For a while, it felt like the weather disasters were never going to stop.
A terrible hurricane season spawned storms that wrecked entire islands and cities while racking up hundreds of billions in damages. It even saw a storm sail away to Ireland. The most destructive wildfires in California history devastated Wine Country. British Columbia and Portugal were burning up too.
You’d be forgiven for not wanting to relive it, gentle reader. But if you can handle it, this NASA animation is worth your while. Using satellite data and math models run using powerful computers, NASA scientists have made a stunning visual testament to three months of weather on Earth that looks like van Gogh’s “Starry Night.”
The data used in the animation includes smoke, sea salt, and dust in the atmosphere. All three are small particles known as aerosols that give scientists clues about the weather.
Let’s start with smoke, the easiest. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. In August, wildfires burned through British Columbia, and the smoke plumes are clearly visible as they get stirred into the atmosphere and pass over the Arctic. Fast forward to mid-October and you’ll see smoke plumes rise over Northern California and Portugal as part of the worst wildfires each region has ever experienced.
Sea salt is crucial for helping clouds form. And with August through October being the peak of Atlantic season, some of those clouds inevitably form into hurricanes. The animation tracks Harvey, Irma, and Maria—all storms that left a deadly wake across the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico—as well as Ophelia, which took a bizarre turn toward Ireland in mid-October (and also helped fan the flames of Portugal’s wildfires).
Then there’s the dust part. Not surprisingly, a lot of it blows off the Sahara. And because it tends to ride dry desert air (duh), it can put a damper on hurricane formation. Despite seemingly prolific plumes this summer and fall, it wasn’t enough to create unfavorable hurricane conditions. You can see a number of intense hurricanes were still able to form in the western Atlantic away from the constant stream of Saharan dust.
So yes, this was by all counts a pretty terrible three-month run of weather. And you should absolutely keep that in mind watching this animation along with the reality that climate change will fuel stronger storms and make more intense wildfires more common.
But at the same time, the visuals on display are a stunning testament to all the ways we’re able to observe the beautiful planet we live on. Earth is a pretty amazing place and we’re lucky to call it home, even when it’s trying to kill us.
And if you’re looking for a further silver lining, the vast improvements in satellite data also helped the National Hurricane Season produce the best forecasts ever this year.