From sprawl to destruction, Ellina Webb discusses what we can observe from space.

Venturing into space does not appeal to me. The whole saga sounds like a dangerous endeavour and life up there in zero gravity does not sound much fun either – vacuumed dinners, daily exercise and disorientation. The only element that slightly appeals (along with the peace and quiet) is how wonderful it must be to look out of the window and see that view of Earth in all its circular glory.

The crew of Apollo 17 on their way to the moon captured the first image of earth in 1972 from a distance of about 26,000km and since then the image has marvelled us earthly inhabitants.

However, this means that since 1972 we have been able to monitor the changes happening across the globe, which in some cases are awe-inspiring, and in other cases are frighteningly worrying. We have been able to observe these changes not only due to astronauts taking photographs but also due to space programmes such as Landsat, which also launched in 1972. The Landsat satellites include instruments that take millions of images in order to provide a resource for global changes.

The global change phenomenon

While at University, my class watched a film called Koyaanisqatsi, which means life out of balance. The film is 86 minutes of slow motion and time-lapse images of the landscape of earth. The film essentially highlights how our planet has shifted its environment from slow rural to super-fast paced urban, sucking up the natural resources and poisoning the beauty with chemicals and pollution. As hard hitting as it is, the film is as a relevant now as when it was created in 1982 – a poignant period because this was a decade when “humankind first came to a broad understanding of the causes and dangers of climate change”.

We can see these changes happening here on earth, we can observe them on the news, see protests in our cities and feel inspired by the youth and people like Greta Thunberg who are forcing our governments to open their eyes to the problem.

But from space, I want to look into which changes are affecting our world so much that astronauts and satellites are able to shape our perspective from miles away….

1. Changing glacier behaviour

Thanks to cameras in space, glacier behaviour can be observed at a much large scale. This includes things like thinning, recession and ice stream velocity.

Quite a few times now I have scrolled on Twitter and seen time-lapse videos of our glaciers and ice sheets from space, moving and changing over the seasons and as global temperatures rise. In 2019, scientists released images of Alaska, Greenland and Antarctica to show how NASA satellites could illustrate the dramatic changes of glaciers in these regions. The changes included recession starting in 2000, meltwater ponds spreading to higher elevations in the past 10 years (which could speed up ice flow) and hidden lakes beneath the Antarctic ice shelves.

Greenland’s glaciers for example retreated at an average of 3 miles a year between 1985 and 2005.

2. A burning planet

Cameras in space can also track large-scale wildfires, most notably and recently the Australian wildfires which began in September 2019. More than 100 wildfires burned on the southeast coast, killing 28 people, and 1 billion animals. shows the images from space that highlight the clouds of smoke, taken by an astronaut on the International Space Station, 269 miles above Earth. The images are fascinating and further satellite images taken by NASA show further details of this using infrared to highlight the movement of the smoke across the ocean.

3. Urban sprawl

As with environmental changes and disasters, what we can see from space also relates to human movement or ‘urban sprawl’ as it is commonly labelled. Urban spread or sprawl is the expanse of urban areas due to migration from the countryside to towns and cities.

This article in Wired from 2012 shows images of city growth, as seen from space, between 1984 and 2011. Much like with the Koyaanisqatsi film, these images show human impact on our landscape, which amplifies at an alarming rate. One of the easiest cities to be observed in this way in Las Vegas which due to its desert location has made it easy to see both the expanse in human development and of green irrigated plant growth.

The video of this growth can be viewed on YouTube and for any retro gaming fans, it makes sin city look like Sim City!

Ellina Webb Ellina Webb Marketing Services Manager

4. Deforestation

Last year saw an estimated 72,000 fires in the Amazon rainforest however, this was due to deforestation and farmers using fire to clear the land.

According this article on the Guardian, every year around 18 million hectares of forest is destroyed. This means in 40 years around 1 billion hectares, the equivalent of Europe, has been taken away. Satellite images show that across parts of Asia, Southern American and Africa, fast acceleration of deforestation can be observed.

5. Shrinking of the Great Barrier Reef

In the 90’s marine biologists started to notice that coral reefs were shrinking and in 2015 NASA backed an experiment called CORAL which meant that using NASA instruments they could observe and map the changes from space.

The positive element of this is that now researchers, marine biologists and environmental organisations can work together to reduce the causes by looking at ways to speed up coral recovery from damage.

Of course, issues like increasing water temperatures caused by climate change are hard to combat and in many cases the technologies does not exist to fight this. Over the past few years, the concern over the 2/3 degree increase in global temperature since pre-industrial levels will be catastrophic to coral reefs potentially destroying them completely.

Which makes me wonder how our Earth will look from space in 50 years’ time!

Final thoughts

Thankfully, I do not have to travel into space to see the amazing images captured from above. Moving storms, lit up cities and all sorts of fascinating things can be captured in high definition and served directly to my computer screen – even Microsoft likes to put them as my screensaver.

If you too like to see how our earth is changing, I recommend you follow some Astronauts on Twitter, here are a few of my favourites:

Luca Parmitano, Italian Astronaut from ESA who is now back on Earth

Chris Hadfield, American astronaut from NASA who is now back on earth

Christina Koch, American astronaut from NASA who is now back on earth

Andrew Morgan, currently on board the International Space Station

Tim Peake, British astronaut from ESA who is now back in space

To access the social media pages of all active NASA astronauts, they can be found here

Or to go straight to the International Space Station, you can follow them here

Ellina Webb is Marketing Services Manager