This fall marks 20 years since NASA satellites have continuously observed life on Earth.
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To commemorate the monumental discoveries over the years, NASA is sharing stories and videos about how much views from up above have taught us about life on our home planet and the search for life elsewhere.
A new time-lapse animation (below) captures 20 years worth of the planet’s changing land and ocean life as seen from the Sea-viewing Wide Field-of view Sensor (SeaWiFS), which launched in 1997.
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“These are incredibly evocative visualizations of our living planet,” Gene Carl Feldman, an oceanographer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said in a NASA news release last week. “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."
Over the past 20 years, NASA scientists have monitored the health of crops, forests and fisheries around the globe and learned more about the long-term changes across continents and ocean basins, the agency wrote in the news release.
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Satellite observations and measurements have helped determine agricultural production, used in famine early warning detection, and as carbon dioxide rises and warms the planet’s climate, NASA’s knowledge of planet life learned from its 20-year observations, will play a major role in monitoring carbon in the Earth’s system.
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The satellites have also been able to monitor the ocean’s subtly changing colors, helping satellites track changes in phytoplankton populations.
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As environmental conditions change, scientists are using satellite data to track ocean planet life on a global scale.
So far, they’ve noticed rising sea surface temperatures are causing “biological deserts” — ocean regions of low phytoplankton growth. The warmer the surface waters get, the fewer nutrients reach phytoplankton at the surface and the more dire the consequences for fisheries and the marine ecosystem, Feldman said.
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Signs of environmental change are especially visible in Arctic regions and in Alaska, where burned areas due to fires, deforestation and other changes, led the region’s underlying permafrost to burn off.
“It’s like taking the insulating layer off a cooler,” Chris Potter, a research scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, said. “The ice melts underneath and it becomes a slushy mess.”
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Watch the video below and visit nasa.gov to learn more about how NASA is tracking life on Earth — and how the discoveries will allow us to better understand how Earth’s biology will respond to the changing environment.