of the United States

A Third of the U.S. Faces Drought (NASA Earth Observatory)
NASA Earth Observatory

One-third of the United States is currently affected by at least moderate levels of drought, NASA Earth Observatory reports.

The map above shows conditions in the continental U.S. as of August 11, 2020, as reported by the U.S. Drought Monitor program, a partnership of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the University of Nebraska—Lincoln. The map depicts drought intensity in progressive shades of orange to red and is based on measurements of climate, soil, and water conditions from more than 350 federal, state, and local observers around the country. NASA provides experimental measurements and models to this drought monitoring effort.

According to the Drought Monitor, more than 93 percent of the land area in Utah, Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico is in some level of drought; 69 percent of Utah is in severe drought, as is 61 percent of Colorado. More than three-fourths of Oregon, Arizona, and Wyoming are also in drought. The effects of “severe” drought include stunted and browning crops, limited pasture yields, dust storms, reduced well water levels, and an increase in the number and severity of wildfires. Most of those areas had no sign of drought in the mid-summer of 2019.

Mapping the Amazon Fires

Let’s start with the current situation map from Brazil’s own space agency, the Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espacias (INPE), which I’m surprised is still online. In July Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, accused the widely respected agency of lying about the scale of deforestation in the Amazon; INPE’s chief, Ricardo Galvão, was forced out earlier this month after defending the agency. After that, INPE said that fires were up 84 percent over the same period last year. (The ESA, for its part, tracked nearly four times as many fires in August as they did last year.)

Other raw data sources include the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS), fire activity data from which can be viewed here; and MODIS data from NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites. For a live feed of MODIS data on the Amazon fires, see the MODIS Wildfire Dashboard.


Meanwhile, NASA’s Earth Observatory posted MODIS imagery of several Amazon fires, and had this curious statement that seemed to minimize the scale of the problem: “As of August 16, 2019, an analysis of NASA satellite data indicated that total fire activity across the Amazon basin this year has been close to the average in comparison to the past 15 years. […] Though activity appears to be above average in the states of Amazonas and Rondônia, it has so far appeared below average in Mato Grosso and Pará, according to estimates from the Global Fire Emissions Database, a research project that compiles and analyzes NASA data.”

A subsequent NASA Earth Observatory post seems to contradict the one I mentioned earlier, pointing to “a noticeable increase in large, intense, and persistent fires burning along major roads in the central Brazilian Amazon” which “are more consistent with land clearing than with regional drought” and noted fire detections “higher across the Brazilian Amazon” since 2010.

Contextualizing the amount of fires seems to be a recurring theme in the reporting: the number of fires are up sharply over last year, but close to the average when taking a longer view. It’s helped a lot of bad and insincere actors make it harder to get to the heart of what’s going on over there. They can’t, after all, deny the satellite imagery or the remote sensing: we can see the fires. We can detect the emissions of smoke, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide (1, 2, 3). We can map them. And those maps can help us understand what’s going on.

On the NGO front, InfoAmazonia has produced the above map comparing fires over the last 24 hours with historical fire data. (They have other maps on this subject as well.)

Note, too, the reference above to burning along major roads. Tim Wallace crunches MODIS date from 2012 onward and teases out some patterns in the fires.

The New York Times

And the New York Times, where Tim used to work, has a map correlating the position of the current Amazon fires along the edges of past deforestation. The Times also has maps showing maps on a month-by-month basis and comparing August 2019 with the August average over the past decade.

[CityLab, Maps Mania]

Map of UV Exposure in the United States

NASA Earth Observatory (Joshua Stevens)

NASA Earth Observatory:

The NASA Applied Sciences Program has partnered with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to create the first publicly available map of ultraviolet (UV) radiation for all counties in the contiguous United States. The dataset, which spans 2005-2015, is available on the CDC’s National Environmental Public Health Tracking network, which delivers information and data about health issues related to environmental factors. Public health officials, city planners, or individuals concerned about Sun exposure can learn how much ultraviolet radiation is falling over each county each month, which is an important step in helping reduce skin cancer risks.

The animated map above shows the monthly average UV dose in 2015.

Mapping Ground Displacement from the California Earthquakes


This interferogram shows the ground displacement caused by last week’s earthquakes in southern California. Produced by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, it’s based on synthetic aperture radar (SAR) images from JAXA’s ALOS-2 satellite taken both before (16 April 2018) and after (8 July 2019) the earthquakes. Each colour cycle represents 12 centimetres (4.8 inches) of ground displacement.

Lunar Cartography During the Age of Apollo

Writing for Crosscut, Tom Reese memorializes his father, who worked as a cartographer and engineer for NASA’s Aeronautical Chart and Information Center during the Apollo program. Harlan Reese left behind a collection of maps, photos and charts in his garage which, Tom says, still contains “mesmerizing detail and mystery”:

One box has odds and ends of early lunar photography, some of the prints overlain with Dad’s hand-drawn compass points, landing site X’s and handwritten notations. The images were made through large telescopes on Earth, by the Surveyors and Rangers and Lunar Orbiters and early Apollos flying around and over the most promising landing sites. You can also see those smudged fingerprints that likely belong to Dad, mixed with those of many others who used magnifiers and X-Acto knives to carefully slice apart select sections of crater fields. Some small globs of cracked glue remain where they dripped during the process of pasting together the cut pieces to form mosaics of the unexplored landscape.

Some small indentations probably show how the prints were positioned in viewing devices like the extremely precise optical comparator, which helped human eyes interpret the length of shadows inside craters for the first time. These results were coordinated with data about altitude and lunar daylight to provide the most precise terrain measurements possible. Careful airbrushing would smooth over and fill in terra incognita with educated guessing. Finally, this data would be transformed into the precisely printed maps and charts that would help lunar lander pilots to, among other things, second-guess in real time the navigation decisions made by computers of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Below, a Target of Opprtunity Flight Chart for the Apollo 11 mission:

Apollo 11 Target of Opportunity Flight Chart

The Polar Vortex, Visualized

NASA Earth Observatory maps the bitterly cold temperatures resulting from cold air pushed southwards by an unstable polar vortex. The maps and animations are by Earth Observatory’s lead cartographer, Joshua Stevens. On Twitter he posted a companion visualization showing what’s happening on the other side of the planet, where a searing heat wave is blistering Australia.

California Wildfire Roundup

San Francisco Chronicle (screenshot)

The San Francisco Chronicle’s 2018 California Fire Tracker is an interactive map of ongoing and contained wildfires—notably, at this moment, the Camp and Woolsey fires. It includes fire perimeter and air quality data. (Note: it’s glitchy on desktop Safari.)

Two Esri maps: a general wildfire map and a map of smoke from wildfires [Maps Mania]. Add to that a map of field damage reports in the area hit by the Camp Fire [Maps Mania].


The Jet Propulsion Laboratory has produced a map of the damage from the Camp Fire based on satellite radar images. NASA Earth Observatory has maps and animations showing the impact of the Camp Fire on air quality and satellite images of the Woolsey Fire burn scar.


The New York Times has a map tracking air quality in California. Smoke from the fires has reached the east coast: an outcome predicted by atmospheric models (see above map).

This interactive map from NBC News that superimposes the Camp Fire on any location to help people outside California get a sense of how big these fires are. [Maps Mania]

Mapping the Sulawesi Earthquake and Tsunami

The New York Times (detail)

Last week a magnitude-7.5 earthquake struck the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, triggering a tsunami that struck the city of Palu with far more force than expected. The New York Times has multiple maps and aerial images of the damaged areas; NASA Earth Observatory has before-and-after Landsat imagery.

Carbon Monoxide from the California Wildfires

Map: carbon monoxide from the California wildfires

Carbon monoxide released into the atmosphere by the California wildfires is drifting across North America in concentrations sufficient to turn up on the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite. A series of maps showing CO concentrations in the United States between 30 July and 7 August, using AIRS data, have been combined into the animation above.

Previously: Mapping the Northern California Wildfires.

The Changing Padma River

Padma River erosion animation
NASA Earth Observatory

Landsat observations have charted the erosion of the banks of the ever-changing Padma River, a major distributary of the Ganges in Bangladesh. This is vividly shown in this animation produced by NASA Earth Observatory, which “shows 14 false-color images of the Padma river between 1988 and 2018 taken by the Landsat 5 and 8 satellites. All of the images include a combination of shortwave infrared, near infrared, and visible light to highlight differences between land and water.” More on the erosion of the Padma River here.

Mapping the Northern California Wildfires

Washington Post (screenshot)

The Washington Post maps the largest of the wildfires burning in northern California: the Carr Fire threatening the city of Redding and surrounding communities. The Redding Record Searchlight has drone footage of the destruction wreaked by the Carr Fire in Shasta County. NASA has natural and false-colour imagery (Earth Observatory, Visible Earth) of the Carr Fire, as well as the Ranch and River Fires to the south, the so-called Mendocino Complex. See the Mercury News’s fire map of the Mendocino Complex, whose two fires’ combined acreage is now larger than the Carr Fire. Meanwhile, German astronaut Alexander Gerst observed the California wildfires from the International Space Station. [San Francisco Chronicle]

Mapping Global Fresh Water Availability

NASA Earth Observatory: “The map above depicts changes in water storage on Earth—on the surface, underground, and locked in ice and snow—between 2002 and 2016. Shades of green represent areas where freshwater levels have increased, while browns depict areas where they have been depleted. Data were collected by the GRACE mission, which precisely measured the distance between twin spacecraft as they responded to changes in Earth’s gravity field. In sensing the subtle movements of mass around the planet, the satellites could decipher monthly variations in terrestrial water storage.” The GRACE observations form the basis of a study published this month in Nature on changes in global fresh water availability. More at the JPL’s GRACE-FO project page. [Benjamin Hennig]

Mapping Global Sea Level Rise

NASA Earth Observatory:

Global sea level rise has been accelerating in recent decades, according to a new study based on 25 years of NASA and European satellite data. This acceleration has been driven mainly by increased ice melting in Greenland and Antarctica, and it has the potential to double the total sea level rise projected by 2100[. …]

The rate of sea level rise has risen from about 2.5 millimeters (0.1 inch) per year in the 1990s to about 3.4 millimeters (0.13 inches) per year today. These increases have been measured by satellite altimeters since 1992, including the TOPEX/Poseidon, Jason-1, Jason-2, and Jason-3 missions, which have been jointly managed by NASA, France’s Centre national d’etudes spatiales (CNES), the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT), and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The maps on this page depict the changes in sea level observed by those satellites between 1992 and 2014.