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NASA satellite takes the pulse of a living Earth

Satellite image
Images from the SeaWIFS satellite allow scientists to monitor the effects of weather, temperature changes and other physical processes of life on Earth  
September 17, 1998
Web posted at: 11:11 p.m. EDT (0311 GMT)

In this story:

GREENBELT, Maryland (CNN) -- Exactly one year ago Friday, NASA scientists got their first look at images from a satellite that is designed to monitor plant life in the Earth's oceans.

Now, with an entire year's worth of images collected, NASA has put together a comprehensive "movie" that shows changing vegetation patterns around the world through an entire cycle of seasons.

"Like all living things, the Earth itself has a pulse," says NASA oceanographer Gene Feldman. "It pulses with the sun rising and setting; it pulses with the seasons; it pulses with changes from year to year."

"What we are able to do now is actually monitor the Earth's pulse, the Earth's living characteristics from space."

CNN's Ann Kellan reports on SeaWIFS
Windows Media 28K 56K

The satellite is called SeaWIFS, which stands for Sea-viewing Wide Field-of-view Sensor. It was launched in August 1997 on a five-year mission to study the abundance of phytoplankton in the Earth's oceans.

Phytoplankton are microscopic plants that form the base of the ocean's food chain. Phytoplankton, along with other marine plants, also produce a large portion of the oxygen needed to support animal life on Earth.

The idea behind SeaWIFS is that by monitoring how the biology of the Earth's oceans changes over time, scientists will be better able to predict how weather, temperature changes and other physical processes might affect life on Earth.

The Galapagos bloom

Oceanographers were particularly interested in watching how sea life responded to the recent El Niño, the warm water pool that formed in the equatorial Pacific, changing global weather patterns.

To do that, SeaWIFS scientists targeted the Galapagos Islands.

Microscopic phytoplankton, top, show up as red, green and yellow patches on SeaWIFS images  

"The Galapagos are these small islands that are about 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) to the west of South America, right across the equator, and they bear the brunt of El Niño," said Feldman.

"They are the first places that really feel the effect of El Niño, and during El Niño the oceans around the Galapagos really became a desert. Life in the Galapagos changed dramatically."

"The sea life disappeared, the fish disappeared and the iguanas that feed on marine algae were having a really hard time," he said.

But the ecology of the areas was able to bounce back with remarkable swiftness when El Niño ended in May 1998, and a cool water pool, known as La Nina, began to form.

"But what happened in May, ocean conditions changed very dramatically," says Feldman. "The cold, nutrient-rich waters returned to the Galapagos, and literally within days, the waters around the Galapagos, hundreds of thousands of square kilometers, just erupted biologically."

"Plants bloomed as if they've never bloomed before; it was remarkable to see."

Fires, floods and hurricanes, too

SeaWIFs project scientists were delighted from the beginning with the quality and clarity of the images.

It was also able to capture good pictures of terrestrial plants, as well as fires, floods and such weather phenomena as hurricanes.

New SeaWIFS images released Thursday include coastal areas all around the United States, including New York-New Jersey; Boston-Cape Cod; the Chesapeake Bay area; Cape Hatteras, North Carolina; Florida; Texas; Chicago and the Great Lakes; and the entire West Coast.

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