Aquarius Launches to Survey Earth's Salty Sea

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Joe Witte
filed this report from the media viewing site at Vandenberg Air Force Base shortly before the Aquarius satellite blasted successfully into space

More than a dozen reporters from Argentina are either standing or slowly moving about trying to stay warm while waiting for the launch of the Aquarius satellite. The low cloud deck over Vandenberg Air Force Base in California puts a damper on their spirits after traveling all the way from South America to see a Delta II rocket quickly disappear on it’s way to an orbit 400 miles above the earth.


Scientists from Argentina collaborated with NASA researchers to develop a highly specialized instrument to measure the amount of salt in the world’s oceans. It has taken nearly three decades of research and technical development to get to this point. Thirty years of work will disappear into the fog in a couple of seconds.


If all goes well after about 30 days of testing and calibrating, the satellite will be sending down valuable data on the salinity of the oceans.

The amount of salt in a parcel of water, along with the water’s temperature, determines the buoyancy of a parcel or body of water. For instance, along the southern east coast of the US the Gulf Stream becomes very salty because the tropical sun warms the ocean surface and produces evaporation from the ocean.Evaporation leaves salt behind in the ocean water at the surface leaving the Gulf Steam especially salty.

The salty water cools as the Gulf Stream flows into the northern areas off Canada with colder air temperatures. Cold temperatures and high salinity result in dense water, which slowly sinks into the depths of the northern Atlantic. This process is what drives the deep ocean circulation around the whole Earth. Since 70 percent of the planet is ocean the effects on climate are very significant. 

Over the coming years, climate scientists and oceanographers expect to make many new discoveries with Aquarius data.

Top image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls. Lower image credit: NASA/Joe Witte. Text by Joe Witte.

A Mesmerizing Tour of Earth

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This mesmerizing tour of Earth, narrated by a scientist from Johnson Space Center’s Crew Earth Observations Office, offers an extraordinary view of the surface from the vantage point of an astronaut orbiting on the International Space Station.

Curious to learn more about some of the areas highlighted? Here’s a list of what, to me, at least, are eye-popping shots of some of the same places as seen by instruments aboard the many unmanned satellites that also orbit Earth.

A three-dimensional view of dunes in the Namib Desert
The four-mile Tin Bider impact crater plus a sea of dunes in Algeria
A massive dust plume blowing off the Tunisian coast 
Madagascar with Tropical Storm Manou slamming its eastern coast 
A volcanic ash cloud streaming from Sicily’s Mount Etna
A series of eruptions from snow-covered Kamchatka Peninsula
Eastern China blanketed by haze
The greening of an alluvial fan in Iran
A chain of Australian islands as seen by Landsat
Hurricane Florence swirling in the Atlantic
The divided waters of the Great Salt Lake colored by algae
The Missouri River spilling over its banks
The confluence of the Ohio and the Mississippi Rivers
Big Bend’s complex geological history
Shallow waters encircling the reefs of the Bahamas
The Andes pockmarked with stratovolcanoes
Thunderstorms forming over Brazil
The source of the Amazon River


Text by Adam Voiland. Imagery published originally by the Earth Observatory

Fires Rage in Siberia

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Hundreds of fires raged in eastern Russia and Siberia over the weekend. On Sunday, Russia’s Emergency Ministry reported that around 100,000 hectares were ablaze. The flare-up follows devastating fires that struck western Russia last summer. Those fires began in the wake of an extended heat wave generated by an unusual blocking high that disrupted the jet stream and left the region parched for weeks. 

Bill Lau of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center has investigated the nature of last summer’s blocking high and found evidence that the same weather system produced downpours in Pakistan that led to record-breaking flooding in that region. 

NASA’s Terra satellite retrieved the image above with MODIS on Sunday, May 22nd.  

For the Swollen Mississippi the Atchafalaya Beckons

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The storms that recently sent a rash of tornadoes through the South have produced historic flooding along the Mississippi River. Over the weekend, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened the Morganza Spillway in Louisiana for just the second time since buidling the structure in 1954.

Though the action will likely lessen damage in the major cities of New Orleans and Baton Rouge, opening the Morgananza will inundate thousands of square kilometers of land and displace between 30,000 and 60,000 people as spillover swells the Atchafalaya River.

The Atchafalaya, as the New Yorker’s John McPhee explains in masterly fashion in The Control of Nature, is on the verge of capturing the Mississippi’s flow. The Army Corps of Engineers diverts just 30 percent of the Mississippi’s water into the Atchafalaya, though the natural inclination of the Mississippi is to jump its banks and flow into the shorter and steeper Atchafalaya channel.

McPhee, in an essay that’s as relevant today as it when it was first published in 1987, describes the daunting challenge engineers face in trying to keep the Mississippi within its banks. It makes for sobering reading, but the essay makes an excellent complement to the series of satellite photos NASA’s Earth Observatory has released chronicling the flooding.

In the excerpt below, McPhee describes the Mississippi’s tendency to shift its course in swift and dramatic ways:

The Mississippi River, with its sand and silt, has created most of Louisiana, and it could not have done so by remaining in one channel. If it had, southern Louisiana would be a long narrow peninsula reaching into the Gulf of Mexico. Southern Louisiana exists in its present form because the Mississippi River has jumped here and there within an arc about two hundred miles wide, like a pianist playing with one hand—frequently and radically changing course, surging over the left or the right bank to go off in utterly new directions. Always it is the river’s purpose to get to the Gulf by the shortest and steepest gradient. As the mouth advances southward and the river lengthens, the gradient declines, the current slows, and sediment builds up the bed. Eventually, it builds up so much that the river spills to one side. Major shifts of that nature have tended to occur roughly once a millennium. The Mississippi’s main channel of three thousand years ago is now the quiet water of Bayou Teche, which mimics the shape of the Mississippi. Along Bayou Teche, on the high ground of ancient natural levees, are Jeanerette, Breaux Bridge, Broussard, Olivier—arcuate strings of Cajun towns. Eight hundred years before the birth of Christ, the channel was captured from the east. It shifted abruptly and flowed in that direction for about a thousand years. In the second century a.d., it was captured again, and taken south, by the now unprepossessing Bayou Lafourche, which, by the year 1000, was losing its hegemony to the river’s present course, through the region that would be known as Plaquemines. By the nineteen-fifties, the Mississippi River had advanced so far past New Orleans and out into the Gulf that it was about to shift again, and its offspring Atchafalaya was ready to receive it. By the route of the Atchafalaya, the distance across the delta plain was a hundred and forty-five miles—well under half the length of the route of the master stream.

For the Mississippi to make such a change was completely natural, but in the interval since the last shift Europeans had settled beside the river, a nation had developed, and the nation could not afford nature. The consequences of the Atchafalaya’s conquest of the Mississippi would include but not be limited to the demise of Baton Rouge and the virtual destruction of New Orleans. With its fresh water gone, its harbor a silt bar, its economy disconnected from inland commerce, New Orleans would turn into New Gomorrah. Moreover, there were so many big industries between the two cities that at night they made the river glow like a worm. As a result of settlement patterns, this reach of the Mississippi had long been known as “the German coast,” and now, with B. F. Goodrich, E. I. du Pont, Union Carbide, Reynolds Metals, Shell, Mobil, Texaco, Exxon, Monsanto, Uniroyal, Georgia-Pacific, Hydrocarbon Industries, Vulcan Materials, Nalco Chemical, Freeport Chemical, Dow Chemical, Allied Chemical, Stauffer Chemical, Hooker Chemicals, Rubicon Chemicals, American Petrofina—with an infrastructural concentration equalled in few other places—it was often called “the American Ruhr.” The industries were there because of the river. They had come for its navigational convenience and its fresh water. They would not, and could not, linger beside a tidal creek. For nature to take its course was simply unthinkable. The Sixth World War would do less damage to southern Louisiana. Nature, in this place, had become an enemy of the state.

Text by Adam Voiland. Photographs published originally by NASA’s Earth Observatory.

Can Climate Change Fuel Tornadoes?

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Between April 25 and April 28, a record-breaking total of 362 tornadoes tore through the southeastern and central United States. Could climate change fuel such an unprecedented cluster of twisters? A number of commentators have addressed the question, but the most concise answer I’ve heard yet comes in the 36th minute of an On Point interview with NOAA tornado expert Harold Brooks. [The bolding is mine.]

On Point: When you look at the architecture of the weather that produced these storms can you tie it to global climate change? We’ve seen warning after warning saying that we may see an increase in storm conditions because of climate change.

Brooks: Well, the planet has undoubtedly warmed in the last 50 to 100 years. And it will undoubtedly continue to warm as greenhouse gases play a greater role. It’s not really clear what the connection is between tornadoes [and climate change] in particular. Some of the ingredients we look for in the production of supercells, such as the warm moist air at low levels, are going to increase in intensity and frequency and be supportive of supercell storms. On the other hand, one of the main predictions of climate change is that the equator to pole temperature difference will decrease because the poles will warm more than the equator. That’s related to the change of the winds with height term, which is one of the things that helps organize storms and make them more likely to produce tornadoes. That’s predicted to lessen as we go along. So we’ve got some ingredients that will be increasing in intensity and some that will be decreasing. If we look historically at the record and try to make some adjustments over the last 50 years for what we know is changes in reporting, we really see no correlation between occurrence and intensity and global surface temperatures or even the US national temperature.

While scientists will surely continue to study this, one thing is quite certain: When tornadoes do come along, NASA will do all it can to track and monitor them and their aftermath using satellites and other assets. On May 2, 2011, for example, the NASA Earth Observatory reported that the Advanced Land Imager (ALI) on NASA’s Earth Observing-1 (EO-1) satellite captured the natural-color image above of a massive tornado’s destructive path through Tuscaloosa.

The trail of damage stretched 80.3 miles (129.2 kilometers) long and as much as 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers) wide.The tan-toned, debris-filled path passes through the center of town, affecting both commercial and residential properties. The track passes south of Bryant Denny Stadium and just north of University Mall. The Tuscaloosa tornado caused more than 1,000 injuries and at least 65 deaths across several town and cities, the highest number of fatalities from a single tornado in the United States since May 25, 1955.      –Adam Voiland

For more information about this image, please visit this NASA Earth Observatory page.

Viva la (Geospatial) Revolution!

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Our hats are off to the folks at Penn State Public Broadcasting for explaining how mapping technologies are changing our world for the better with their 
Geospatial Revolution Project. Their latest video, the fourth in a series, features NASA Goddard’s Compton Tucker and Molly Brown. The best quote (emphasis mine) comes from Brown:“When you’re making decisions, you can’t just take anecdotal information. You need quantified, explicit information which really will let you determine: is this bad, is this really bad, so we don’t over respond, and we don’t ignore a real problem.” Whether you’re talking about anticipating famine, predicting a hurricane’s path, or mitigating climate change, Brown’s comments are right on target.  –Adam Voiland

The Home Frontier: Enter Our Earth Day Video Contest

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Everyone knows NASA as the space exploration agency. It’s easy to forget that exploring Earth is also exploring a celestial body. It is, in fact, the only planet we’ve ever been to — our Home Frontier.

For Earth Day 2011, we ask you to step back from the daily, incremental science results, and think about a larger question: What is inspiring to you about our home planet? What is important and vital about NASA’s exploration of Earth? Then, go capture that in a short web video.

Read more about The Home Frontier: NASA’s Earth Day Video Contest.

Get free footage of Earth from NASA to use in your video.

On Earth Day: A Look Back at System Z and the Early Days of EOS

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I get plenty of quizzical looks when I tell people I’m a NASA science writer who covers Earth science.

“Earth science? NASA?”

There’s often a pause for a few seconds as the person I’ve told mulls this over. For a surprising number of people, that combination of words doesn’t compute.

Often strings of questions follow: “Oh, so you must write about the Space Shuttle, right? Do you know how long it would take to send astronauts to Mars? Do you think there’s life on Titan?”

When I explain that most of what I write about involves unmanned Earth-observing satellites that monitor less exotic phenomena such as Earth’s weather and climate — not astronauts — it frequently comes as a let-down.

This week, however, I stumbled across a fascinating tidbit of NASA history that reminded me that the line between Earth science and manned spaceflight hasn’t always been so stark.

As I was looking back at the origins of NASA’s current fleet of Earth-observing satellites for a feature story about a soon-to-launch satellite called NPP, I did some reading about an intriguing plan to have manned spaceflight at the center of NASA’s Earth science efforts.

One of the early strategies proposed for monitoring Earth — developed in the late-1970s and early-1980s and dubbed System Z — called for the Space Shuttle to lift a series of Hubble-sized, polar-orbiting Earth-observing platforms into space. 

Spacewalking astronauts would assemble the massive platforms and perform regular maintenance on the instruments. The money for System Z  would have come from  Space Station Freedom (the NASA project that led eventually to the current International Space Station). If implemented, the ambitious plan would have been one of the most expansive projects NASA had ever undertaken and rival the Apollo program in scope and complexity.

Looking back, it was heady stuff. The goal was to make a broad suite of coordinated measurements that would parse out how the many components of the Earth system function as an interconnected whole.

However, the Challenger disaster — and the realization that large platforms were too risky — dealt System Z a serious blow. When NASA abandoned efforts to launch the Space Shuttle from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, a site  better than Cape Canaveral in Florida for achieving polar orbit, plans for an astronaut-tended Earth-observing platforms faded away as well.

But the dream of having satellites making a broad array of coordinated measurements from polar-orbiting platforms didn’t. It morphed instead, after a decades of downsizing and rescoping, into the current configuration of the Earth Observing System (EOS), a fleet of unmanned spacecraft that is anchored by the medium-sized flagships Terra, Aqua, and Aura. 

Today, more than a decade after the launch of the first EOS flagship, data from EOS satellites have revolutionized earth and climate science. Thousands of technical papers have been published based on EOS data and the satellites have helped pioneer a whole new branch of science called Earth Systems Science. 

Want to learn more about the early days of the EOS program? The NASA Earth Observer newsletter has been running a fascinating series of perspective pieces authored by the people who helped conceive it that make for good Earth Day reading. Here are a few of them:


Imagery
Top: This Earthrise photo was the first view of Earth captured by astronauts in lunar orbit. Credit: NASA

Middle: NASA’s constellation of Earth-observing satellites as of 2011. Credit: NASA
Bottom: An early sketch of “System Z.” Credit: Mark Abbott; Originally published by the Earth Observer


–Adam Voiland, NASA’s Earth Science News Team

Have the Last Four Summers and Winters Felt Warmer?

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During a congressional hearing in 1988, Goddard Institute for Space Studies climatologist James Hansen predicted that a perceptive person would be able to notice the climate was changing by the early 21st century. Has his prediction panned out? He digs into the topic in a discussion published this week on his website.


The short answer: yes, depending on where you live, you should be able to tell that in the last four years, for example, summers have been warmer than average. The last four winters have also been noticeably mild in most parts of the world. (Though it’s worth noting that the last two winters in the continental United States have actually been cooler than average).

Read on below to see how Hansen explains it in more detail. (I’ve excerpted some of the more accessible sections of the text and two graphs, but the full discussion is available here as a pdf.)  More context and details about trends in the global surface temperature record are also available.

This past winter, for the second year in a row, seemed pretty extreme in both Europe and the United States. So this is a good time to check quantitatively how seasonal climate change is stacking up against expectations.

People’s perception of climate change may be the most important factor determining their willingness to accept the scientific conclusion that humans are causing global warming (or global climate disruption, as you please). Itis hard to persuade people that they have lying eyes.

In the paperattached to my congressional testimony in 1988 (1) we asserted that theperceptive person would notice that climate was changing by the early21st century. Now we can check the degree to which the real world has lived up to this expectation. The answer will vary from one place to another, so let’s make a global map for this past winter. Each gridbox will be colored red, white or blue, depending on how the local temperature this past winter compared with the categories established by the 1951-1980 climatology.

Figure 7 (above) shows the result for the last four winters (summers in the Southern Hemisphere). To make the maps even more useful we use dark blue and dark red to show those places in which the temperature fell in the extreme (>2 standard deviations) category that occurred only a few percent of the time in the period of climatology1. The extreme cases are important because those are the ones that have greatest practical implications, especially for nature. Species are adapted to climate of the past, so a change to more extreme climates can be detrimental, especially if it occurs so rapidly that species cannot migrate to stay within tolerable climatic conditions.

The numbers on the top of the maps are the percent of the area falling in the five categories: very cold, cold, normal, hot, very hot. In the period of climatology those numbers averaged 2%, 31%, 33%, 31%, 2%, rounded to the nearest percent.

Figure 7 reveals, for example, that the past two winters in Northern Europe both fell in the category of “cold” winters, but not extreme cold. The area hot or very hot (51-73%) far exceeded the area with cold or very cold conditions in all four years (14-27%).

Figure 8 (top) shows results for Jun-Jul-Aug for each of the past four years. In both Jun-Jul- Aug and Dec-Jan-Feb it is apparent that the area falling in either the hot or very hot category totals 64-78% in agreement with our 1988 climate simulations.

The perceptive person who is old enough should be able to recognize that the frequency of unusually mild winters is now much greater than it was in the period 1951-1980. But mild winters may not have much practical impact. So a return to one or two colder than average winters may affect the public’s perception of climate change.

On the other hand, the huge increase in the area with extremely hot summers, from 2-3% in 1951-1980 to as much as 30-40 percent in recent years and most of the land area in 2010. If people cannot recognize that summers are becoming more extreme they may need to have their senses examined or their memories. Perhaps the people who do not recognize climate change are living in air-conditioned environments, which are restricted mainly to one species.

–Adam Voiland, NASA’s Earth Science News Team

Tsunami Hits Home for Goddard Scientist

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On March 11, Teppei Yasunari, 31, a visiting scientist at Goddard Space Flight Center, heard that a massive earthquake off the coast of Japan had rocked his homeland and unleashed a deadly tsunami. For Yasunari, an atmospheric scientist who studies the climate effects of tiny airborne particles called aerosols, the frantic days that followed have offered powerful lessons in both patience and science communication as Yasunari grappled with the news that one of his best friends was missing and that a nuclear plant in Fukushima prefecture seemed poised to send a plume of radioactive steam aloft. We sat down with Yasunari to hear his perspective on the disaster.

WoE: You are both an Earth scientist and Japanese. What went through your mind when you heard about the tsunami?

Yasunari: Like everybody, I was shocked. There are no words to describe it. It was hard to believe the video clips I was seeing on the web.

WoE: I know you grew up in Kyoto and Tsukuba, but have you spent any time in Sendai?

Yasunari: Some. I went to undergraduate college in Aomori prefecture, which is not so far from Sendai. I have visited friends who live in Sendai a number of times. 

WoE: Were your friends from college ok?

Yasunari: One of the first things I did after I heard the news was try to contact one of my best friends from Hirosaki University who now lives in Iwate prefecture, which is just immediately north of Miyagi prefecture, the prefecture the earthquake hit the hardest. I tried emailing and calling, but I couldn’t get through. All lines of communication were down. I tried calling friends of friends. Nothing worked. Finally, I registered his name in Google Person Finder.

WoE: How long were you in limbo?

Yasunari: About three days. Finally, I saw something on Person Finder that said he was probably ok. A friend of his from grade school had heard from somebody else that a firefighter had found him. I later heard through Person Finder that he’d been moved to someone’s home, but I still haven’t been able to email or call him. On March 22, I did get an e-mail directly from him. He said his house has been completely destroyed by the tsunami. It was such a relief to have finally heard from him directly.

WoE: I imagine you must have been glued to the Internet looking for information. 

Yasunari: Yes, especially Twitter, Facebook, and Japanese SNS. Since the phone and power is out in some parts of Japan, these sites are often the quickest way to get information. My personal Twitter feed is @TJ_Yasbee.

WoE: Did you look to Twitter for scientific information about what was going on with the earthquake and nuclear plant?

Yasunari: Yes. Actually something surprising happened on Twitter. Since I have studied the long range transport of aerosols, I calculated some air mass transport patterns using the NOAA atmospheric dispersion model called HYSPLIT when I heard about the possibility of a radioactive plume, I wanted to help, so I made some simple figures that showed what direction, based on the model, a plume might move.

WoE: And you tweeted the figures? 

Yasunari: Yes. I only had less than 300 followers at that point. However, a physicist from the University of Tokyo, Ryugo Hayano, saw the figures and contacted me by email. He ended up tweeting his comments with my figure to his more than 40,000 followers. Neither of us could have imagined how quickly that tweet spread. It wasn’t long before newspapers were contacting me to use the figures. I couldn’t believe it.

WoE: Forty-thousand followers is quite a lot for a scientist.

Yasunari: He is well known. He tweets from @hayano. Now he has more than 150,000 followers in just a couple of days because of the earthquake. 

WoE: Did you see a surge of followers on Twitter as well? 

Yasunari: Yes, originally I had about 300. Now I have more than 2,100.

WoE: How did people react to the figures?

Yasunari: The model I made the figures with has quite a coarse resolution, and it can’t show any more than a broad view of how a plume might move. But people in Japan are so worried about the threat of radiation and eager for information that some of them treated it like it was very fine resolution and accurate. 

WoE: So did the newspapers end up using the figure?

Yasunari: In the end, in consultation with a scientist from NOAA, we decided that it would be more confusing than helpful for the public. We asked the newspapers not to use them, and I took them down from Twitter. I learned a lot from this.

WoE: You can’t really delete a tweet, though, can you?

Yasunari: No, but I had tweeted it through Twitpics, and professor Hayano had use a similar site called Plixi, so we were able to take the figures down.

WoE: It certainly raises interesting questions about social media and science communication. Do you wish you had never tweeted the figure in the first place?

Yasunari: Yes and no. The tweet was intended just for my small number of followers, but I never realized how quickly it would spread. Of course, I expected it would spread some, but I didn’t expect it to go viral. In the future, I will be much more aware that the public doesn’t pay much attention to the uncertainties when I show a figure.

At the same time, I wish they would. Twitter and other social media can be a very convenient way for scientists to communicate, so I don’t want to say that scientists should never use social media or have a blog. I guess the best thing to do is try to find a balance between showing too much information and too little.

WoE: What about your family? Were they affected by the earthquake? 

Yasunari: I contacted my family immediately after the earthquake. They were fine because they live in a western part of Japan, about 500 miles away from Sendai. We were extremely lucky. My father, also a scientist, was supposed to be in Sendai on business the day of the earthquake. Fortunately, he canceled the trip the day before he was suppose to leave because he was busy with other things. 

WoE: How lucky. Does your father also study aerosols and climate? 

Yasunari: No, but he is also an atmospheric scientist. He focuses on meteorology and climatology related to Asian monsoons. In fact, he has collaborated with Bill Lau, the chief of the branch I’m in at Goddard. Both Bill Lau and my father are examining the idea that aerosols can have an important impact on the monsoons — a hypothesis called the “elevated heat pump.”

WoE: Is that a topic that you study as well?

Yasunari: In some ways, yes. I recently published a paper that will help quantify how much black carbon and dust are affecting the rate of Himalayan glacier retreat. Another study, led by a scientist from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, cited both my paper and my father’s paper at the same time. It was the first time double Yasunari reference in the same paper.

WoE: Thanks for talking to us, and best of luck to your friend.

Yasunari: You’re welcome.  I know Japan will overcome this difficult situation.

Top Image: A United States Air Force satellite observed the widespread loss of electricity in parts of northeastern Japan after the earthquake. The image, a composite, shows functioning electricity from 2010 and 2011. Red indicates power outages detected on March 12, 2011, compared to data from 2010. For more information about the map, please visit this page. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory/NOAA National Geophysical Data Center.

Middle Image: Teppei Yasunari in his office. Credit: NASA/Adam Voiland

Lower Image: A shaking intensity map based on USGS data shows ground motion at multiple locations across Japan during the earthquake. A shaking intensity of VI is considered “strong” and can produce “light damage,” while a IX on the scale is described as “violent” and likely to produce “heavy damage. For more information about the map, please visit this page.  Credit: NASA Earth Observatory/Rob Simmon & Jesse Allen

–Adam Voiland, NASA’s Earth Science News Team

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