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Blazing satellites

If we didn’t know what Earth looked like, what would Earth look like?

It’s not a trick question. Satellite photography has transformed how we understand the world. Without a bevy of orbiters hundreds of miles above the planet’s surface, for example, it would be hard to grasp—and fight—the wildfires devastating the Western U.S. this summer.

Soaring over California. (NASA)

Last week, NASA's Aqua satellite captured remarkable images (one is shown above) of several fires burning up California, including the Mendocino Complex Fire in the northern part of the state. That blaze has grown to cover 363,845 acres, making it the largest wildfire in California’s history. It is still only 60 percent contained.

Thermal bands attached to that NASA satellite also pick up temperature readings, indicating exactly where the earth is on fire. With fires of this magnitude, that data comes in handy, since thick grey clouds are obscuring the photographs. “Across the entire state is a blanket of smoke,” reads a NASA news release from August 7. Satellites from NOAA and the National Weather Service are also measuring the depths of those plumes, as well as how far the plumes are blowing—which is very far. One NWS map from August 8 shows smoke from the western fires making it to the East Coast and beyond.

(National Weather Service)

Apart from showing the smoke’s impressive extent, the intensity of colors on that map (shown above) drive home just how much fuel these fires are consuming.

Maps and map-like images of the West on fire sound the alarm bell on climate change, which scientists say is driving this extreme wildfire season. Graphics also help firefighters spot conflagrations in remote areas, trace their contours, and target those dazzling drops of fire retardant. The National Wildfire Coordinating Group draws data from NASA and other satellite-running agencies to maintain its own fire map, currently a ring of mostly red, pink, and orange (high-level incidents) around the mountain edges of the West.

Ring of fire. (NWCG)

Environmental scientists have relied on satellite imagery since the 1972 launch by NASA of the Landsat program, the longest-running continuous view of Earth from space. As it’s become cheaper to build and launch orbiters, newer startups are customizing satellites for specific research purposes, probing deforestation, illegal mining, and wildlife populations at super-fine resolution (in addition to commercial uses—more on that in a future MapLab).

These 400-mile-away images weren’t always commonly available. Right now, researchers at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business are looking into the link between the release of Landsat imagery to the public domain and the acceleration of climate science in the early 1990s. If it weren’t for those watchful dots in the sky, we might not know as much about our warming planet.

More maps on fire: The Mendocino Complex, mapped on top of Los Angeles and New York. How far-reaching smoke affects air quality. A comprehensive graphic treatment of the “grim scope” of California’s last fire season.


Have you ever heard of San Francisco’s “The East Cut” neighborhood? Neither had New York Times reporter Jack Nicas. But that’s how Google Maps has been labeling a little slice of downtown SF since the spring, after a neighborhood improvement district requested it, Nicas reports in a stellar piece for the Times.

Not a neighborhood I’m familiar with. (Google Maps)

Though it was seldom-used by locals, the name instantly spread to real estate listings, restaurant descriptions, and newspaper stories. The same was true in other cities’ neighborhoods “rebranded” by Google, even when the names were fiction. “You see a name like that on a map and you believe it,” said Jeffrey Schneider, an L.A. resident who made up a “new” neighborhood name for his Silver Lake apartment listing and later found it on Google Maps.

Hit me with your screenshot: What are the Google Maps idiosyncrasies that drive you nuts? Does it get something wrong in your town?

Mappy links

ICYMI, civilians: Google’s location services are totally tracking you, all the time. (Here’s how to delete your data… sort of.)  ♦ ICYMI, nerds: Google Maps ditched Mercator, embraced the sphere. ♦ What does it take to map the whole damn country from your house? A master cartographer told PBS. ♦  The U.S. is very segregated: mapping Twitter data is one more way to show it. ♦ Maps in journalism are “a double-edged sword,” explains a ProPublica news app developer. ♦ We’re still just a speck: By measuring “the spectra of light emanating from galaxies,” scientists are building the largest 3-D intergalactic map to date.

Where else can you get this stuff? Please tell a friend to subscribe to MapLab. And send me your hopes, dreams, and MapLab story ideas.



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