Nature often inspires art, but sometimes it is art. For almost 40 years, the Landsat satellites have been snapping images of earth that look more like they belong on the walls of a modern art museum than stored in a scientific archive. The U.S. Geological Survey, which manages the satellite program with NASA, is sharing the beauty of these photos in its new “Earth as Art” exhibit on display at the Library of Congress through May 31, 2012. Everyone at USGS who works with Landsat data has a favorite photo, and that led to the idea of gathering a collection of favorites to share with the public, says Ronald Beck, a USGS public information specialist who has worked with the Landsat Program for 37 years. Beck’s favorite in the new exhibit, the third installment of “Earth as Art,” is Icelandic Tiger. The “tiger” is part of Iceland’s northern coast, and its mouth is the fjord called Eyjafjorour, meaning “Island Fjord.” The name refers to the small island the tiger is about to eat.
The green and blue swirls of the Baltic Sea surrounding the Swedish island Gotland look like they could have been painted by Vincent van Gogh, but they are the work of microscopic marine plants called phytoplankton. When ocean currents bring an abundance of nutrients to the surface, the population of tiny plants proliferates into big, colorful blooms.
The white smear across the Transantarctic Mountains is the Byrd Glacier, named after American explorer Richard E. Byrd. The 112-mile stream of ice traverses half a mile each year—pretty fast for a glacier—as it flows toward the Ross Ice Shelf. Although the images for the exhibit were selected for their aesthetic value, they provide an opportunity to educate people about how scientists use satellite imagery to study the earth, says Ronald Beck, a USGS information specialist. For example, researchers can use satellites to track how glaciers change over time.
The Dardzha Peninsula in western Turkmenistan bears a striking resemblance to a T. rex. The peninsula juts into the Caspian Sea and its shores are lined with giant sand dunes created by the area’s strong winds. To the east lies the Karakum Desert, which covers 80 percent of the country.
Resembling Pac-Man, Canada’s Akimiski Island—located in James Bay, the southern tip of Hudson Bay—is a reminder of the power of glaciers. During the last glacial period, a massive ice sheet covered Akimiski. When the climate warmed, the ice sheet retreated and as the weight of the ice was removed, the island “rebounded,” just like a mattress that springs back up after a person gets out of bed. Waves created a series of “bathtub rings” around the island’s coastline as Akimiski slowly rose and sea level changed.
The ghostly face is part of southern Australia’s Lake Eyre. The desert lake remains dry most of the year, filling during the rainy season. When the lake is completely full—which has only happened three times in the past 150 years—it is the largest lake on the continent.
The creamy orange mosaic of farm fields, pastures and towns on the border of Arkansas and Mississippi is interrupted by the circuitous strokes of the teal Mississippi River. Here the river takes an especially windy path to the Gulf of Mexico, forming numerous oxbow lakes. These U-shaped lakes occur when a loop in the river’s path gets cut off from the main channel.
The Okavango Delta looks like a giant green inkblot in the middle of northern Botswana’s Kalahari Desert. Unlike many deltas that form where a river empties into an ocean or lake, the Okavango Delta branches out across dry land. The largest freshwater swamp in the Southern Hemisphere, the delta acts as an oasis for the region’s wildlife and is one of the most pristine freshwater ecosystems in Africa.
The various hues of this abstract scene represent the different landscapes present in Dasht-e Kavir, or the Great Salt Desert, of northern Iran. The sparsely populated desert is named after its many salt marshes (“kavir” means salt marsh in Persian). The Great Salt Desert is also home to dry streambeds, plateaus and mud flats, covering almost 30,000 square miles of the Iranian Plateau.
In the eyes of the creators of “Earth as Art,” these neon-green blobs look like dinosaur bones at a dig site. In reality, they are just a few of the 2,900 coral reefs that make up the Great Barrier Reef. Stretching for more than 1,200 miles along the northeastern coast of Australia, the Great Barrier Reef is a wildlife hotspot, home to hundreds of species of corals and thousands of species of fish and mollusks. Large mammals like humpback whales and dugongs (a manatee relative) also swim in the nearly 8,000-square-mile reef system.