Long-lost satellite data reveal new insights to climate change

G.G. Campbell and D. Gallaher, NSIDC/CIRES/Univ. of Colorado

Long-lost satellite data reveal new insights to climate change

Sid is a freelance science journalist.

Once stashed in warehouses in Maryland and North Carolina, images and video captured from orbit by some of NASA’s first environmental satellites in the mid-1960s are now yielding a trove of scientific data. The Nimbus satellites, originally intended to monitor Earth’s clouds in visible and infrared wavelengths, also would have captured images of sea ice, researchers at the University of Colorado’s National Snow and Ice Data Center realized when they heard about the long-lost film canisters in 2009. After acquiring the film—and then tracking down the proper equipment to read and digitize its 16-shades-of-gray images, which had been taken once every 90 seconds or so—the team set about scanning and then stitching the images together using sophisticated software. So far, more than 250,000 images have been made public, including the first image taken by Nimbus-1 (left) on 31 August 1964, of an area near the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, the researchers reported on 29 August. (The image at right depicts the same region as seen on 31 August, 50 years later.) Using the Nimbus-1 data gathered during its 1 month in orbit, the researchers have previously estimated that sea ice surrounding Antarctica in September 1964 covered about 19.7 million square kilometers—an area slightly larger than the United States and Canada together, and larger than that seen in satellite data from any year between 1972 and 2012. Similar data from another Nimbus satellite reveal a record low coverage of sea ice just 2 years later, the team notes. Besides yielding a wealth of sea ice data, the data recovery project, which will end early next year, could also be used to extend satellite records of deforestation and sea surface temperatures.

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