Category Archives: Great Pics

Hubble spots three galaxies dancing in epic photo

The two galaxies in the upper-right part of the image seem to be interacting with each other — potentially even merging.

NGC 7764A lies some 425 million light-years from Earth, in the constellation Phoenix, first described 400 years ago, on a celestial atlas called Uranometria. Although it’s so far away, Hubble was able to snap this image using both its Advanced Camera for Surveys (installed in 2002) and Wide Field Camera 3 (the most technologically advanced visible-light camera on Hubble, installed in 2009). Both are advanced systems designed to capture images deep in space.

The two right-side galaxies appear to be dancing around each other — a dance that is also potentially affected by the bowling-ball shaped galaxy on the right side of the picture. It’s not uncommon for galaxies to interact and even collide, although this process happens very slowly, and is not technically a collision (since galaxies have more empty space than stars and planets), but rather gravitational interactions between the components that make up the two galaxies. Colliding may cause the two galaxies to merge, if they don’t have enough momentum to continue traveling after the collision. When this happens, the two galaxies eventually fall back on each other and merge into one galaxy. When galaxies just pass through each other without merging, they mostly retain their material and overall shape.

It’s not clear which of these processes is going on here, or if there’s another process altogether — although a head-on collision appears unlikely. As NASA explains, the galaxy in the lower left may also be involved, given that it is relatively close. The European Space Agency (ESA) also seems pretty stoked about the shape the two galaxies are making as they interact.

“By happy coincidence, the collective interaction between these galaxies has caused the two on the upper right to form a shape, which from our solar system’s perspective, resembles the starship known as the USS Enterprise from Star Trek,” an ESA text notes.

The space agency also points out just how clunky the naming of these galaxies is. The three galaxies are called NGC 7764A1, NGC 7764A2, and NGC 7764A3, respectively. Astronomers need these complex but specific names to make sure they know exactly what object they’re talking about and prevent any confusion.

“This rather haphazard naming makes more sense when we consider that many astronomical catalogs were compiled well over 100 years ago, long before modern technology made standardizing scientific terminology much easier,” the article adds.

“As it is, many astronomical objects have several different names, or might have names that are so similar to other objects’ names that they cause confusion.”

Stunning satellite observations show Tonga eruption effects in unprecedented detail

The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha‘apai volcano erupted on January 14, causing massive shockwaves and tsunamis that lead to 3 deaths and caused substantial damage to the Tongan Islands. Thanks to satellite imagery, researchers were able to observe this process in stunning detail. Here are some of these observations.

Ashes and cooling

The eruption released vast quantities of aerosols into the atmosphere. These particles reached the stratosphere, some 9 miles (15 km) above the surface. The stratosphere is a dry part of the atmosphere without clouds or humidity — so everything that reaches the stratosphere has little to interact with and is easily observable from above. 

The ashes from volcanoes consist largely of sulfur dioxide; once this sulfur dioxide reaches the atmosphere, it filters out some of the solar rays, producing a cooling effect. This effect can be quite powerful. Nearly 31 years ago, the Pinatubo volcano, in the Philippines, released 15 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere. This tremendous amount took about two years to be depleted through chemical reactions, temporarily cooling the atmosphere by about 0.6 °C on average around the globe. 

Pinatubo’s eruption was used as a source of misinformation by climate denialists who wanted to diminish human interference from global warming — a volcanic eruption only produces temporary effects. As a matter of fact, Pinatubo’s effect was predicted by a climate model, which confirmed the predictions from climate models as reliable sources.

Image credits: Japan Meteorology Agency.

The eruption of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha‘apai is not as strong as Pinatubo’s, but the ashes will cool the air a little bit. However, it’s important to keep in mind that this won’t have any significant effect on climate change.

Waves

When the volcano sent ashes flying into the air, it caused a disruption in the atmospheric pressure levels. Just like hitting a drum’s membrane, the explosion pushed the air and changed the air pressure globally.

Researchers monitor these pressure changes through instruments called barometers. But because the planet is very big, the sudden change in air pressure due to the eruption took a while to reach different parts of the planet. For instance, it took 15 hours to reach the University of Hertfordshire Observatory in the UK, which is 16,500 km (around 10,253 mi) away from the volcano and it was registered by their barometer.

The propagation of the wave becomes very clear when we piece together a series of barometer detections. This was registered by the United States’ station on January 15:

The eruption was also a source of waves in the atmosphere, sending concentric ripples traveling the planet’s atmosphere as if it is not such a big deal. A stunning animation of the event was produced by theNational Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s GOES-West satellite, displaying the waves traveling the atmosphere just after the eruption.

The initial atmospheric response to the eruption was captured by Mathew Barlow using NOAA’s GOES-West satellite infrared radiance data (band 13). This sequence is based on images taken 10 minutes apart, and colors show the difference in infrared radiance between each time step. Credit: Mathew Barlow/University of Massachusetts Lowell.

So where do these waves go? Well, if you’re a flat-earther, this may upset you. Because the Earth is round, the wave travels to the furthest point, until it reaches a point and becomes a wave source itself that travels all the way around again, gradually losing energy until it disappears. 

There were also some “eyewitnesses” of the process. Registered by the Gemini Observatory at Maunakea in Hawaii, the following video shows a bunch of clouds moving normally, but the thin ripples that appear in the sky were caused by the eruption waves.

Never before could we monitor the atmospheric response to events such as this eruption, this is thanks to the number of cameras we have everywhere and better sensors to register the impacts. We didn’t have a fast way to communicate before, in this case, a few hours after the activity was possible for scientists to share their observations and shock everyone on how interactive the Earth system is. Let’s wait for the next crazy atmospheric phenomenon to leave us in awe.

Fossil(ish) Friday: Minnesotans want the Giant Beaver to be their new state fossil

The people of Minnesota have just elected their new state fossil: it’s going to be a Giant Beaver (Castoroides ohioensis). Hopefully.

The specimen that the Museum enrolled in the voting competition.

Don’t you just love democracy at work? The Minnesota Science Museum certainly does. They’ve asked the people “what should our state fossil be?” using the magic of the Internet, and the people have answered. A Wednesday post on the Museum’s page together with a live broadcast revealed that the vote went to a Giant Beaver specimen in their collection.

All that’s left now is to make it official.

Big Beaver

“Thank you for voting for our state fossil! What comes next, you ask? We’ll bring your massive mammal candidate to the legislature!”

The Science Museum of Minnesota offered the public a chance to vote which among nine specimens (we’ll see them in a bit) in its collection should come to represent the state as its state fossil. The Giant Beaver received 11,000 votes. It outdid other iconic species such as the crow shark, trilobite, and scimitar-toothed cat. Overall, a landslide win — it gained around 25% of all the votes cast in the competition.

So what exactly were Giant Beavers? Unsurprisingly, they were giant relatives of today’s beavers. Outwardly and in behavior, they resembled the dam-building mammals we all know and love; they had buck teeth and an aquatic lifestyle.

But there were some differences as well: Giant Beavers grew to around 200 pounds and could reach between 1.9 m and 2.2 m (6.2 ft to 7.2 ft) in length. They lived between 2.58 million years and 10,150 years ago, during a geological Epoch known as the Pleistocene.

In many ways, they looked like oversized versions of the beavers that inhabit Minnesota to this day, although their hind legs were much shorter with bigger feet relative to their body proportions. Their teeth were much larger, although proportional to their bigger bodies, but with a rough, striated enamel texture; modern beavers have smooth-textured enamel protecting their teeth. Judging from their skulls, however, we’re pretty confident that Giant Beavers had a smaller brain volume relative to their body, meaning they were probably not quite as smart as modern beavers and had less sophisticated interactions with their environment.

The genus Castoroides was first described from a specimen found in the USA in Ohio (hence its scientific name ‘ohioensis’). All known specimens have been unearthed from the USA and Canada. They’re generally clustered around the midwestern United States in states near the Great Lakes, particularly Illinois and Indiana. However, their habitat certainly ranged between today’s Alaska, Canada, and Florida, as Castoroides specimens have been found at these sites.

“Pretty impressive right? There’s beavers still throughout Minnesota today, they’re an important part of the ecosystems here. A lot of people have seen them, and learned to love these little toothy critters, so why wouldn’t you love an even larger version of that?” said Alex Hastings, the museum’s chair of paleontology, during the livestream on Wednesday.

The specimen that won this competition was found at a site near St. Paul, Minnesota. The museum will present the fossil alongside the results of the vote to lawmakers, who will get to decide if the Giant Beaver should become the state’s first official fossil. Minnesota is one of only seven states that have yet to designate an official fossil; the others are Arkansas, Hawaii, Indiana, Iowa, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. The Giant Beaver almost became Minnesota’s official fossil back in 1988, but the measure failed in the legislature. Fingers crossed it makes it this time!

The museum also put up some cool and actually damn funny YouTube videos for each of the contenders, which you can see on their individual voting pages; they’re still up, even if the voting is closed. I will put up links to the individual pages or directly to their YouTube shorts for your convenience (the ones here are for the Giant Beaver).

Go give them a subscribe and some likes if you’re on YouTube, it really helps them out, and they really deserve it. I wish Netflix had content as good as this.

But we’re all here for fossils, and every runner-up in this competition is definitely deserving of some of our love.

Endoceras.

These squid-like creatures were among the largest animals alive during their time (during the Ordovician Period around 450 million years ago) and sported 10 arms. This specimen at the Science Museum of Minnesota was found by a local collector. Individual page and YouTube link.

Stromatolite.

Stromatolites have the honor of being the oldest fossils in Minnesota. They do look unassuming, but that comes down to their history. These clumpy fossils were formed almost 2 billion years ago by photosynthesizing bacteria. What you’re seeing here are the fossils of the first oxygen-producing organisms on Earth. They started the trend that led all the way to us breathing oxygen today. Individual page and YouTube link.

Squalicorax (Crow Shark).

An extinct species that lived during the Cretaceous Period, 90 to 100 million years ago, the Crow Shark prowled the seas as dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Judging by the serrations on its teeth, this shark used to punch high above its weight — and tooth marks found on the bones of fish, dinosaurs, marine reptiles, and even some flying reptiles tell us that it did so with frightening enthusiasm. Individual page and YouTube link.

Dikelocephalus minnesotensis (Trilobite).

Trilobites… were sea bugs. A great, very diverse family of sea bugs who lived during the Cambrian Period, between 492 and 487 million years ago. This particular species got its name for being discovered near Stillwater, Minnesota, and that specimen is now housed at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Individual page and YouTube link.

Bison antiquus.

A relatively young contender, this bison native to Minnesota lived between 60,000 and 4,270 years ago, making the transition from the Late Pleistocene to the Holocene Epoch (the one we’re currently in right now). This species eventually gave rise to the bison we all know. They were probably larger than modern bison, however. Individual page and YouTube link.

Homotherium serum (Scimitar Toothed Cat).

A large predator that stalked the tundras of Minnesota some 27,000 years ago during the Pleistocene Epoch. It had somewhat smaller canines than the infamous saber toothed cat, but more muscular shoulders and arms. Individual page and YouTube link.

Terminonaris robusta.

An extinct (and much bigger) relative of the modern crocodile that lived between 90 and 100 million years ago during the Cretaceous Period. Like modern crocs, it was very toothy and not afraid to bite. Individual page and YouTube link.

Mammuthus columbi.

The Columbian Mammoths lived during the Pleistocene Epoch, between 2 million and 12,000 years ago. They’re one species that are well represented in the state of Minnesota, as the tundra landscapes present here at that time were an ideal stomping ground for these huge beasts. This particular tusk belongs to the Lyle Mammoth which was discovered in the state and is now on display at the Science Museum of Minnesota. Individual page and YouTube link.

All images in this post are courtesy of the Science Museum of Minnesota.

Believe it or not, this is not a wasp. Neither of these are

Sometimes, nature and evolution can work together to create stunning things. Have a look at the creatures below — what are they?

Sesia yezoensis. Image credits: Kudo Seiya (used with permission).
More fake hornets. Image credits: Kudo Seiya (used with permission).

If you would have said something along the lines of “wasps” or “hornets”, well, that’s not even close. They’re actually moths, although they really do look like wasps — and that’s no coincidence.

These moths are doing something called “Batesian mimicry”. They’ve evolved to mimic the warning signals of a harmful species (in this case, wasps or bees) in an attempt to deter predators. They look like wasps to tell their predators that they can sting, although they can’t; they don’t even have any jaws or stinger.

For someone with no experience, they look exactly like wasps (and sometimes, even sound like them, making a small buzz as they fly). They’ve lost the scales on their wings and even changed some of their habits to resemble wasps even more. But there are hints. Their antennae are long and feathery, and they don’t have the thin “wasp waist”.

“Six species of Sesiidae that resemble the bees of your choice in color, shape, and size. Koshiboso Sukashiba is quite small” Image credits: Kudo Seiya (used with permission).

For you or me, telling these moths apart from what they’re mimicking would be a hard task. But for Kudo Seiya, a photographer from Japan also working as a university researcher, it’s become second nature. His Twitter features some of the most impressive examples of Batesian mimicry you’ll ever see.

Although his day job doesn’t revolve around insect photography, Seiya enjoys learning and sharing his findings with the world.

“Influenced by my father, a butterfly expert, insects have always been a part of my life since I was a child. I loved insects as a whole, but I was only familiar with butterflies. When I was a student, I came across a book about the clearwing moth (Sesiidae) and was shocked. I knew that clearwing moth was a rare group of moth that looked just like a wasp, but the species diversity and the perfection of their mimicry was beyond my understanding. I then studied intently about the life history, host plants, sexual pheromones, etc of clearwing moths. I even described the species (Nokona michinoku) myself as one of the authors seven years ago.”

Image credits: Kudo Seiya (used with permission).
Image credits: Kudo Seiya (used with permission).

The moths in this group (Sesiidae, or clearwing moths) are known for their mimicry, but this also makes it harder to study them — they’re not just rare, but easy to misidentify. For Seiya, his work is an opportunity to popularize the group.

“Clearwing moths are a very interesting group, and their wasp-like appearance is particularly attractive. However, clear photos of them are not often seen, because they are so rare, and even if you were to encounter one, you might misidentify it as a wasp and overlook it. I would be happy if the photos I shared would increase the number of people who are interested in insects, including clearwing moths.”

This is one of the largest Sesiidae in Japan, says Kudo. Image credits: Kudo Seiya (used with permission).
By having the left and right sides of the base of the abdomen in white, a “bee’s constriction” is created. Image credits: Kudo Seiya (used with permission).

His Twitter features more than just moths posing as wasps. It also features moths posing as leaves, as well as other insects, often photographed in unusual circumstances, showcasing their unique beauty. It’s a rare foray into a world we don’t often get to see. Check it out!

Uropyia meticulodina, a species of moth from a different family (Notodontidae) that masquerades as a leaf. Image credits: Kudo Seiya (used with permission).
This is an actual wasp. Image credits: Kudo Seiya (used with permission).
Image credits: Kudo Seiya (used with permission).
Image credits: Kudo Seiya (used with permission).

Iconic photos of Earth taken by Apollo astronauts, digitally restored and in full glory

Earthrise, Apollo 8. Credit: NASA / Toby Ord.

In the late 1960s, humans caught the first good glimpse of our home planet from afar, thanks to the Apollo missions to the moon. During the first crewed voyage around the moon on Christmas Eve 1968, Bill Anders of the Apollo 8 mission took our planet’s most famous photo as his spacecraft rounded the dark side of the moon for the fourth time.

The picture, now known as Earthrise, is the first to show Earth rising above the moon’s barren and desolate landscape in perfect opposition to the vulnerable but life-teeming blue marble above.

The Blue Marble, Apollo 17. Credit: NASA / Toby Ord.

Another famous of Earth from way far away in outer space is Blue Marble, which shows our planet as seen by Apollo 17 astronauts in December 1972 about 30,000 kilometers into their journey towards the moon. A perfect combination of distance and timing allowed the astronauts to catch one of the few pictures showing an almost fully illuminated Earth, which from that far away resembles a spherical agate marble.

Credit: NASA / Toby Ord.
Credit: NASA / Toby Ord.

Alas, the photography gear available during the Apollo era didn’t do these sights enough justice. Toby Ord, a senior research fellow in philosophy at Oxford University in the UK, must have thought the same when he embarked on the Earth Restored project.

Credit: NASA / Toby Ord.
Credit: NASA / Toby Ord.

Earth Restored features a selection of photos captured on film that show the full Earth from space. These were taken with professional cameras specifically designed for the Apollo missions such as the Hasselblad 500EL with Zeiss Sonnar and Planar lenses. But although these photos are of good quality for the 1960s and 1970s, they nevertheless exhibit certain flaws in exposure and color casts.

For this series, Ord set out to do some cleanup work, adjusting white balances and black points, as well as dust and scratches on the camera lens, all while still preserving the look and feel of the original photos captured on film.

Credit: NASA / Toby Ord.
Credit: NASA / Toby Ord.

These pictures serve as a stark reminder that the world and all life are fragile. Ord is the founder of Giving What We Can, a movement that has so far pledged over $1.5 billion to the most effective charities across the world. He also recently published a new book called The Precipe, which concludes that “safeguarding our future is among the most pressing and neglected issues we face.”

Credit: NASA / Toby Ord.
Credit: NASA / Toby Ord.
Credit: NASA / Toby Ord.
Credit: NASA / Toby Ord.
Credit: NASA / Toby Ord.
Credit: NASA / Toby Ord.
Credit: NASA / Toby Ord.
Credit: NASA / Toby Ord.

For high-resolution images, visit Ord’s website.

What are the average colors of the world? Data science offers a creative answer

In 1972, the Apollo 17 crew snapped one of the most famous photos ever taken, showing the Earth in all its glory for the first time in human history. The image has remained in the public consciousness as the ‘Blue Marble’ since it resembles the spherical agates we used to play with as children. Indeed, more than 70% of Earth’s surface is covered by oceans, reflecting a beautiful blue color.

The rest of terrestrial Earth, however, is much more diverse, from deserts to dense rainforest — and this shows in the richer color palette as seen from space. Data scientist Erin Davis creatively illustrated this color palette in a series of maps showing the dominant color of various regions across the globe.

Davis used a dataset from the Copernicus Sentinel-2 mission, a constellation of two identical satellites in the same orbit, each equipped with a high-resolution multispectral imager capable of taking pictures of Earth’s land and vegetation in 13 different bands.

She then ran a script in the R programming language, which she coded herself, that assigned average colors to various areas, whether entire continents, countries, or states in the US.

In a short blog post on her website, Davis explained her process as follows:

  1. Wrote a script (in R) to find the bounding boxes of all the areas I was interested in
  2. In R, downloaded pictures of those areas from Sentinel-2
  3. In R, wrote a script that created a series of commands to:
    1. Georeference the downloaded image to create a geotiff
    2. Crop the geotiff to the borders of the area
    3. Re-project the geotiff to a sensible projection
  4. Ran that GDAL script
  5. In R, converted the geotiffs back to pngs, and found the average color of the png

In the same blog post, you can find all the R scripts she used for this project, which you can adapt for your own data visualizations. Contrary to popular belief, data isn’t boring. It can be creative and beautiful with the right mindset.

Our galactic neighbourhood is now charted and available for you to explore

Galactic cartographer Kevin Jardine used data from the European Space Agency’s Gaia satellite to make a map of our galaxy. The map can be easily accessed from his website, Galaxy Map, where you can explore our galactic neighbourhood within 6000 parsecs (almost 20,000 light-years).

A closer look in a radius of 650 pc has been released recently. We see dust in yellow/orange, stars in blue/purple, and gas in red.

The Solar neighbourhood within 650 pc. Credits: galaxymap.org, Twitter: @galaxy_map

Just like medical imaging can highlight parts of our bodies and differentiates them from the surrounding based on their physical properties, the same can be done using astronomical data to map the galaxy. Different regions in the sky have density contrasts, with older stars usually located in less dense regions than hotter stars. With this information, you can separate the regions into different clusters (and see if it’s dust, a younger cluster, an older cluster and so on).

There are 1.7 million stars featured on the map above. The center is “us” (meaning the Sun) surrounded by four quadrants. All maps available are in high quality, so you can zoom in or open in full screen, and look for objects you would like to see, like Orion constellation’s stars. Our perspective gives us the impression that those stars are always together, but with the map, you’ll see their real position in the galaxy.

The Solar neighbourhood. Credits: galaxymap.org, Twitter: @galaxy_map. CLICK TO ZOOM IN.

The galactic cartographer plans to overlay the Galactic Quadrants:  Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta. He has also worked to make a board game called Guniibuu, based on the 10-parsec neighborhood.

This is just one example of what can be done with the mountain of space data publicly made available by space agencies such as NASA or ESA.

A more detailed map, where you can search for an object of your preference, hide some features, is available at this link. You can also follow the updated versions on Galaxy Map’s Twitter. The project is already starting to build an active community.

You can also read a paper describing the data here.

Welcome to the mesmerizing (and soothing) world of timelapse sheep herding

What if I told you the coolest thing you’ll see today is sheep herding? Well, brace yourself. Almost like a fluid, this herd seems to flow through the pasture following its own soothing rhythm.

https://vimeo.com/568430412

The video was captured by Haifa-based photographer Lior Patel, who has spent the better part of a year immersed in the world of sheep. He documented a single flock’s grazing process — a flock that has been managed by the same farmer and herder since 1985, and features over 1,000 sheep.

Shot with a drone, the timelapse footage shows the animals going through their daily routine of traveling 7 kilometers, through green pastures, dusty plains, or crossing a street. The shape-shifting flock is herded by a few border collies, which you can see circling the edges of the flock and making sure that no stragglers go awry.

“The first challenge is to understand the elasticity of the herd during the movement, its dispersal during grazing, and how it converges into one tight pack towards exit/return from pasture and crossing roads and paths,” Patel tells Colossal.

Patel told Colossal that he captured most scenes from a fixed camera position, with each shot showing around 4-7 minutes. He enjoys traveling through Israel, documenting not just the agricultural practices throughout the country, but also historic architecture.

For more of his aerial photos and videos, check out his site and Instagram.

Our favorite Google Earth timelapses show how nature is bowing to our cities and industry

A few days ago, Google unveiled its new feature: a timelapse of the entire planet. Over 30 years of satellite data, collated into a single interactive framework on Google Earth, consisting of over 24 million photos. We’ve already covered this here, but we thought it’s worth revisiting it just to share some of our favorite captures.

While the new timelapse feature highlights many features across the world, without a doubt, the most striking theme is how mankind is affecting nature. From cities growing from virtually nothing to climate change and deforestation, here are some of our favorite Google Earth timelapses.

Cancún, Mexico

Cancún is a popular tourist destination in Mexico, and it’s been popular for a long time. But in recent years, it expanded dramatically, rising its population by over 400% in the past 30 years. It’s striking to see how the city expands and takes shape over the years.

Los Cabos, Mexico

Cancún is far from the only Mexican city to grow dramatically in the past few years. In a far less lush environment, Los Cabos grew at a comparable pace — bonus points for watching the big pools showing up.

Dubai

Of course, when it comes to cities changing the landscape, few can compete with Dubai. From the skyscrapers to the water constructions, Dubai took a desert and made it into a mega-city.

Al Jowf

It’s important to know that Dubai isn’t a singular exception — several cities followed a remarkably similar trend, with oil money funding the development of desert megacities. Al Jowf is a bit different: it focuses much more on agriculture, and you can see just how irrigation-based agriculture takes shape in the area.

Las Vegas, Nevada

The US has its own experience with making cities from nothing. Seen from above, Las Vegas looks very different from how it looks at ground level.

Chongqing, China

No compilation about city growth could be complete without a mention of China. We could add dozens of dazzling city timelapses from China, but we’ve just chosen one of the most striking ones. There are over 31 million people in the Chongqing urban area, from under 3 million in 1980.

Hanoi, Vietnam

Another country showing explosive growth is Vietnam. Hanoi has been the capital of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam since 1976, and has turned into a sprawling metropolis in recent years.

Glen Canyon, Utah

Something a bit different: a bit of nature at Glen Canyon, in Utah. You can see the canyon almost “breathing” from year to year, shifting as the influx of water increases or decreases.

Aral Sea

The drying up of the Aral Sea is perhaps the most striking timelapse here. Formerly the fourth largest lake in the world with an area of 68,000 km2 (26,300 sq mi), the Aral Sea began shrinking in the 1960s after the rivers that fed it were diverted by Soviet irrigation projects. The shrinking of the Aral Sea has been called “one of the planet’s worst environmental disasters,” bringing a once-prosperous fishing area to ruin and marking a major environmental crisis.

Solar Qinghai, China

It’s not all bad, though. The Google Earth timelapses also showcase some of the world’s most ambitious environmental projects, such as the solar farm at Qinghai, China.

Alta Wind Farm

Another such ambitious project is the Alta Wind Farm in Tehachapi Pass of the Tehachapi Mountains, in Kern County, California. As of 2013, it is the largest wind farm in the United States.

Mato Grosso, Brazil

We only get a few eco-friendly timelapses though. Mato Grosso is a state in Brazil. In the north is the biodiverse Amazonian forest, which originally covered half of the state. Much of this has been disrupted and cleared for logging, agricultural purposes and pastures.

Rondonia Brazil

Deforestation also heavily affects Rondonia. Rondonia was originally home to over 200,000 km2 of rainforest, but has become one of the most deforested places in the Amazon. By 2003 around 70,000 km2 of rainforest had been cleared.

Santistevan Bolivia

In 1992, almost half of the people in Santistevan, Bolivia, were under 16; about a third of the city didn’t have access to electricity. The city grew tremendously in the years that passed since then.

Mina Escondida, Chile

Another area heavily affected by industrial activity is a copper mine in Chile. The main orebody does not outcrop on the surface but is ‘hidden’ by hundreds of meters of practically barren overburden. The lower open pit in the satellite image on the right is the main Escondida mine, but the upper two are Barrick Gold’s Zaldívar mine.

Dairyland, California

We’ve mostly focused on recent developments, cities and areas that changed dramatically in the past 30 years, often at the expense of the nearby environment (or global emissions). But it’s important to remember that in developed places, these changes happened even longer ago.

Chernobyl in photos — what does the exclusion area look like 35 years after the disaster?

The plant and its concrete sarcophagus is in the background. The town of Pripyat is slowly reclaimed by nature.Image credits: Amort1939.

The 26th of April, 1986, marks a dark day in modern history. Reactor 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine (then USSR) exploded, marking what is, to this day, the worst nuclear accident in history.

It was a combination of a flawed reactor design and human error. The accident happened as a test was meant to be carried out. The test was delayed due to a problem with the electrical grid; a new shift came on, and the new shift didn’t know what to do. Lastly, the plant officials decided to violate safety procedures. Together, all these spelled disaster.

The plant was located near the town of Pripyat, which housed some 50,000 people, mostly plant workers. It was a fairly normal Soviet town, until the day of the disaster. Everyone was forced to relocate, as were 300,000 other people around the plant.

An exclusion zone was drawn around the plant, and Pripyat was abandoned. It’s now a ghost town.

Image credits: Wendelin Jacober.

The amusement park in Pripyat is especially striking. It was to have its grand opening on May 1, 1986, less than one week after the day of the explosion. Several rumors state that the park was opened on April 27th just before the announcement to evacuate the city was made.

Some theories state that the amusement park was opened earlier than expected to distract the people from the disaster that was unfolding nearby. Now, the park (and its ferris wheel especially) stand as a symbol of the Chernobyl disaster.

Image credits: Dasha Urvachova.
Image credits: Ilja Nedilko.

The event ejected 400 times more radioactive material than the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The city inhabitants were most affected, with immediate reports of headaches, skin burns, and uncontrollable vomiting. The radiation levels around Pripyat have reduced substantially, but they’re still dangerously high.

When locals eventually evacuated, they were told to take only essentials. As a result, people left behind most of their stuff, and the town remained as if frozen in time — although recently, nature is starting to reclaim the town and its surroundings.

Image credits: Yves Alarie.
Image credits: Wendelin Jacober.
Image credits: Wendelin Jacober.
Image credits: Wendelin Jacober.

Soviet authorities have covered the plant in a concrete sarcophagus, but because it was leaking, they covered the entire thing in a new sarcophagus.

More recently, a large solar plant was opened near the site, producing a third of the reactor’s former electricity.

Two more reactors were also being constructed at Chernobyl, but construction was stopped after the explosion. Image via Pixabay.
The dome containing the radiation erected in 2017.

The popular HBO series about the Chernobyl disaster and its aftermath led to a surge in attention and tourists in the town of Pripyat. Tourism was surging in Pripyat before the pandemic.

Some residents also returned to the ghost town, especially elderly residents who continued to live in their homes, making a living from a combination of state benefits and agriculture.

Image via Pixabay.
Image via Pixabay.

Ukrainian authorities are also looking to obtain World Heritage site status for Chernobyl — an unlikely outcome for what is essentially the tragic site of an abandoned town — but an outcome that could turn it into a valuable site.

“We believe that putting Chernobyl on the UNESCO heritage list is a first and important step towards having this great place as a unique destination of interest for the whole of mankind,” said Oleksandr Tkachenko, the Ukrainian culture minister. “The importance of the Chernobyl zone lays far beyond Ukraine’s borders … It is not only about commemoration, but also history and people’s rights,” he said.

Some areas around Chernobyl look almost normal. Image via Pixabay.
… but many others don’t. Image credits: Amort1939.

Ultimately, Chernobyl looms as a warning of what can happen when risky design meets human error. Despite being one of the safest forms of energy nowadays, nuclear energy is still regarded with skepticism, in part due to Chernobyl.

As for Pripyat and the exclusion area, it has become a sort of haven for wildlife. The negative impact that radiation has on the ecosystem seems to be counterbalanced by the lack of humans in the area. In other words, as bad as nuclear fallout is, it’s not as bad for nature as human activity. It’s a saddening realization, on top of an already desolate chapter in human history.

Image via Unsplash.
European bison, boreal lynx, moose, and brown bear photographed inside Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (Ukraine). Image credits: Proyecto TREE/Sergey Gaschack.

‘A plague planet’ and other amazing shots from the 2021 Sony World Photography Awards

The internationally acclaimed Sony World Photography Awards, one of the world’s leading free photography competitions, is now in its 14th year. Recently, the judges released the best submissions they received across multiple categories, from wildlife and architecture to sports and portraits.

More than 100 photographers were shortlisted for the competition alongside the category winners, with the latter now considered for the overall title and a $5,000 prize. Here are some of our favorites.

Locust Invasion in East Africa by Luis Tato, 1st place Wildlife & Nature section. Herny Lenayasa, a Samburu man and chief of the settlement of Archers Post tries to scare away a massive swarm of locust ravaging an area next to Archers Post, Samburu County, Kenya on April 24, 2020. A locust plague fueled by unpredictable weather patterns up to 20 times larger than a wave two months earlier is threatening to devastate parts of East Africa. Locust has made already a devastating appearance in Kenya, two months after voracious swarms -some billions strong- ravaged big areas of land and just as the coronavirus outbreak has begun to disrupt livelihoods. In spite of coronavirus-related travel restrictions, international experts are in place to support efforts to eradicate the pest with measures including ground and aerial spraying. The Covid-19 pandemic has competed for funding, hampered movement and delayed the import of some inputs, including insecticides and pesticides. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has called the locust outbreak, caused in part by climate change, “an unprecedented threat” to food security and livelihoods. Its officials have called this new wave some 20 times the size of the first.

Sea Drops by Angel Fitor, 3rd place Wildlife & Nature section. “I have imagined the ocean as a superorganism, with the world’s seas as its organs, and its creatures as the tissues that interconnect everything. Sinking further down on to it, there is nothing… but sea drops.’ This figurative concept opens Sea Drops, a photo essay aimed to explore the effervescence of life inside drops of sea water. By using lab micropipettes, and a self-designed micro studio setup, the project captures the beauty and manners of live plankton, which are in the range of 200 to 1,500 microns, inside specially lit drops of water. It tells the story of one of Earth’s most pivotal biological communities with an innovative perspective, falling somewhere between art and science. The images reveal the astonishing diversity of creatures otherwise invisible to the naked eye, as well as their amazing behaviour, some of which is likely never to have been documented before. It may even be new to science. From the enthralling beauty of sea sapphires, to the mesmerisingly mysterious dances of annelid worms, the project opens a drop-shaped window to a new world. All specimens were carefully handled under a biologist’s expertise, and released alive and unharmed back into the sea.”

Hymn of the Building Site-9 by Guanghui Gu, 3rd Place, Professional, Architecture & Design. “I often visit this building site in Ninghai County, Zhejiang Province, China for work reasons. Using a drone, I photographed them to show the work that takes place each day.”

Birthday by  Brais Lorenzo Couto. Finalist, Professional, Portfolio. “Taken in and around his hometown of Ourense in the region of Galicia, photojournalist Brais Couto presents a series of poignant and dramatic scenes exploring local events and issues ranging from the effects of the pandemic to forest fires and carnival season.”

Inclusive Karate School in Syria 2 by Anas Alkharboutli. Winner, Professional, Sport. “In the Syrian village of Aljiina, near the city of Aleppo, Wasim Satot has opened a karate school for children. What makes it special is that girls and boys with and without disabilities are taught together. They’re aged between six and 15 years old. With his school, Satot wants to create a sense of community and overcome any traumas of war in the minds of the children.” 

Drying Fish by Khanh Phan. Winner, Open, Travel. “A woman dries trays of fish at Long Hai fish market in the Vung Tau province of Vietnam. Thousands of trays of scad are dried on rooftops and in yards by hundreds of workers. I came to Long Hai on a photo trip and was overwhelmed by the scale of the fishing village.”

The Horse Next Door by Francesco Lopazio. Shortlist, Open, Street Photography. “A curious horse looks out of its stable window, while a little bird flies away, scared by the prying eye.” 

Russia’s Face Slapping Championship 3 by Anton Dotsenko. Shortlist, Professional, Sport. “The main goal of face-slapping contests is to get rid of stress and test one’s stamina. Even though there is an evident element of violence and repugnance in this sport, contestants are fully aware of what happens when they choose to participate.”

Consumer Goods Circulation by Wentao Li. Shortlist, Professional, Environment. “The world’s population is expected to increase by 2 billion in the next 30 years, according to a United Nations report. We would need the equivalent of almost three planets to provide the natural resources required to sustain our lifestyles in their current state. The impact of consumerism on our environment is reflected in every aspect of our daily lives. This series explores the amazing capabilities humans have for production, circulation, and consumption.”

The Moon Revisited by Mark Hamilton Gruchy, 1st place, Creative category. “This body of work is made up of previously unprocessed images from Nasa and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. I have made my own images to express not only contemporary issues, but also some that were relevant at the time of the Apollo missions. These are sourced from copyright-free materials that I have repurposed, processed and composited to create a conversation about the unchanging aspect of the Moon contrasted with the Earth, which continues to be a dynamic place where change cannot be prevented”

No Escape from Reality, Youth photographer of the year. “I created this picture with the idea of representing the feeling of being trapped in a moment, or in one’s own reality. Participating in this competition has given me a fresh perspective on my art. I have seen some extraordinary photographs by my fellow youth photographers, and I take immense pride in the fact that my generation has such brilliant minds. I aspire to improve myself as an artist and would like to express my gratitude to my friends and family for always encouraging me to go the extra mile.”

Google Earth’s new feature: a timelapse of the entire planet

What if you could take the entire planet, gather over 30 years of satellite data on it, and put it all together into a simple app that can even be used on your smartphone? Well… that’s exactly what Google recently unveiled. The new features for its Timelapse allow users to zoom in on any locations they choose, viewing more than three decades of imagery.

The world at our fingertips

It’s true that we now have the entire planet at our fingertips in more ways than one. Even some 20-30 years ago, most people would have had a hard time imagining this. The fact that you can use a common device most of us carry in our pockets and zoom in over any corner of the Earth and see how it evolved in the past few decades speaks a lot to how much technology and scientific observation have progressed.

You can browse your hometown, your favorite forest, a glacier, anything — in some areas, data is better than in others, but you can see a timelapse of every corner of the globe.

“In the biggest update to Google Earth since 2017, you can now see our planet in an entirely new dimension — time. With Timelapse in Google Earth, 24 million satellite photos from the past 37 years have been compiled into an interactive 4D experience. Now anyone can watch time unfold and witness nearly four decades of planetary change,” wrote Rebecca Moore, director of Google Earth, Earth Engine and outreach.

But the Google Timelapse feature also offers a sobering look at how much we are changing the planet.

Location after location, it’s the same story: the impact of mankind is changing the planet, whether directly (through deforestation, river management, building cities, etc), or indirectly (through climate change).

“Our planet has seen rapid environmental change in the past half-century — more than any other point in human history. Many of us have experienced these changes in our own communities,” Moore wrote.

More than just being eye candy (though it definitely is), Google’s project could help researchers interpret satellite data more easily, and could help citizen scientists find trends in their own communities.

Several recent studies suggest that time lapses are actually become useful tools for research, and the data could come in handy particularly in areas where local monitoring data is sparse.

To put this all together, Google used data from both U.S. Geological Survey/NASA Landsat satellites, as well as the EU’s Copernicus Program and its Sentinel series of satellites. They also worked with Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab, which helped to process and display the approximately 10 quadrillion pixels in this database.

“More than two million processing hours across thousands of machines in Google Cloud to compile 20 petabytes of satellite imagery into a single 4.4 terapixel-sized video mosaic,” Moore explains — a process that used 100% renewable energy, in line with Google’s objectives to cut its own emissions.

Here’s a list of some of the most stunning timelapses (full engine here).

It may look like an art show but these ‘dancing lights’ reduce pesticide use by 50%

Credit: Daan Roosegaarde.

On a plot of farmland in Lelystad, Netherlands, art and technology merge in a stunning light show. During the day, the 20,000-square-meter field looks like any piece of farmland, but by the night it is transformed into a psychedelic wonderland.

Don’t be fooled by the pretty lights, though. The installation actually serves to enhance crop growth, improving yield and reducing the need for pesticides by 50%.

The same leek field during the day. Credit: Daan Roosegaarde.

The project, known as GROW, is the brainchild of Dutch designer Daan Roosegaarde, founder of Studio Roosegaarde.

Roosegaarde used a mixture of blue, red, and ultraviolet “dancing lights” that shine across a field of leeks.

Credit: Daan Roosegaarde.

Roosegaarde was inspired to embark on this project after a rare encounter with rural Netherlands. A self-confessed urbanite, the designer had spent very little time appreciating his country’s agricultural landscape — but it all changed after he made a visit to the farm.

Credit: Daan Roosegaarde.

The Dutch designer worked closely with plant biologists to figure out what was just the right amount of light frequencies and the ideal positioning such that the leek field would grow as efficiently as possible.

Research suggests that certain combinations of frequencies can not only strengthen plant metabolism but also increase resistance to pests and diseases.

Credit: Daan Roosegaarde.

It’s no surprise that this project was started in the Netherlands. Althought it’s 10 times smaller than Texas, the Netherlands is the world’s second largest producer of vegetables, after the United States.

It’s thanks to technological inovations such as these that such a tiny country is able to become an agricultural powerhouse, feeding not only its population but also exporting its products to the world.

Parker Solar Probe reveals dazzling image of Venus

Image of the comet NEOWISE by WISPR. Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Naval Research Lab/Parker Solar Probe/Guillermo Stenborg

Launched in 2018, the Parker Solar Probe is a NASA mission focused on observing the Sun’s corona, zooming closer and closer to our star. The spacecraft is currently the closest object to the sun made by humans and it’s already shown us the highest resolution image of the sun, revealing insights such as the stunning solar ‘campfires‘.

When not looking at the Sun, the Parker probe is focusing on comets. On 2019 September 2, it observed the comet 322P/SOHO in its closest approach to the sun. The spacecraft detected the dust particles being ejected through 322P’s tail. In 2020, a more interesting image showed the NEOWISE comet with its double tail — the brightest comet in the northern hemisphere since. The astonishing photo of NEOWISE depicted above was made with Wide-Field Imager the instrument aboard the Solar Probe (WISPR), designed to provide images of the corona and inner heliosphere in visible light.

This time, WISPR brought us an incredible view of Venus. Parker Solar Probe is tightly intertwined with Venus, as the planet sustains the spacecraft’s orbit, and sometimes there is a good opportunity for a flyby. Scientists didn’t lose the opportunity of photographing the planet and the result was a stunning image of the Venusian surface.

Image of Venus by WISPR. Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Naval Research Laboratory/Guillermo Stenborg and Brendan Gallagher

The shot was taken when the spacecraft was 12,380.68 km (7,693 miles).  What grabs attention first is the aura-like around the planet which makes the dark sky a little brighter. Scientists believe it is like Earth’s airglow, an emission of light caused by particles in the atmosphere. This is notoriously difficult to overcome in astronomy photography.

If you take a closer look, you will notice a darker region on the surface of the planet. This is the Aphrodite Terra, a highland area roughly as big as the African continent. It seems darker because it is cooler than the surroundings. Aphrodite Terra also features some large mountains and lava flows, which you can’t really see in this photo.

It is however possible to see streaks all around the surface, although scientists are not sure yet what they mean. There are many possibilities, they could be cosmic rays, dust reflected by sunlight or even ejected by the spacecraft itself.

The team had already taken a similar shot with the latest flyby on 2021 February 20, This time they decided to observe in the near-infrared as well. This wavelength is the one used in remote controls of your TV. It is not absorbed by dust, so will be able to see a clear image of the surface of the planet. The results will be received by the end of April, so fingers crossed for more surprising announcements from Venus.

Japanese spaceport floating on an artificial island is a peek into the future

Credit: Noize Architects.

It’s 5:15 a.m. as you board an autonomous train that takes you through a network of bridges to Spaceport City, which sits on a marvelous floating island in Tokyo Bay. An hour later you are scheduled to travel 50 miles up in Earth’s atmosphere, not on a rocket, but on an airplane-like suborbital spaceship, where you’ll get to witness the thrilling experience of microgravity.

‘Sign me up!’ is what most of you are probably thinking at the moment. Alas, the four-story futuristic spaceport in Japan’s capital is but a concept — but one that may offer a glimpse of the future, considering recent developments in private space ventures and the great deal of public interest for space tourism.

Credit: Noize Architects.
Credit: Noize Architects.

Spaceport Japan was designed by Noiz Architects, in collaboration with the communications agency Denstsu, design firm Canaria, and the non-profit Spaceport Japan, and it’s intended to be a getaway in and of itself. If you can’t afford to go on an expensive suborbital day trip, you can always just go on a day trip to part of the spaceport where there are shops, a hotel, an astronaut-food restaurant, a 4D IMAX movie theater, a gym, an aquarium, and even a disco — all sharing a space theme. The whole project is designed to serve like an open-space museum to go with the main attraction.

There are also research and business facilities inside the glass buildings that rise through undulating solar panel structures, as well as an educational academy and clinic. That’s because it’s not enough to be wealthy to board a spacecraft, you also need to be fit and complete a three-day training program.

The upper levels of the two towers piercing through the solar panels are designed to offer passengers a view of the departures terminal, where they can see space shuttles taking off.

Credit: Noize Architects.
Credit: Noize Architects.

“The design of SPACEPORT CITY is based on creating continuity, while retaining identity of each element. Every function is enclosed within a separate spherical volume, and a large roof covered with kinetic solar panels is “hovering” over these buildings, covering also two levels of large plazas – one at the level of departures and one at the level of arrivals,” according to a press release from Noiz Architects.

“A dynamic design of piers emerges from the main volume of the building, cerebrating the special journey waiting ahead. The organic complex packed within a city-scale circular disk forms a magnificent 5th façade, making the space port recognizable from far away from the space,” the company adds.

Credit: Noize Architects.

Spacecraft that take off horizontally like a plane rather than horizontally like a rocket are already in development by companies like Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic. The latter seems to be the most advanced, having flown crewed test flights and preselling 600 90-minute spaceflights, each priced at $250,000 a pop.

For now, Spaceport Japan is simply a stunning computer render, but the concept may one day lay the groundwork for the urban spaceports we’ve all fantasized about.

Wildlife photographer takes ‘once in a lifetime’ shot of a yellow penguin

Credit: Yves Adams/Kenney News.

Belgian wildlife photographer Yves Adams was on a two-month expedition in the South Atlantic towards Antarctica at the end of 2019 when he came upon a dazzling sight that made him rub his eyes. There he was, as a lone dandelion, a “never before seen” yellow penguin among a colony of 120,000 king penguins. These breathtaking photos speak for themselves.

Credit: Credit: Yves Adams/Kenney News.

The unusual bird was caught on camera during the expedition’s stop on an isle in South Georgia. It wasn’t hard for Adams to notice something was off when he noticed a yellow stripe in a sea of black-and-white tuxedos.

“I’d never seen or heard of a yellow penguin before,” Adams told Kennedy News. “There were 120,000 birds on that beach and this was the only yellow one there.”

Credit: Credit: Yves Adams/Kenney News.

Like albino penguins, this yellow penguin suffers from a certain pigmentation condition known as leucism. In leucistic penguins, their cells don’t produce enough melanin to turn feathers black, which instead results in this yellow/creamy color.

About 1 in 140,000 penguins are leucistic, and this colony of 120,000 strong fits the bill perfectly.

Credit: Credit: Yves Adams/Kenney News.

Previously, scientists found that the yellow pigment found in penguin feathers is distinct from the five other known classes of avian plumage pigmentations. Penguins use the yellow pigment to attract mates, but it’s not clear whether the distinctive plumage of a leucistic penguin makes the bird more attractive or more repulsive to potential mates.

“Penguins use the yellow pigment to attract mates and we strongly suspect that the yellow molecule is synthesized internally,” explains Daniel Thomas, a fellow at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, who led the study that uncovered the yellow pigment in penguin feathers.

This isn’t the first leucistic penguin humans have ever encountered, but to the best of our knowledge, these seem to be the first photos documenting the condition in a penguin.

Suffice it to say, when Adams realized what was in front of him, at a distance of about 50 meters (150 feet), he immediately went bonkers.

“We all went crazy when we realised. We dropped all the safety equipment and grabbed our cameras. We were so lucky the bird landed right where we were. Our view wasn’t blocked by a sea of massive animals. Normally it’s almost impossible to move on this beach because of them all. It was heaven that he landed by us. If it had been 50 metres away we wouldn’t have been able to get this show of a lifetime,” he said.

For more amazing photos by Adams, be sure to check out his website, and follow him on Facebook and Instagram.

NASA orbiter showcases the biggest canyon in the solar system — and it’s out of this world

It’s called Valles Marineris, and it would put any canyon on Earth to shame. It runs for 2,500 miles (4,000 km) along the equator of Mars — almost 10 times more than the Grand Canyon, and three times as deep. The awe-inspiring canyon was now showcased by NASA in unprecedented detail. Here’s a peek.

Image credits: NASA/JPL/UArizona.

Mars is host to some serious geology. Although the planet may not be all that active nowadays, whatever geological forces shaped Mars, they did some tremendous work — Mars is also home to Olympus Mons, the largest volcano in the Solar System, at a height of over 21 km, which may be connected to the canyon. Valles Marineris was imaged with the HiRISE (short for High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) camera that’s aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

The HiRISE camera itself is pretty big: weighing 64 kilograms (143 pounds) and measuring roughly 0.6 x 1.5 meters (2 by 5 feet), the camera is perfectly equipped for imaging the surface of Mars in unprecedented detail. Its resolution can feature something the size of a desk in a shot that’s 6 km (3.7 miles) wide.

The image above features an area of the canyon called the Tithonium Chasma. If you look at it closely, you’ll see diagonal slashes on the slope — fissures of an unknown origin.

These fissures could be indicative of ancient cycles of freezing and thawing, some researchers believe.

In this top-down view, afternoon sunlight picks out subtle east-west trending ridges in the east-facing slope. Image credits: NASA/JPL/UArizona.

But it’s not clear just how the canyon was produced. According to NASA, Mars is too hot and too dry to have had a river big enough to create this type of canyon. However, it is possible that flowing water could have deepened and widened existing canyons — and we know that Mars likely had massive rivers that flowed for billions of years.

The European Space Agency put forth another theory: that a large portion of the canyon was cracked open billions of years ago, when a group of volcanoes started undergoing massive eruptions. After the original shape of the canyon was produced thusly, water could have come in and done the rest. Researchers from the University of Arizona have also suggested that landslides could have helped widen the canyon. The formation of the canyon is also thought to be connected to the Tharsis Bulge — a vast volcanic plateau in the vicinity of the canyon, home to the three largest volcanoes in the solar system.

A topographic map of the Tharsis region (shown in shades of red and brown) and the Valles Marineris canyon, in its eastern region. Image credits: NASA.

This type of high-resolution images is exactly what can help geologists fine-tune their theories of how the canyon was formed. To a geologist, minute details such as sedimentation patterns and fissure systems can be important clues regarding the evolution of the canyon system, and Mars itself.

Valles Marineris topographic view constructed from MOLA altimetry data. Image credits: NASA.

These are some of the most awesome wildlife photos of 2020

Agora, an app where amateur and professional photographers can share their unique vision of the world, invited its users to submit snaps of animals for a contest called #Animals2020. They eventually received 13,888 submissions, which were narrowed down to a shortlist of 50 contestants after the app’s users held a vote. From fluffy cows to relatable primates, there’s something for everyone. Here are some of the best photos from the contest.

Winner: ‘Iguana’ by @jjnmatt (Indonesia). ‘The iguana conveys the beauty and uniqueness of nature,’ said the photographer.
Location: Surin, Thailand. ‘The province of Surin is well-known for its elephants. Traveling to this province would be incomplete without a visit to the Ban Ta Klang Elephant village. I wanted to show how the elephants have become symbols of beauty, grace and elegance despite their gigantic size,’ said photographer @mannylibrodo (Philippines).
Location: Indonesia. Credit: @jordisark (Spain).
Location: Kebun binatang Taman Satwa Jurug, Indonesia. ‘Jurug Zoo is a popular destination for our local community and is often used for educational purposes for students to introduce animals and the environment,’ said photographer @cymot (Indonesia).
Location: Armenian Church, Old Dhaka, Bangladesh. ‘My friend and I were chatting on the forecourt of the church. I noticed this dog lying on his master’s grave. Immediately I went home to look for my camera and, with the permission of the church officials, took the picture,’ @saiful0007 (Bangladesh).
Location: Australia. Credit: @olmospatricia (Spain).
Location: Jakarta, Indonesia. Credit: @pitokung (Indonesia).
Location: Kamchatka, Russia. Credit: @hi.jewi (Germany).
Location: Sevilla zoo, Spain. Credit: @mohamedtazi (Morroco).
Location: Dobbiaco Lake, Italy. By @alan_gallo (Italy).

Location: Cisarua, Indonesia. Credit: @irawansubingar (Indonesia).
Location: Imire Rhino & Wildlife Conservation, Zimbabwe. Credit: @_kennyc_ (UK).
Location: Sipadan Island, Malaysia. Credit: @alexdemartin (Spain).
Location: Chamonix, France. ‘I was so happy to spot my first ibex. After hiking for an hour and a half, I began to doubt I would see any. Literally one minute later, at the bend of a large rock, he was there, grazing his grass quietly right next to me!’ said photorapher @onkwelphoto (France).
Location: Gondwana Game Reserve, South Africa. Credit: @frenchcliche (South Africa).

Location: Kedoya Utara, Indonesia. Credit: @prabuds (Indonesia).
Location: Chongqing, China. Credit: @johnnydee (China).
Location: Moremi Game Reserve, Botswana. Credit: @superiaia (Italy).
Location: Etosha, Namibia. Credit:  @freeilli (Italy).

Location: Smoker Island, Wales, UK. ‘I love wildlife and wildlife photography with a passion I wanted to capture unique, powerful portrait of a puffin this was caught my eye and stood tall for perfect puffin portrait,’ said photographer @hb_photography (UK).
Location: Iceland. ‘I went looking for this little one for days, when suddenly through the glass of the car and I saw it perched on a slope. I ran and lay a meter from it while I was eating, that’s how I managed to catch this magnificent moment,’ said photographer @photoepb (Spain).
Location: Murtosa, Portugal. ‘Here is farmer Silvina with her Black turkey, which was brought to Portugal about 500 years ago when Spanish discoverers returned from their first forays into Central America,’ said @jorgebacelar (Portugal).
Location: Germany. Credit: @leo.wies (Germany).
Location: Dublin, Ireland. Credit: @Silvija_Collins (Ireland).
Location: Jaipur, India. ‘The rhesus macaque’s typical diet consists of roots, fruits, seeds, and bark, but also insects and small animals,’ said photographer @beyond_imagina (India).
Location: Machu Picchu, Peru. Credit: @josuozkaritz (Spain).
Location: Kruger National Park, South Africa. Credit: @joeshellyy (UK).
Location: UK

Location: Breeding Panda Center, Chengdu, China. ‘It was a rainy day without many pandas walking around. What could I do, impossible to force a wild animal to show up or to pose! I was already grateful to visit this place and support those wonderful animals. Suddenly, the young panda went out from the forest. This was the best moment I remember and I was glad I could have captured it in my camera,’ said photographer @polatina (Poland).
Location: Berkeley Deer Park, Berkeley, Gloucestershire, UK. Credit: @danrose (UK).

Breathtaking underwater photographs document the hidden lives of humpback whales

Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) are some of the most charismatic creatures of the world, thanks to their frequent aerial acrobatic displays and elaborate songs. Every year, these gentle giants migrate from their summer feeding grounds to their winter breeding grounds, and some people are blessed enough to cross paths with them.

Sydney-based photographer Jem Cresswell spent so much time submerged in the southern Pacific Ocean with these humpback whales, he could have easily passed as one of their calves.

For four years between 2014 and 2018, Cresswell took countless shots of humpbacks and their calves off the coast of Tonga, capturing the majestic marine creatures in never-before-seen intimate poses. His incursions into the secret lives of humpbacks have been documented in a 220-page photo book called Giants — and the author has been gracious enough to share some of the book’s material in this article.

“I grew up exploring the rugged desolate coastline of The Great Australian Bight, surfing, diving, and camping with friends. This sense of escape and freedom grew my love of the ocean.

Below the surface it feels like you’re entering another world, it’s such a multi-sensory experience and there is always something new to see. I initially found it quite intimidating, but now I am in awe of what lives below,” Cresswell told ZME Science.

“I now live on the east coast of Australia where every year numerous whales travel past on migration to the warmer breeding grounds of the pacific. I was initially drawn to humpback whales due to their gentle nature, sheer size, and the feeling of insignificance in their presence. I began this project with the aim of creating portrait images of the humpback whale with eye contact with the camera, on lenses that I would normally use in the studio to photograph the portrait of a human. I wanted to try and capture the expressive emotions and individual personalities of these gentle giants.”

“There is very little you can control underwater, except for the technical side of your camera and your body language. You are at the mercy of the elements, and of the wildlife, which makes it all the more rewarding when everything comes together. The biggest challenge was the pure amount of time out on the water. To have the opportunity to capture the portrait style images I envisioned required a genuinely curious whale to come over to investigate you, which is where the moments of eye contact and interaction were evident. Every encounter with a humpback whale is unique. The possibility of what you might capture is endless, especially when you let these incredible creatures dictate the terms of the interaction,” Cresswell said.

“One of my most memorable moments was with a mother humpback and her young calf. After watching them for a long time, we entered the water from a distance, just floating silently, observing and keeping our heart rate down. After about 15 minutes, we edged closer in short increments, watching their behaviour. Initially mum kept an eye on us, but before long she was closing it, completely relaxed, resting below the surface,” Creswell recounted.

“The small calf was atop mum’s head, using its pectoral fins to hold on. Every so often mum would gently lift the calf to the surface to breathe. The calf would then swim underneath its mother and feed, before taking its place back atop her head. After a while, the calf closed its eyes and rested. The bond between the mother whale and her calf was undeniable and it was a beautiful exchange to witness first hand.”

“Over the following weeks, we swam with the same mum and calf on several occasions. It was amazing to see how much the calf had grown and the confidence she had developed. It’s experiences like this that will always draw me to nature and have taught me a greater appreciation for all life on this planet.”

Humpbacks are famous for their exuberant and haunting songs. These complex, lengthy, and distinctive songs are relayed by males to communicate their presence to females and entice them to mate. These sounds range from canary-like chirps to deep rumblings sounds that can be sensed from hundreds of kilometers away. Each humpback population has different songs, and every year the songs change subtly.

“One of the things that fascinate me is that only the male humpbacks sing the complex songs. All of the male humpbacks migrating to the same breeding ground sing the same song, though it may evolve over time. Every few years the song is retired, and a completely new song is created. A study of whale song over a 19-year period has shown that whilst there can be some general patterns, the exact combination of sounds are never repeated. I have been in the water near a male humpback singing, and it was so loud it was causing my whole body to vibrate on the deeper tones,” Cresswell said.

Humpback whales were nearly hunted to extinction once. A 1985 ban on commercial whaling has since helped some populations rebound, although their numbers haven’t nearly recovered to their historical highs. Today, the biggest threats to humpbacks are collisions with ships and entanglement in fishing gear.

“It is amazing to be witnessing the humpback whale numbers slowly recovering, especially after an estimated 200,000 humpback whales were butchered between 1904 and 1980, seeing the global population reduced by 90%. There so much more to be learned from these intelligent and complex creatures. They are worth so much more alive,” Cresswell said.

Cresswell is currently working on a project celebrating the beauty of a particular species found on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. This project will have an exhibition series, as well as a large video and sound installation, to help people immerse themselves in the experience, the artist told ZME Science.

You can learn more about Jem Cresswell’s projects and buy Giants on his website. Follow Jem on Instagram for more breathtaking underwater photography.

All the photos in this article have been shared with permission from Jem Cresswell. For those curious, he used a Canon 5DS R, 24-70mm F2.8L II and 16-35mm F4L in an Aquatech underwater housing.

These adorable tiny pygmy possums are still alive after the Australian bushfires

The devastating Australian bushfires of 2019-2020 harmed up to 3 billion animals, burning almost half the country in the process. Many species, including the pygmy possum, were feared extinct. Now, for the first time since the fires, one possum has been found, raising hopes that the species may yet survive.

A little pygmy possum, found on Kangaroo Island, amid fears they had all perished in a bushfire . Photograph: Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife.

I’m not crying, you’re crying

It’s hard to overstate just how devastating the Australian bushfires were. We won’t even try to do that. But as the ashes settle on the passed bushfire season, some good news is emerging.

The pygmy possum, one of the smallest possums in the world, was feared extinct, but recently, the conservation group Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife found the little pygmy during their recent conservation efforts on Kangaroo Island.

Measuring just 10 cm (4 in) and weighing about 7 grams (around 0.01 lbs), this adorable critter is a survivor. It’s “the first documented record of the species surviving post-fire,” fauna ecologist Pat Hodgens told the Guardian. The fire burned down 88% of their predicted habitat range, so they’re extremely vulnerable, but at the very least, there is hope.

When you look like this, you must be protected at all costs.

There have only been 113 formal records of the species on the island, ecologist Pat Hodgens told My Modern Met, and studying these cute munchkins is difficult due to their size. However, Hodgens told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that the ecologists are trying “to do everything we can to protect them to ensure that they hang around during this pretty critical time.”

The pygmy possums are not out of the woods by any chance. They’re still possibly compromised as a species, not just because their habitat was destroyed, but because this also opens the way for invasive predators to enter the scene — something which is not lacking in Australia.

Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife surveyed 20 different sites on the island, finding a handful of other species, including brush-tailed possums, tammar wallabies, a Bribons toadlet, and southern brown bandicoots.

It’s not clear what state the environment is in, and pygmy possums are just one of the species that have been devastated by the bushfires. Researchers are hard at work assessing the scale of the damage and what conservation measures would be most effective.

Even if the species does recover, it will likely take decades before things return to the way they were. Even then, there’s no guarantee that an upcoming bushfire season won’t undo all the progress, causing even more damage.

Researchers expect the bushfire season to get even worse as a result of climate change. While climate change itself does not cause fires, it creates suitable conditions for them by drying the leaves and the soil.