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Getting some distance on world events

Satellite images capture Earth in its natural glory and turbulence.

March 25, 2003|John Jurgensen | Hartford Courant

From 438 miles away, an ice floe into the world's largest glacier resembles a puddle of mercury raked by a comb. The delta of the Lena River in Siberia takes the form of a delicate, fanned coral. And deforestation in Bolivia is a benign checkerboard of pink-, turquoise- and coal-colored patches.

These are selections from the "Earth as Art" catalog, a series of satellite portraits of the planet. Recently, the U.S. Geological Survey forged a deal with LookClickPrint in Albuquerque to sell these pictures as frame-worthy prints -- abstract art from the physical world. Custom digitally printed images on archival paper or canvas cost from $100 to $900.

The USGS has peddled satellite prints on its own for some time. But this latest effort to sell views from above comes during turbulent times below.

War spreads across the Iraqi landscape while North Korea is priming its nuclear apparatus. The sub-rosa war on terrorism smolders across the globe. And new conflicts and crises boil up into the headlines daily.

Looking for some perspective on this world?

Try the vantage point of Landsat-7, the satellite that beamed down the streams of data that became the "Earth as Art" images.

"In a way, they're a form of found art," said David Terrell of the EROS Data Center, the South Dakota communications hub with the agency's eyes in the sky. "When you do come across an image like one of those, it can be as moving as any art, perhaps more than most because it's a picture of home."

Eager to show the taxpayers where their money goes, both the USGS and NASA make such remote sensing images widely available on the Web. One site maintained by NASA offers a unique service for surfers who want to take a long view of current events.

Like a space-based news service, the Earth Observatory's Natural Hazards page covers global turmoil of the (usually) natural variety. Broken down into categories (fires, floods, volcanoes, dust and smoke, etc.), images are updated almost daily.

On March 12, dust plumes blew out of the Sahara, sweeping across Morocco and the Canary Islands like a gritty veil. The next day, tropical cyclone Erica spun a violent drain in the South Pacific, and a large forest fire in southwest Australia choked the coastal skies with smoke.

Poring over the satellite's view of these beleaguered locales, the term "world news" takes on a different definition. Despite the machinations of humankind, the world makes news of its own.

The purpose of the Earth Observatory is to examine the cause and effects of global climate and environmental change. Another goal is to get the public interested in Earth observation as a hobby, to draw on a potential pool of inspired amateurs, much as the field of astronomy does, said David Herring, a science writer and chief editor of the Earth Observatory.

"There is a very diverse, very broad fan base" for this type of imagery, Herring said. Two surveys of the site's visitors reveal that more than half classified themselves as someone other than a scientist, teacher or journalist. "There's a segment of the general public that are heavy consumers of science content."

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