Extreme winter weather hit Texas hard this February. A mass of air from the Arctic extended deep into the United States from Canada, with disastrous consequences for the normally warm state. Along with snow and abnormally low temperatures, the state’s capacity to generate electricity has been severely reduced by weather-related equipment failures. Images hosted by NASA’s Earth Observatory show the effect of controlled, rolling power outages in the greater Houston area.
One image taken on February 7th shows Houston facing the arctic weather system, and another image, taken on February 16, shows large swaths of the city in the dark. The Earth Observatory conveniently superimposed the two images with a vertical slider that users can slide back and forth to highlight the effects of the power outages (or in low light).
The left picture shows Houston on the 7th before arctic weather. The right picture shows the effects of power outages on September 16. Take a look at the interactive comparison of NASA’s Earth Observatory in higher resolution. Credit NASA Earth Observatory
Each of these images is made up of night light data overlaid with Landsat images to make the city structure visible under the lights. The night light data comes from the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite or VIIRS. This instrumentation suite is aboard the Suomi National Polar-Orbiting Partnership (Suomi NPP) spacecraft.
VIIRS data is also used in NASA’s Black Marble, a program that studies the earth at night. Night light data is collected and processed by Black Marble in a variety of situations and for different events, such as the devastating impact of Hurricane Dorian 2019 on the Bahamas.
2016 Black Marble Image of the Earth at Night Photo Credit: NASA / Black Marble
Along with images of rolling blackouts in Texas in February 2021, the Earth Observatory released a global temperature map for February 15, focusing on North America, the heart of the continent. Dallas recorded a cooling temperature of only -16 ° C (4 ° F), which is lower than most of the high temperatures the Curiosity rover measured at Gale Crater on Mars!
Data from the Goddard Earth Observing System (GEOS) model was used to create this map of North America showing the extreme arctic weather on February 15, 2021. Credit NASA / GEOS
For those fascinated by satellite imagery of the Earth, it is worth digging deeper into what the Earth Observatory is up to. For example, users can explore this extraordinary global map. It features spectacular imagery and related stories for points around the world. Thousands of interactive points allow you to spend hours exploring incredibly detailed satellite imagery. If you have a habit of falling into Wikipedia rabbit holes, it will surely cause a similar itch.
The Suomi nuclear power plant satellite, which contains several instruments for mapping the earth, including VIIRS. Photo credit: NASA
The juxtaposed images of Houston’s power outages underscore the importance of scientific instruments in orbit facing home. When some people think about the space program, interplanetary missions like Mars Perseverance or cosmic observers like the Hubble Space Telescope often get most of their attention. While Perseverance and Hubble are undoubtedly remarkable and valuable programs, we often overlook the importance of earth-oriented missions. When was the last time you saw a big headline about the Suomi National Polar-Orbiting Partnership, let alone VIIRS? Programs like this deserve support and praise. There is something compelling to see such breathtaking images of our world, and the value of the scientific understanding that comes with it is immeasurable.
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