May 27, 2014, 10:55 PDT

The power of perspective

Amber Jenkins

Perspective is everything.

We humans have made great progress to get to this unique point in our history. But those very strides now pose us with the greatest challenges. The combination of a booming population, increasing industrialization and the ability to exploit Earth’s natural resources like never before is, quite literally, changing the face of our planet.

NASA’s new Images of Change iPad app tracks this changing face, giving a global perspective on our planet in flux.

The app offers a collection of some of the best before-and-after image pairs from this site, NASA’s Webby-award-winning Global Climate Change website. The site is a larger effort to make information about climate change, images and interactive tools more accessible to citizens and decision makers, which is also a key aspect of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan. 

The dramatic retreat of Pedersen Glacier in Alaska. Left: summer 1917. Right: summer 2005. Credit: 1917 photo captured by Louis H. Pedersen; 2005 photo taken by Bruce F. Molnia. Source: The Glacier Photograph Collection, National Snow and Ice Data Center/World Data Center for Glaciology.
The Images of Change app — currently geared for the iPad but with versions for iPhone and Android platforms in the works — shows places that have changed dramatically over days, years or centuries. Some of these locations have suffered a disaster, such as a fire or tsunami, or illustrate the impact of human activities, such as dam building or urban sprawl. Others document the ravage of climate change such as persistent drought and rapidly receding glaciers. Viewers can look at the images side-by-side or overlay them using a slider bar to travel from past to present. Each image pair includes background information on what the viewer is seeing and its location on a map.

The app is a spin-off from our Images of Change gallery project launched in 2009. With nearly 300 image sets, taken mostly from space but also at ground level, the gallery is one of the more popular parts of the Global Climate Change website. Seeing is believing, and climate change can feel like a rather abstract concept at times. It can seem like a far-off, not-going-to-affect-me type of thing, and it’s definitely easier not to think about it. But the images are hard to ignore. They offer a compelling view of how our planet is changing before our eyes. The app, which curates a subset of the gallery content, allows people to explore climate change for themselves and draw their own conclusions.

Fields of green springing up in the desert of Saudi Arabia, which involves tapping hidden reserves of water trapped during the last Ice Age. Credit: Images taken by the Thematic Mapper sensor onboard Landsat 4 and 5, and the Enhanced Thematic Mapper Plus sensor onboard Landsat 7. Source: NASA/Aries Keck, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.
When you think of NASA, you might think of robotic vehicles roving on Mars, or probes flying out into the solar system, or the Hubble space telescope peering back into the distant past of our universe. But the agency has for a long time been at the forefront of research into our climate, with its fleet of “eyes on the Earth”—more than a dozen satellites orbiting over us and a slew of aircraft carrying scientific instruments—as well as an army of scientists on the ground making measurements and analyzing models and data.

The impact of the Yacryeta Dam, a joint hydroelectric project between Paraguay and Argentina that flooded surrounding lands. Left: 1985. Right: 2010. Credit: Images taken by the Thematic Mapper sensor onboard Landsat 5 and the Enhanced Thematic Mapper Plus onboard Landsat 7. Source: USGS Landsat Missions Gallery, "Parana River Diversion," U.S. Department of the Interior / U.S. Geological Survey.
Centuries of planet-watching tell us that climate change is real, it’s happening now—and human beings are the cause. The latest climate reports to come out of the United States and United Nations are sobering. Places like the West Antarctic ice sheet are passing the point of no return, and the destructive and expensive extreme events we’re seeing now (floods, super storms, heat waves, drought, wildfires, et al) are likely to get worse.

Our way of life is built around the climate we are used to. As climate change marches on, can we adapt fast enough? Can we slow down or reverse climate change to manageable levels and be the careful stewards of the planet that some argue we should be? The unique, global perspective we get from space can help us see just how small, fragile and interconnected our planet really is. What happens next is up to us.

The Images of Change iPad app is available for free download at

May 22, 2014, 10:41 PDT

Hacking into youth passion

By Laura Faye Tenenbaum

Aein Hope (left) and Priscilla Rodriguez were among the participants in the latest Game Hackathon at Nickelodeon.

Aein Hope (left) and Priscilla Rodriguez were among the participants in the latest Game Hackathon at Nickelodeon.

Once carbon dioxide gets into Earth’s atmosphere, it will remain there for as long as a thousand years, which means that future generations will be saddled with the consequences of our current carbon emissions. As an educator, I sometimes wonder whether we’ve properly prepared young people to face what we’ve left behind for them. Have we passed on the right tools and skills to those who will be most impacted by the decisions they didn’t make?

This is especially important for the current crop of students, who have grown up with standardized testing, have come to believe there is a “right answer,” are passive receptors of an instructor who knows everything, and think their job is to simply memorize and regurgitate facts.

Confronting the challenges of climate mitigation and adaptation is going to ask for more of future generations than memorization or finding the solution. Furthermore, being obsessed with the “right answer” and searching for the solution inhibits our ability to come up with creative solutions to complex problems and makes us vastly underprepared for real-world situations. In fact, I’m uncomfortable with using terms such as "solution" when discussing climate change, as though it can be solved like a math equation or a puzzle that has specific right or wrong answers.

Like most participants in the Hackathon, Ricardo Aponte and Nathan Taylor brought creativity, tech skills, openness to sleep deprivation, and a spirit of collaboration.
Like most participants in the Hackathon, Ricardo Aponte (left) and Nathan Taylor brought creativity, tech skills, openness to sleep deprivation, and a spirit of collaboration.
But some young people have created for themselves a new set of values and a way to move forward with disruptive technologies that might change the world in positive ways.

I met a number of these young people when I mentored at a Game Hackathon, an educational social event where new enthusiastic computer programmers and software developers collaborate intensively on creative technology projects – basically, bunches of 20-somethings stay up all night for the whole weekend, honing their programming skills and experimenting with new technology. Since JPL is an industry leader in emerging technology trends, and since the event was held at Nickelodeon (bicycling distance from my home), I went along, hoping to share my expertise and learn.

Rows of tables equipped with power cords, Internet hotspots and other basic hardware were set up and young people gathered in groups to focus on collaboration, team building and creativity.

Aein Hope and Priscilla Rodriguez told me that this was their third Hackathon, and explained that they were passionate about learning and exploring rather than achieving a specific goal or outcome. I found their attitude a refreshing antidote to the usual “Do I have to know this for the test?”

I also met another team of enthusiastic participants, Ricardo Aponte and Nathan Taylor, whose focus was on teamwork. So, although there’s no teacher, book or website that can perfectly prescribe how to tackle climate mitigation and adaptation, I left the event buoyed by a sense of optimism. With programs like these, there’s hope that young minds might gain the tools, skills and teamwork that their generation will need to work together to address many of the world's problems.

Thank you for your comments; they are always appreciated.


May 13, 2014, 13:25 PDT

Control, don't freak

Coping with climate change, Part 2

By Laura Faye Tenenbaum

You can download this image in our Beautiful Earth gallery.

You can download this image in our Beautiful Earth gallery.

(Click here to read an introduction and Part 1 of this two-part series on coping with climate change.)

When I’m out speaking about climate change, I commonly get asked a certain question that goes something like this: “My neighbor/family member/friend is a climate change denier or drives a giant gas guzzler or gets emotional and angry when I bring up the topic of climate change. How do I convince him/her to change their beliefs or their behavior?”

Believe me, I understand how frustrating it is to look at someone else’s behavior and want them to change, but the power to make a difference starts with you.

A few weeks ago, I began blogging about two action steps that I’ve come up with to help you connect with planet Earth and stay strong while facing the reality of climate change. You can read the first installment, which is about nourishing your relationship with nature every day. The second action step (thanks for waiting) is to take responsibility for what you can control.

This action step goes beyond mere lip service to climate issues. It’s about walking the walk and actually practicing what you already know, which means it’s going to be the most difficult step.

It's all about you

Everyone has reasons we don’t do more; we’re all busy, we’re all working. Maybe your thoughts get in your way (“I can’t do this 'cause it’s gonna be hard," "I’ll have to study something," "I’ll have to pay somebody”), but taking action is easier than you think. All of us know plenty of ways to decrease our environmental impact: conserve electricity, walk more often, purchase fewer energy-intensive products. See what I mean? You’ve heard these already, but actually doing these things is another matter. What do you have control over now? What can you take responsibility for now? Start by doing one thing. You have a finger; you can turn off the light.

If you believe that turning off the lights is small, you’re right, it is small. But all those small things add up. If you have an inner critic that’s telling you that one person isn’t going to make a difference, that one person isn’t enough, then you’re wrong. Take responsibility by doing. Take responsibility for whatever you can. And get satisfaction from lessening your contribution to climate change.

Stop reading this blog for a moment and think about the resources you’ve used today. Practically everything we touch in our daily lives has a carbon footprint, an amount of carbon dioxide pollution associated with its manufacture, transportation and disposal. Taking responsibility for what you can control starts with knowing, as best as you can, your carbon footprint. You can estimate it with an online carbon footprint calculator. Take carbon emissions into account when making purchases so you can decide if the extra emissions are worth it; sometimes they will be and sometimes they won’t. Understanding the impact of our behavior gives us the opportunity to be more thoughtful about the choices we make.

Ask: What can I control?

I tried the following activity with my students; maybe you’d like to try it, too: Calculate your carbon footprint, try to reduce it for one week, and then write whatever you learned about the experience. Decide how you're going to reduce your emissions and by how much. There are as many ways to reduce your carbon footprint as there are people, so taking responsibility for what you can control means you are empowered to do whatever you want. I had solar panels installed and did the activity with my class.

Remember: This action step is about whatever it is that you can control. I own a house and had the means to control what goes on my roof (solar panels), which is what I took responsibility for. If you aren’t in a position to do this today, then you can’t control that; but you do have control over something and that’s what you can start doing today.

After the week was over, most students wanted to keep going, reducing their carbon footprint further and making the changes permanent. They found that it was easier than they had thought. Try it. Go ahead. Care for your own place, your own part of the world, even if you rentwherever you live is yours.

You start with your place and later realize the whole planet is your neighborhood. If you ever stop to wonder if you can really make a difference, the answer is: “Yes, you can.”

As always, I look forward to your comments.


May 6, 2014, 15:13 PDT

Blowing your mind with CO2 bubbles

By Laura Faye Tenenbaum

Île Balabio, off the northern tip of Grande Terra, New Caledonia, is an archipelago that contains the world’s third-largest coral reef structure. This image was captured by the Enhanced Thematic Mapper Plus on NASA’s Landsat 7 satellite on May 10, 2001.

Île Balabio, off the northern tip of Grande Terra, New Caledonia, is an archipelago that contains the world’s third-largest coral reef structure. This image was captured by the Enhanced Thematic Mapper Plus on NASA’s Landsat 7 satellite on May 10, 2001.

You might accuse me of going overboard with posts about Earth Day, but this will be the very last one, I promise (until next year, of course). But trust me, you’ll probably find what happened when I was at an Earth Day fair as interesting as I did. At least one person found it downright mind-blowing.

NASA had a large presence at the Walt Disney Studios' Earth Day fair. We brought out a telescope, some model satellites, banners, posters and screens of all sizes to demo three of our apps. We also performed a couple of live science demos, because if you really want to understand science, nothing beats seeing it in action.

I like basic demos—the dorkier the better. They provide an opportunity to have some fun and usually deliver a big “wow,” too. The point of this particular demo was to show that adding carbon dioxide to water makes it more acidic, which is what's happening to the global ocean. Some of the extra CO2 we're adding to the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas gets absorbed by the ocean. And scientists around the world have observed that our oceans are becoming more acidic as a result. This is bad news for many sea creatures, including coral reefs, which are particularly sensitive to changes in ocean acidity.

Ocean acidification experiment
Ocean acidification experiment
To perform this demo, I poured a couple ounces of water into a cup and added a squirt of bromothymol blue, a pH indicator. It’s blue in a neutral solution and starts to turn greenish-yellow as the liquid becomes acidic, then yellow if the liquid becomes even more acidic.

At the fair, participants added CO2 to the water by blowing through a straw. On planet Earth, the relatively small amount of carbon dioxide that animals exhale has been balanced by plants' carbon dioxide intake for many thousands of years. So our breath does not contribute to global climate change in the same way that the much, much larger amount of carbon dioxide that comes from burning fossil fuels does. But there’s enough CO2 in an average exhale to make a few ounces of water in a cup more acidic.

So there I was, filling the cups and chatting away to visitors at the fair. One woman paused after blowing into her cup of water, which had turned from blue to light green. She looked up at me over her straw and asked, “When will it turn back to blue again? Will it take about ten minutes or so?”

“No," I replied. " The water is more acidic now. It does not go back.”

She looked stunned—eyes wide, mouth open. She understood what climate change really means. Standing there at the NASA booth, with a dorky cup of slightly acidic light green water and a straw in her hand, she had internalized the enormity of the global climate change problem. She understood how our behavior has long-term consequences.

No, it does not go back. Not in our lifetime, not for thousands of years.

Thank you for your comments.