It’s British Science Week!


Artist’s rendition of science – skovoroda/123RF Stock Photo

This week is British Science Week! It’s an annual event promoting science, technology, engineering and maths across the UK, and this year runs from the 9th to the 18th March.

Last year over one million people got involved, which is fantastic for encouraging and inspiring everyone to engage with science. This year there are a number of ways to participate:

Attending Events
Specific events are taking place all around the country and you can find them all here. There aren’t too many happening in Devon – something we’ll have to think about for next year!

We’d like to highlight the Family Fun Day happening next Saturday, 17th March, at the Norman Lockyer Observatory in Sidmouth. It is a great venue that we know well as Sam gave an Earth observation lecture there last year. On Saturday they will have hands-on activities, planetarium shows, solar and meteor observing amongst other things.

Citizen Science Project – The Plastic tide
This is our favourite activity this year as it’s remote sensing based! Its aim is to develop an automated classification algorithm to detect, identify and monitor marine litter from drone images.

Go onto the website, look at the images that appear and tag any marine litter that you see – it’s as easy as that! There are some guides and help from the team at Zooniverse who are developing the algorithm. I did my first fifteen minutes in the middle of writing this blog!

Everyone knows the problems of plastics in the oceans and the negative impact they have on pollution, wildlife and the food chain. This project is a fun and simple way for anyone to help clean our oceans and beaches. It is hoped that 250,000 images will be tagged during this week. Why don’t you contribute a few?

Run To The Deep – A virtual 10K Race
Run to the Deep is a free app which will accompany you whilst you run 10 000 metres to the ocean floor. It includes commentary from Pierre-Yves Cousteau, son of the marine conservationist Jacques Cousteau, and provides information about creatures, seascapes and things you’ll find deep in the ocean.

Schools Poster Competition
Schools are encouraged to get children designing posters on the theme of exploration and discovery, and enter the best ones into the national competition.

Download Activity Packs
There are downloadable activity packs available from the website for a variety of ages providing lots of exercises and activities promoting science, technology, engineering and maths.

British Science Week is run by the British Science Association (BSA) with funding from UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. The origins of the BSA are fascinating, and have technology roots! In 1830 Professor Charles Babbage, one of the pioneers of computing, published ‘Reflections on the Decline of Science in England.’ It’s a fascinating read and one of the actions taken in response to this was the founding of the BSA in 1831, although at the time it was called the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

Appropriately, also taking place this week in Sheffield is the 2018 Wavelength Conference, the student and early career scientist conference of the Remote Sensing and Photogrammetry Society. Pixalytics sponsored this event and we hope to have a review of the conference in next week’s blog.

So whatever you are doing this week, try to include some science!

Picking Up Penguins From Space

Danger Islands, off Antarctica. Landsat-8 image acquired on 7th December 2017. Image courtesy of NASA/USGS.

World Wildlife Day is the 3rd March, and so fittingly this blog is looking at how satellite imagery and remote sensing techniques were used to recently discover an unknown colony of 1.5 million Adélie penguins on the Danger Islands off the Antarctica Peninsula in the north-western Weddell Sea. Adélie penguins only live along the Antarctic coast, and they grow to a height of around 70cm and weigh between three and six kilograms.

The paper by ‘Multi-modal survey of Adélie penguin mega-colonies reveals the Danger Islands as a seabird hotspot by Borowicz et al was published in Scientific Reports on the 2nd March 2018. It is interestingly not only because of the discovery of unknown penguins but also because the research combines historic aerial imagery, satellite imagery, drone footage and remote sensing techniques.

The research has its roots in an earlier paper by Lynch and Schwaller from 2014, entitled ‘Mapping the Abundance and Distribution of Adélie Penguins Using Landsat-7: First Steps towards an Integrated Multi-Sensor Pipeline for Tracking Populations at the Continental Scale.’ It describes the development of an algorithm to analyse Landsat and high resolution imagery from WorldView-2 to estimate the size of penguin colonies based on the extent of the guana area. A classification approach was developed from a training dataset of 473 Landsat-7 pixels covering existing Adeline colonies, supported by over 10,000 pixels relating to features such as rock, soil and vegetation.

In the recently published paper, of which Heather Lynch was also a co-author, the team combined a range of imagery alongside some in-situ data to achieve their results. Different types of imagery were used:

  • High Resolution Imagery: Areas of guano staining on the Danger Islands were identified manually from WorldView-2 scenes.
  • Historical aerial photographs: Images taken by Falkland Islands Dependencies Aerial Survey Expedition (FIDASE) on the 31st January 1957 were digitally scanned and geo-referenced to the WorldView-2 data. They were then divided into polygons and analysed using manual classification processing using the open source QGIS software.
  • Landsat: The algorithm previously developed by Lynch and Schwaller was enhanced to work with data from Landsat-4, 7 and 8 by calculating the mean difference of similar bands from Landsat-4 and 8 compared to Landsat-7, and then adjusting based on the mean differences in each spectral band. The enhanced algorithm was then used to classify the penguin colony areas.
  • Drone data: Using a 1.2 megapixel camera flown at height of between 25 m and 45 m, captured footage was processed to produce georeferenced orthomosaics of the Danger Islands. Machine learning techniques were then applied using a deep neural network to locate and identify potential penguins. A training dataset of 160 images with 1237 penguins, followed by a validation dataset of 93 images with 673 penguins was used to teach the network. Once fully trained it analysed all the islands, and the results were validated with a number of manual counts. The scientists worked on an accuracy of plus or minus ten percent for the automated counts, although the variation with the in-situ counts was only 0.6 percent.

The outcome of this research was an identification of 751,527 pairs of previously unknown Adélie penguins on the Danger Islands. More surprisingly is that this increases the world estimates of this type of penguin by almost 50%, when it had been thought that the population had been declining for the last 40 years. The historical aerial imagery has led scientists to speculate that this new colony has remained constant for around the last 60 years in contrast to other known colonies.

This work is a great example of not only how much can be achieved with free-to-access imagery, but also how satellite imagery is helping us discover new things about our planet.

Monitoring Water Quality from Space

Algal Blooms in Lake Erie, around Monroe, acquired by Sentinel-2 on 3rd August 2017. Data Courtesy of ESA/Copernicus.

Two projects using Earth Observation (EO) data to monitor water quality caught our eye recently. As we’re in process of developing two water quality products for our own online portal, we’re interested in what everyone else is doing!

At the end of January UNESCO’s International Hydrological Programme launched a tool to monitor global water quality. The International Initiative on Water Quality (IIWQ) World Water Quality Portal, built by EOMAP, provides:

  • turbidity and sedimentation distribution
  • chlorophyll-a concentration
  • Harmful Algal Blooms indicator
  • organic absorption
  • surface temperature

Based on optical data from Landsat and Sentinel-2 it can provide global surface water mosaics at 90 m spatial resolution, alongside 30 m resolution for seven pilot river basins.  The portal was launched in Paris at the “Water Quality Monitoring using Earth Observation and Satellite-based Information” meeting and was accompanied by an exhibition on “Water Quality from the Space – Mesmerizing Images of Earth Observation”.

The tool, which can be found here, focuses on providing colour visualizations of the data alongside data legends to help make it as easy as possible to use. It is hoped that this will help inform and educate policy makers, water professionals and the wider public about the value of using satellite data from monitoring water resources.

A second interesting project, albeit on a smaller scale, was announced last week which is going to use Sentinel-2 imagery to monitor water quality in Scottish Lochs. Dr Claire Neil, from the University of Stirling, is leading the project and will be working with Scottish Environment Protection Agency. It will use reflectance measures to estimate the chlorophyll-a concentrations to help identify algal blooms and other contaminants in the waters. The project will offer an alternative approach to the current water quality monitoring, which uses sampling close to the water’s edge.

An interesting feature of the project, particularly for us, is the intention to focus on developing this work into an operational capability for SEPA to enable them to improve their approach to assessing water quality.

This transition from a ‘good idea’ into an operational product that will be used, and therefore purchased, by end users is what all EO companies are looking for and we’re not different. Our Pixalytics Portal which we discussed a couple of weeks ago is one of the ways we are trying to move in that direction. We have two water quality monitoring products on it:

  • Open Ocean Water Quality product extracts time-series data from a variety of 4 km resolution satellite datasets from NASA, giving an overview what is happening in the water without the need to download a lot of data.
  • Planning for Coastal Airborne Lidar Surveys product provides an assessment of the penetration depth of a Lidar laser beam, from an airborne survey system, within coastal waters based on the turbidity of the water. This ensures that companies who plan overflights can have confidence in how far their Lidar will see.

We’re just at the starting point in productizing the services we offer, and so it is always good to see how others are approaching the similar problem!

Five Learning Points For Developing An Earth Observation Product Portal

Landsat mosaic image of the Isle of Wight. Data courtesy of NASA.

This week we’re gently unveiling our Pixalytics Portal at the DATA.SPACE 2018 Conference taking place in Glasgow.

We’ve not attended DATA.SPACE before, but great feedback from some of the last years attendees convinced us to come. It’s an international conference focusing on the commercial opportunities available through the exploitation of space-enabled data and so it seemed the perfect place to demonstrate our new development.

Regular readers will know we’ve had the product portal idea for a little while, but it often went to the back of the work queue when compared to existing work, bid preparation and our other developments. Hence, six months ago we pinpointed the DATA.SPACE as our unveiling event!

On the 1st and 2nd February at Technology & Innovation Centre in Glasgow we have a stand where we’re inviting everyone to come up and have a look at the portal and give us feedback on the idea, principles and the look and feel of the portal.

We’re demonstrating five products, and we’re looking to expand this, these are:

  • Landscape Maps of the UK
  • Water Extent Mapping
  • Flood Water Mapping
  • Coastal Airborne Lidar Survey Planning Datasets
  • Open Ocean Water Quality Parameters

We’re not just attending, we’re exhibiting and Sam’s presenting!! So we’re going to have the full triumvirate conference experience. Sam is presenting in the first day’s second session titled ‘Looking at our Earth’ which starts at 11.10am. Her presentation is called ‘Growing Earth Observation By Being More Friendly.’

Developing this portal to its current state has been a really interesting journey. When we began we didn’t know why some of the larger companies haven’t cracked this already! Six months later and we’ve started to understand the challenges!

We thought it might be helpful to reveal are five top learning points for any other SME’s in our industry considering developing a portal. They are:

  1. Challenging the Digital e-commerce Process: Standard digital e-commerce systems allow customers to purchase a product and then download it immediately. The need to have an additional step of a few minutes, or even hours, to undertake data processing complicates things. It means that simple off-the-shelf plug-ins won’t work.
  2. Don’t Go for Perfection: Building a perfect portal will take time. We’ve adopted the approach of Eric Ries, author of The Startup Way, who advocates building a system for ten purchases. We’re perhaps a bit beyond that, but certainly we know that this will only be the first iteration of our portal.
  3. Linking The Moving Parts: Our portal has a web-front end, a cloud processing backend and the need to download requested data. We’ve tried to limit the amount of data and processing needed, but we can’t eliminate it entirely. This means there are a lot of moving parts to get right, and a lot of error capturing to be done!
  4. Legal & Tax issues: Sorting out the products is only one part of the process, don’t forget to do the legal and tax side as that has implications on your approach. We have learnt a lot about the specific requirements of digital services in e-commerce!
  5. Have a deadline: We chose to exhibit at DATA.SPACE to give us a deadline. We knew if we didn’t have a hard deadline we’d still be debating the products to include, and have developed none of them! The deadline has moved us really close to having a portal.

If you’re at DATA.SPACE this week, please come up and say hello. If you’ve got a few minutes to spare we’d love to get you feedback on our portal.

To TEDx Speaking and Beyond!

Back in April I received an invitation to speak at the ‘One Step Beyond’ TEDx event organised at the National Space Centre in Leicester, with my focus on the Blue Economy and Earth Observation (EO).

We’ve been to a few TEDx events in the past and they’ve always been great, and so I was excited to have the opportunity to join this community. Normally, I’m pretty relaxed about public speaking. I spend a lot of time thinking about what I’m going to say, but don’t assemble my slides until a couple of days beforehand. This approach has developed in part because I used to lecture – where I got used to talking for a while with a few slides – but also because I always like to take some inspiration from the overall mood of the event I’m talking at. This can be through hearing other speakers, attending workshops or even just walking around the local area.

TEDx, however, was different. There was a need to have the talk ready early for previewing and feedback, alongside producing stunning visuals and having a key single message. So, for a change, I started with a storyboard.

My key idea was to get across the sense of wonder I and many other scientists share in observing the oceans from space, whilst also emphasising that anyone can get involved in protecting this natural resource. I echoed the event title by calling my talk “Beyond the blue ocean” as many people think of the ocean as just a blue waterbody. However, especially from space, we can see the beauty, and complexity, of colour variations influenced by the microscopic life and substances dissolved and suspended within it.

I began with an with an image called the ‘Pale Blue Dot’ that was taken by Voyager 1 at a distance of more than 4 billion miles from Earth, and then went with well-known ‘Blue Marble’ image before zooming into what we see from more conventional EO satellites. I also wanted to take the audience beyond just optical wavelengths and so displayed microwave imagery from Sentinel-1 that’s at a similar spatial resolution to my processed 15 m resolution Sentinel-2 data that was also shown.

Dr Samantha Lavender speaking at the One Step Beyond TEDx event in Leicester. Photo courtesy of TEDxLeicester

The satellite imagery included features such as wind farms, boats and phytoplankton blooms I intended to discuss. However, this didn’t quite to go to plan on my practice run through! The talk was in the planetarium at the National Space Centre, which meant the screen was absolutely huge – as you can see in the image to the right. However, with the lights on in the room the detail in the images was really difficult to see. The solution for the talk itself was to have the planetarium in darkness and myself picked out by two large spotlights, meaning that the image details were visible to the audience but I couldn’t see the audience myself.

The evening itself took place on the 21st September, and with almost two hundred in the audience I was up first. I was very happy with how it went and the people who spoke to me afterwards said they were inspired by what they’d seen. You can see for yourself, as the talk can be found here on the TEDx library. Let me know what you think!

I was followed by two other fantastic speakers who gave inspiring presentations and these are also up on the TEDx Library. Firstly, Dr Emily Shuckburgh, Deputy Head of Polar Oceans team at British Antarctic Survey discussed “How to conduct a planetary health check”; and she was followed by Corentin Guillo, CEO and Founder of Bird.i, who spoke about “Space entrepreneurship, when thinking outside the box is not enough”.

The whole event was hugely enjoyable and the team at TEDx Leicester did an amazing job of organising it. It was good to talk to people after the event, and it was fantastic that seventy percent of the audience were aged between 16 and 18. We need to do much more of this type of outreach activities to educate and inspire the next generation of scientists. Of course, for me, the day also means that I can now add TEDx Speaker to my biography!

Marine Zulu Gathering

Looking out from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, taken on the 1st October 2017

This week I’m at the Integrated Marine Biosphere Research (IMBeR) IMBIZO5 event at the Woods Hall Oceanographic Institute. IMBIZO is a Zulu word meaning a meeting or gathering called by a traditional leader and this week a group of marine scientists have heeded the call.

The fifth meeting in the IMBIZO series is focussing on Marine Biosphere Research for a Sustainable Ocean: Linking ecosystems, future states and resource management. Its aim is help understand, quantify and compare the historic and present structure and functioning of linked ocean and human systems to predict and project changes including developing scenarios and options for securing or transitioning towards ocean sustainability.

Woods Hole is located in the US state of Massachusetts. It is well-known centre of excellence in marine research and the world’s largest private, non-profit oceanographic research institution. Despite my career travels, it was somewhere I had never visited before. So this was a great opportunity to see a place I had read a lot about, and to meet people from a variety of marine disciplines.

After my Saturday morning flight to Boston, my first challenge was to find the fantastically named ‘Peter Pan Bus’ for the two hour drive to Falmouth, a town near the Woods Hole Institute. Regular readers will spot that this is the second Falmouth I’ve visited this summer, as I gave talk in the Cornish version in July. It’s actually slightly odd to hear familiar place names such as Plymouth, Barnstaple and Taunton in a different country. Carrying my poster also singled me out as an IMBIZO attendee, Lisa stopped to give me a lift to hotel as I walked through the town – not sure that would happen back in the UK!

I needed to be up early on Sunday as we had an Infographics workshop led by Indi Hodgson-Johnston from the University of Tasmania. We learnt about how to work through the creative process, starting with choosing a theme through to defining 4 to 8 factoids (1 to 2 sentences with a single message) to finally bringing the factoids and accompanying images together into the infographic.

Interestingly, Indi highlighted that only 20% of the people who start watching a video on social media are still watching after 15 seconds! In addition, most watch without sound. The key message for me was to make very short videos with subtitles. Or better still make infographics.

The workshop itself began on Monday with three keynotes. The first by Edward Allison, of the University of Washington, focussed on the limits of prediction and started by defining terms and their time scales:

  • Forecasts: from minutes to weeks e.g. weather forecasting
  • Predictions: from months to years e.g. climate variability
  • Scenarios: front decades to centuries e.g. climate change

As we go from forecasts to predictions uncertainty increases, and further still when we move to scenarios. Therefore, we need to be clear about the limits of what’s possible. Secondly, whilst we’ve become good at understanding bio-chemical and physical processes, uncertainty grows as we move to modelling ecosystems and human interactions.

Mary Ann Moran from the University of Georgia spoke about the ‘Metabolic diversity and evolution in marine biogeochemical cycling and ocean ecosystem processes’ and emphasised the linkage between phytoplankton and microbes, and how omics (fields such as metabolomics, (meta)-proteomics and -transcriptomics) can help us to understand this complex relationship.

The final keynote was by Andre Punt from the University of Washington on ‘Fisheries Management Strategy Evaluation’. It looked at how we move from data on fish catches to deciding what a sustainable quota is for managing fishing stocks. Management strategy evaluation involves running multiple simulations to compare the relative effectiveness of achieving management objectives i.e., a “fisheries flight simulator”. Given the different stakeholders in this debate will often have opposing requirements; the wrong choice can have catastrophic effects on either fish populations or livelihoods. Hence, this approach often involves finding the least worst solution.

The workshop streams began in the afternoon and I’m in one focussing on ‘Critical Constraints on Prediction’. We all gave 3 minute lightening talks to introduce ourselves and started the discussion on the topic of uncertainties and how these can be reduced in future projections.

Exploring this topic over the next few days is going to be really interesting!

Algae Starting To Bloom

Algal Blooms in Lake Erie, around Monroe, acquired by Sentinel-2 on 3rd August 2017. Data Courtesy of ESA/Copernicus.

Algae have been making the headlines in the last few weeks, which is definitely a rarely used phrase!

Firstly, the Lake Erie freshwater algal bloom has begun in the western end of the lake near Toledo. This is something that is becoming an almost annual event and last year it interrupted the water supply for a few days for around 400,000 residents in the local area.

An algae bloom refers to a high concentration of micro algae, known as phytoplankton, in a body of water. Blooms can grow quickly in nutrient rich waters and potentially have toxic effects. Although a lot of algae is harmless, the toxic varieties can cause rashes, nausea or skin irritation if you were to swim in it, it can also contaminate drinking water and can enter the food chain through shellfish as they filter large quantities of water.

Lake Erie is fourth largest of the great lakes on the US/Canadian border by surface area, measuring around 25,700 square km, although it’s also the shallowest and at 484 cubic km has the smallest water volume. Due to its southern position it is the warmest of the great lakes, something which may be factor in creation of nutrient rich waters. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration produce both an annual forecast and a twice weekly Harmful Algal Bloom Bulletin during the bloom season which lasts until late September. The forecast reflects the expected biomass of the bloom, but not its toxicity, and this year’s forecast was 7.5 on a scale to 10, the largest recent blooms in 2011 and 2015 both hit the top of the scale. Interestingly, this year NOAA will start incorporating Sentinel-3 data into the programme.

Western end of Lake Erie acquired by Sentinel-2 on 3rd August 2017. Data

Despite the phytoplankton within algae blooms being only 1,000th of a millimetre in size, the large numbers enable them to be seen from space. The image to the left is a Sentinel-2 image, acquired on the 3rd August, of the western side of the lake where you can see the green swirls of the algal bloom, although there are also interesting aircraft contrails visible in the image. The image at the start of the top of the blog is zoomed in to the city of Monroe and the Detroit River flow into the lake and the algal bloom is more prominent.

Landsat 8 acquired this image of the northwest coast of Norway on the 23rd July 2017,. Image courtesy of NASA/NASA Earth Observatory.

It’s not just Lake Erie where algal blooms have been spotted recently:

  • The Chautauqua Lake and Findley Lake, which are both just south of Lake Erie, have reported algal blooms this month.
  • NASA’s Landsat 8 satellite captured the image on the right, a bloom off the northwest coast of Norway on the 23rd July. It is noted that blooms at this latitude are in part due to the sunlight of long summer days.
  • The MODIS instrument onboard NASA’s Aqua satellite acquired the stunning image below of the Caspian Sea on the 3rd August.

Image of the Caspian Sea, acquired on 3rd August 2017, by MODIS on NASA’s Aqua satellite. Image Courtesy of NASA/NASA Earth Observatory.

Finally as reported by the BBC, an article in Nature this week proposes that it was a takeover by ocean algae 650 million years ago which essentially kick started life on Earth as we know it.

So remember, they may be small, but algae can pack a punch!

Silver Anniversary for Ocean Altimetry Space Mission

Artist rendering of Jason-3 satellite over the Amazon.
Image Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.

August 10th 1992 marked the launch of the TOPEX/Poseidon satellite, the first major oceanographic focussed mission. Twenty five years, and three successor satellites, later the dataset begun by TOPEX/Poseidon is going strong providing sea surface height measurements.

TOPEX/Poseidon was a joint mission between NASA and France’s CNES space agency, with the aim of mapping ocean surface topography to improve our understanding of ocean currents and global climate forecasting. It measured ninety five percent of the world’s ice free oceans within each ten day revisit cycle. The satellite carried two instruments: a single-frequency Ku-band solid-state altimeter and a dual-frequency C- and Ku-band altimeter sending out pulses at 13.6 GHz and 5.3 GHz respectively. The two bands were selected due to atmospheric sensitivity, as the difference between them provides estimates of the ionospheric delay caused by the charged particles in the upper atmosphere that can delay the returned signal. The altimeter sends radio pulses towards the earth and measures the characteristics of the returned echo.

When TOPEX/Poseidon altimetry data is combined with other information from the satellite, it was able to calculate sea surface heights to an accuracy of 4.2 cm. In addition, the strength and shape of the return signal also allow the determination of wave height and wind speed. Despite TOPEX/Poseidon being planned as a three year mission, it was actually active for thirteen years, until January 2006.

The value in the sea level height measurements resulted in a succeeding mission, Jason-1, launched on December 7th 2001. It was put into a co-ordinated orbit with TOPEX/Poseidon and they both took measurements for three years, which allowed both increased data frequency and the opportunity for cross calibration of the instruments. Jason-1 carried a CNES Poseidon-2 Altimeter using the same C- and Ku-bands, and following the same methodology it had the ability to measure sea-surface height to an improved accuracy of 3.3 cm. It made observations for 12 years, and was also overlapped by its successor Jason-2.

Jason-2 was launched on the 20 June 2008. This satellite carried a CNES Poseidon-3 Altimeter with C- and Ku-bands with the intention of measuring sea height to within 2.5cm. With Jason-2, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT) took over the management of the data. The satellite is still active, however due to suspected radiation damage its orbit was lowered by 27 km, enabling it to produce an improved, high-resolution estimate of Earth’s average sea surface height, which in turn will help improve the quality of maps of the ocean floor.

Following the established pattern, Jason-3 was launched on the 17th January 2016. It’s carrying a Poseidon-3B radar altimeter, again using the same C and Ku bands and on a ten day revisit cycle.

Together these missions have provided a 25 year dataset on sea surface height, which has been used for applications such as:

  • El Niño and La Niña forecasting
  • Extreme weather forecasting for hurricanes, floods and droughts
  • Ocean circulation modelling for seasons and how this affects climate through by moving heat around the globe
  • Tidal forecasting and showing how this energy plays an important role in mixing water within the oceans
  • Measurement of inland water levels – at Pixalytics we have a product that we have used to measure river levels in the Congo and is part of the work we are doing on our International Partnership Programme work in Uganda.

In the future, the dataset will be taken forward by the Jason Continuity of Service (Jason-CS) on the Sentinel-6 ocean mission which is expected to be launched in 2020.

Overall, altimetry data from this series of missions is a fantastic resource for operational oceanography and inland water applications, and we look forward to its next twenty five years!

Blue Holes from Space

Andros Island in The Bahamas. Acquired by Landsat 8 in February 2017. Data courtesy of NASA.

Blue holes are deep marine caverns or sinkholes which are open at the surface, and they get their name from their apparent blue colour of their surface due to the scattering of the light within water. The often contain both seawater and freshwater, and in their depths the water is very clear which makes them very popular with divers.

The term ‘blue hole’ first appeared on sea charts from the Bahamas in 1843, although the concept of submarine caves had been described a century earlier (from Schwabe and Carew, 2006). There are a number of well-known blue holes in Belize, Egypt and Malta amongst others. The Dragon Hole in the South China Sea is believed to be the deepest blue hole with a depth of 300 metres.

The Andros Island in The Bahamas has the highest concentration of blue holes in the world, and last week we watched a television programme called River Monsters featuring this area. The presenter, Jeremy Wade, was investigating the mythical Lusca, a Caribbean sea creature which reportedly attacks swimmers and divers pulling them down to their lairs deep within of the blue holes. Jeremy fished and dived some blue holes, and spoke to people who had seen the creature. By the end he believed the myth of the Lusca was mostly likely based on a giant octopus. Whilst this was interesting, by the end of the programme we were far more interested in whether you could see blue holes from space.

The image at the top is Andros Island. Although, technically it’s an archipelago, it is considered as a single island. It’s the largest island of The Bahamas and at 2,300 square miles is the fifth largest in the Caribbean. There are a number of well known blue holes in Andros, both inland and off the coast, such as:

Blues in the Blue Hole National Park on the Andros Island in The Bahamas. Acquired by Landsat 8 in February 2017. Data courtesy of NASA.

  • Blue Holes National Park covers over 33,000 acres and includes a variety of blue holes, freshwater reservoirs and forests within its boundaries. The image to the right covers an area of the national park. In the centre, just above the green water there are five black circles  – despite the colour, these are blue holes.
  • Uncle Charlie’s Blue Hole, also called Little Frenchman Blue Hole, is just off Queen’s Highway in Nicholls Town and has a maximum depth of 127 metres.
  • Atlantis Blue Hole has a maximum depth of about 85 metres.
  • Stargate Blue Hole his blue hole is located about 500 miles inland from the east coast of South Andros on the west side of The Bluff village.
  • Guardian Blue Hole is in the ocean and is believed to have the second deepest cave in The Bahamas, with a maximum explored depth of 133 metres.

Blue hole in the south of Andros Island in The Bahamas. Acquired by Landsat 8 in February 2017. Data courtesy of NASA.

The image to the right is from the south of the island. Just off the centre, you can see a blue hole surrounded by forests and vegetation.

So we can confirm that the amazing natural features called blue holes can be seen from space, even if they don’t always appear blue!

World Oceans Day

Phytoplankton Bloom off South West England. Acquired by MODIS on 12th June 2003. Data courtesy of NASA.

June 8th is World Oceans Day. This is an annual global celebration of the oceans, their importance and how they can be protected for the future.

The idea of a World Ocean Day was originally proposed by the Canadian Government at the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. In December 2008 a resolution was passed by United Nations General Assembly which officially declared that June 8th would be World Oceans Day. The annual celebration is co-ordinated by the Ocean Project organisation, and is growing from strength to strength with over 100 countries having participated last year.

There is a different theme each year and for 2017 it’s “Our Oceans, Our Future”, with a focus on preventing plastic pollution of the ocean and cleaning marine litter.

Why The Oceans Are Important?

  • The oceans cover over 71% of the planet and account for 96% of the water on Earth.
  • Half of all the oxygen in the atmosphere is released by phytoplankton through photosynthesis. Phytoplankton blooms are of huge interest to us at Pixalytics as despite their miniscule size, in large enough quantities, phytoplankton can be seen from space.
  • They help regulate climate by absorbing around 25% of the CO2 human activities release into the atmosphere.
  • Between 50% and 80% of all life on the planet is found in the oceans.
  • Less than 10% of the oceans have been explored by humans. More people have stood on the moon than the deepest point of the oceans – the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean at around 11 km deep.
  • Fish accounted for about 17% of the global population’s intake of animal protein in 2013.

Why This Year’s Theme Is Important?

The pollution of the oceans by plastic is something which affects us all. From bags and containers washed up on beaches to the plastic filled garbage gyres that circulate within the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, human activity is polluting the oceans with plastic and waste. The United Nations believe that as many as 51 trillion particles of microplastic are in the oceans, which is a huge environmental problem.

Everyone will have seen images of dolphins, turtles or birds either eating or being trapped by plastic waste. However, recently Dr Richard Kirby – a friend of Pixalytics – was able to film plastic microfibre being eaten by plankton. As plankton are, in turn, eaten by many marine creatures, this is one example of how waste plastic is entering the food chain. The video can seen here on a BBC report.

Dr Kirby also runs the Secchi Disk project which is a citizen science project to study phytoplankton across the globe and receives data from every ocean.

Get Involved With World Oceans Day

The world oceans are critical to the health of the planet and us! They help regulate climate, generate most of the oxygen we breathe and provide a variety of food and sources of medicines. So everyone should want to help protect and conserve these natural environments. They are a number of ways you can get involved:

  • Participate: There are events planned all across the world. You can have a look here and see if any are close to you.
  • Look: The Ocean Project website has a fantastic set of resources available.
  • Think: Can you reduce your use, or reliance on plastic?
  • Promote: Talk about World Oceans Day, Oceans and their importance.