Imaging Earth, 2012 vs. 1972

NASA has released a phenomenal image:

Big Blue Marble 2012

Big Blue Marble, 2012 Edition. Click through and download the hi-res image to zoom in. It's worth your time.

Taken by the the Suomi NPP spacecraft on January 4. Ball Aerospace built the NPP spacecraft; the instrument, the snappily named Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS), is Goddard’s work. Unbelievable.

If it looks vaguely familiar, that’s Earth. It’s kind of camera-shy, and when we’re focused on vital issues like the latest Romney-Gingrich throwdown in Florida, it doesn’t much have to worry about the paparazzi. But Apollo 17 astronauts famously caught it off guard nearly 40 years ago, on December 17, 1972.

Big Blue Marble, 1972

Big Blue Marble, 1972 edition

The above shot is credited with changing the way we look at Earth. The astronauts talked about how vulnerable our home appeared. They had a wide-angle view, and it was one blue marble and a helluva lot of killer black space.

One thing the newer image brings that the first didn’t is the wisp of atmosphere. It’s a halo, really.

Neither image deigns to recognize our physical presence. We seem invisible, all seven billion of us, our roads, bridges, buildings, bases, factories, mines, airports, warehouses, malls, everything. Many among us still can’t fathom that we can have a global impact. Looking at these shots, it’s not hard to understand why.

It’s befitting that our biggest global impact is invisible to us, too — gases, CO2 primarily, colorless, odorless, necessary for life on Earth, but also a risk to sea life (acidification) and sea-shore life (beachfront condos). That impact is very real, very measurable. If you don’t trust science, go see a faith healer next time you have strep throat.

But check out how thin that atmosphere is. A NOAA scientist — actually this guy (congratulations, Russ) — once described it to me as a sheet of paper on a standard basketball-size globe. Look how beautiful that planet is. Think about how we’re a part of it. How, far from being lords of it, our presence, from a few thousand miles away, can’t even be seen — only felt.

Peak Oil Happened Already, but also Not

Scientific American’s David Biello, a sharp observer of clean (and less-clean) energy, posted this piece on peak oil yesterday. The long and short of it is peak oil (the moment when we’ve collectively burned as much oil — about a trillion barrels — as is left in the ground) actually happened in 2005.

Peak oil is important because, the thinking goes, the specter of  future scarcity will drive up prices and generally gum up the oil-dependent world’s economic works.

The wrinkle is that the 2005 peak-oil depends on it being defined as (relatively) easy-to-extract oil, or maybe oil reserves as geologists would have recognized them in the 1970s. With unconventional reserves like Canadian tar sands, production has been able to keep pace with rising demand from places like China and India. The pace of consumption also will play a role in how peak oil plays out: the more utterly dependent, the worse the withdrawal, meaning an electrified, or semi-electrified, fleet will help matters. The article’s well worth a look.

Eric Schlosser at Colorado Conservation Voters

Eric Schlosser, the author of “Fast Food Nation” and other books, keynoted the Colorado Conservation Voters‘ annual luncheon today. The influential author was addressing an influential audience — Gov. John Hickenlooper, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, U.S. Reps. Diana Degette and Ed Perlmutter, regional EPA director Jim Martin, and a slew of state house and senate members enjoyed pork chops locally raised free range chicken and speeches in the Grand Hyatt Denver’s Imperial Ballroom. I was part of a two-table Beth Conover posse. Not sure there was a Republican in the hall, which is a shame. The biosphere knows no politics.

[Addendum, courtesy Beth: For the record, I’m pretty sure there were several Republicans in the room- including a weld county commissioner/ tea partier who spent quite awhile talking with Eric after the talk, some rancher/ land conservation folks and at least a few oil & gas reps who visibly cringed at several points (!).]

Michael Pollan writes about our relationships with food; Schlosser is about food’s relationship with the planet. While he views climate change as “a nightmarish possibility,” the storyteller recognizes a better yarn when he sees one, and urged the environmentalists in the room to move away from this “very abstract” problem and think closer to home. “Food is not abstract,” he said. “We eat three meals a day.”

Indeed, agriculture is his doorway into environmentalism. He reminded the audience that half of Colorado’s land is covered with farms and ranches. Of the farms, 100,000 acres are organic, he said. Sounds like a lot. But it’s 0.33% of the Colorado total, he said.

Schlosser said he views organic farming as embodying “a humility towards nature.” Ranchers call it “holistic resource management.” The focus is the soil because what’s in the soil is in the crops is in the animals is in the people. We are soil long before we reunite with it. Lester Brown and others have gone into great detail about the dire state of this eroding, compacting lifeblood.

Without naming names, Schlosser blasted Monsanto and its Roundup-Ready genetically modified crops. The crops give soybeans, alfalfa, corn, canola and sugarbeets superplant abilities to survive onslaughts of Roundup weed killer (active ingredient glyphosate). Farmers use eight times more of the stuff than they 10 yeras ago, he said, and despite assurance that it biodegrades, it’s showing up in soils, watersheds, even raindrops, Schlosser said.

He urged the environmental advocates to get involved with food issues. As his listeners finished hundreds of chops from feedlot-raised pigs their meals, Schlosser reminded: “We don’t need to be pure to be effective.”

Five bucks well spent

The CU Center for Environmental Journalism forwarded a note with this link this morning, to a Wired.com article about how Al Gore and Push Up Press are aiming to “blow up the book.” As someone who recently wrote a book and then converted it into Kindle and ePub formats, this caught my attention. Push Up Press, founded by two former Apple guys, has created an app for books, as opposed using the Amazon Kindle or ePub formats, which are all HTML (standard web language) based. “Our Choice” is their inaugural product.

It’s amazing what they’ve done with “Our Choice,” Al Gore’s 2009 book. The print version is full of great images and artfully done, and a great place to start if you’re looking for a rundown on renewable energy technologies, biofuels, energy efficiency approaches, political and sociocultural considerations, population and environmental issues and other facts of the climate change mitigation/adaptation puzzle. This app, which I bought for my wife’s (well, mostly my wife’s) iPad and which, for the moment costs, $4.99, brings the graphics to life; lets you click on photos to understand exactly where Shishmaref, Alaska or Guazhou, China are; and has embedded videos as well as animations in which with Gore narrates how wind turbines, geothermal plants, solar concentrators and so on work. This iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch version has also been editorially updated and has tons more pictures than the book (such as of wind turbines in Guazhou, China).

Whether the “Our Choice” app is a model for the future of e-publishing, I don’t know. The book’s topics are visual and topical, and they lend themselves to multimedia. Publishers will have to invest more in their books to make this standard. A novel about an Elizabethan-era romance won’t gain much by it. Reading fiction and narrative nonfiction is ultimately about visualizing scenes in the mind, the ultimate multimedia tool. It must have cost a fortune to create this thing.

It’s also not searchable, at least as far as I can tell, and while the scroll bar at bottom’s pretty useful, there’s no table of contents page that gives a quick overview.

But man, is it worth the five bucks.