Sublime NASA time-lapse shows the Earth breathing

We see the changing of the seasons from animal eyes. We watch the leaves brown and we feel it in our bones when the nights grow longer, just as we see the blossom on the branches and feel those first days of summer on our forearms. We might see this cycle 80 times, if we’re lucky.

NASA has presented the Earth’s ebb and flow in a very different scale, capturing two decades of activity in our biosphere as seen from space and stitching it together in an animation. In all that time, life seems to be breathing a few short breaths.

“That’s the Earth, that is it breathing every single day, changing with the seasons, responding to the Sun, to the changing winds, ocean currents and temperatures,” says Gene Carl Feldman, an oceanographer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre.

Using data collected from the Sea-viewing Wide Field-of-view Sensor (SeaWiFS), the scientists have illustrated the shift of vegetation both on land and in the sea. Watch the clip and you’ll see ice advance and retreat, forests ebb against deserts, and light blue areas of phytoplankton in the ocean swell and thin.

“About half of the total photosynthesis happens on land and half happens in the oceans,” says NASA Goddard scientist Compton Tucker, who pioneered the use of early weather satellite data in the 1970s and 80s to measure vegetation.

“We were astounded when we saw the first images. They were amazing because they showed how vegetation changed annually, year after year,” he says.

It’s getting harder to breathe

Since then, the level of imaging available to scientists has developed to the point where sensors can identify subtle chemical changes. This has helped to create a fuller picture of how life on land and in our oceans is changing. Warming atmospheric conditions mean that this change is not encouraging. For example, rising sea surface temperatures are causing “biological deserts” of low phytoplankton growth in our oceans.

“As the surface waters warm, it creates a stronger boundary between the deep, cold, nutrient-rich waters and the sunlit, generally nutrient-poor surface waters,” Feldman says. If a lack of nutrients inhibits phytoplankton growth, this ripples down to ecosystems that hinge on these tiny organisms as a food source. That’s bad news for marine life.

Things aren’t much better on land. The NASA data shows how massive fires over the past decade have wiped out millions of acres of forest in areas such as Alaska. Not only do these fires release large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, but they also result in permafrost melting and disturbing the soil beneath.

“It’s like taking the insulating layer off a cooler,” says Chris Potter, a research scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center. “The ice melts underneath and it becomes a slushy mess.”

The good news it that imaging like that created by NASA gives us a much better idea of how the planet’s pulse is changing, and how these changes are rippling into all corners of life on Earth. As finer information is gleaned, we get closer to understanding how this body works as an interconnected whole – let’s just hope we don’t choke before then. This week 15,000 scientists signed a warning that humanity is failing to take the steps needed to prevent our planet from environmental catastrophe.

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