If there is a lesson of 2018, it is that we live in hell. This is canon. But leave it to NASA to make hell look pretty spectacular and maybe even a place I want to live.
We’ve seen record wildfires, powerful hurricanes, and massive dust plumes rip across our fair planet this summer. And while their impacts are clear on the ground, they also leave a distinct trace in the atmosphere. Soot from wildfires, sea salt in storms, and, well, dust are all known as aerosols. And thanks to all-seeing satellites, we have the power to track them in near real time. Earthbound sensors add another layer to our understanding of what’s going on.
Using that data and running it through a high resolution model gives you a good approximation of all the stuff in our atmosphere on any given day. The image above, created by NASA’s Earth Observatory, shows Thursday. Red represents soot, purple shows dust, and blue is sea salt. So you know, just a normal day on Earth with two typhoons battering Asia, a hurricane menacing Hawaii, wildfire smoke and soot blanketing North America and reaching Europe, and dust swirling across the planet’s deserts. Rendered against the dark outlines of Earth, the aerosols look like a psychedelic light show that would make Zedd jealous.
These are just the natural aerosols—at least as much as anything can be called natural in a world being altered by climate change—that satellites can see. There’s also plenty of aerosols from human activities, too.
It hasn’t even made news, but central Africa is also awash in smoke from farmers clearing land for crops. And those little glowing specks across China, the eastern U.S., India, and Europe? Those are cities where air pollution from cars and buildings is strong enough to create a clear signal to satellites. The visualization also layers on night light data, serving as yet another reminder of humanity’s impact on the Earth. And seeing a visualization like this is a good reminder for all of us that Earth is a pretty special place we call home.