Hurricane Laura
Hurricane Laura, the storm that raged across the U.S. in 2020, captured by NASA's Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on NOAA-20. Image by Joshua Stevens. All photos courtesy of the NASA Earth Observatory.
climate change

NASA Satellite Images Capture 2020’s Devastating Climate Calamities

These mind-blowing images are a powerful reminder of how a pandemic wasn't the only thing that left us scarred last year.
January 5, 2021, 1:49pm

As the clock struck 12 to ring in the arrival of 2021, the world bid an eager goodbye to 2020. But as we try our best to move past the disastrous year at top speed, we mustn’t forget the lasting impact the year had on the world. 

It’s impossible not to mention the deadly pandemic that has already claimed over 86 million lives, but COVID-19 was only one of the threats facing mankind in the wretched year we’ve hardly left behind. Not only did 2020 exacerbate all kinds of inequalities among humans but it also reminded us that the clock of climate change is beginning to tick faster with time. Disasters such as hurricanes, wildfires, and droughts, continue to wreak havoc around the world, making life unlivable for communities that are already at higher risk.

To visually depict these events and their magnitude, the NASA Earth Observatory released images captured by their fleet of Earth-observing satellites and instruments on the International Space Station, that present these calamities in stunning detail. Check out some of them.

Wildfires

In January, when most of the world was blissfully unaware about what was to come, the debacle that 2020 would turn out to be was foreshadowed by what has been labelled the “worst wildlife disasters in modern history”—the Australian wildfires. 

Starting in the last week of December 2019, thick, billowing smoke began to make daytime resemble night in southeastern Australia. On January 4, 2020, NASA’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) captured images of the tan-coloured smoke. The fires and the resultant smoke drove people away from their homes, and affected nearly 3 billion animals.

Natural-colour image of southeastern Australia acquired by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite.

Natural-colour image of southeastern Australia acquired by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite. Image by Joshua Stevens.

While the Australian fire season traditionally spans over summer and autumn, climate change has affected these patterns severely, even leading to an earlier start to the season with dangerous weather conditions occurring significantly earlier in spring than usual.

Images of Southeastern Australia shot by the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8 on July 24, 2019 and January 1, 2020.

Images of Southeastern Australia shot by the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8 on July 24, 2019 (left) and January 1, 2020. Images by Joshua Stevens.

In September 2019, historically devastating fires raged across U.S. West Coast states, forcing thousands of people into shelters in the midst of the pandemic. In the image below, captured on September 9, a thick blanket of smoke can be seen along the West Coast. 

satellite image from fires in oregon and california

This natural-colour image captured by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite on September 9 shows thick smoke emerging from fires in Oregon and California. Image by Lauren Dauphin.

But the worst was yet to come. The smoke that resulted from the fires was pushed across much of the continental United States by winds sweeping from west to east. Images acquired by NASA’s Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) show the abundance and distribution of black carbon, a type of aerosol found in wildfire smoke, as high-flying smoke was spread further across the U.S. by tropical cyclones.

storms in the American west coast

Images by Joshua Stevens.

In a fire season that spans several ecosystems and the consequences of which have been getting increasingly severe each year, South America also saw fierce fires across parts of Bolivia, Venezuela, and Brazil. In Bolivia especially, the extreme fire behaviour was caused by a prolonged drought and a heatwave that turned the vegetation into kindling to help the fire spread.

smoke from fires in eastern bolivia

Captured by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on October 9, this natural-colour image shows smoke from fires in the Chiquitano forest of eastern Bolivia. Images by Lauren Dauphin.

Just as in Bolivia, wildfires across the world, started initially by lightning or intentionally to create pasture, were turned extreme by other conditions, many of them caused by climate change itself, including record-breaking temperatures, dry air, fierce winds and drought.

Drought

An intense drought has gripped South America, appearing first in satellite imagery of southeastern Brazil in mid-2018, but spreading to Paraguay, Bolivia, and northern Argentina by 2020.

“This is the second most intense drought in South America since 2002,” said Matthew Rodell, a hydrologist based at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. This pair of images, acquired by NASA’s Operational Land Imager on Landsat 8, reveals low water on the Paraguay River near Asunción, which has plummeted to historic lows in 2020. The low water has hindered shipping in the region, costing millions of dollars in commerce.

Paraguay River near Asunción

Images showing the Paraguay River near Asunción captured by the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8 on October 15, 2017 (left) and October 7, 2020. Images by Lauren Dauphin.

The long period of dry weather has had far-reaching consequences, including fire outbreaks and low yields of the winter crops. It has also delayed the arrival of spring, which has further upset the planting of new crops.

Since the start of the 20th century, human activity has influenced global droughts in the form of greenhouse gases generated by power plants, farming, cars, trains and human activities.

Hurricanes

2020 also featured the most active Atlantic hurricane season on record, with many storms betraying signs of being caused by global warming. On August 26, Hurricane Laura swept through southwestern Louisiana, killing at least six and unleashing a catastrophic storm surge on an area that hasn’t seen anything close since the start of modern hurricane records.

This image shot by NASA’s VIIRS shows the storm looming off the U.S. coastline, with brightness temperature data being used to distinguish cooler cloud structures from the warmer surface below. That data is overlaid on bright imagery of underlying city lights from NASA’s Black Marble dataset.

Hurricane Laura

Image of Hurricane Laura acquired by the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) at 2:20 a.m. Central Daylight Time on August 26, 2020. Image by Joshua Stevens.

Cyclones

We also saw Cyclone Amphan tearing through the Sunderbans and slamming ashore near the border of eastern India and Bangladesh. 

Cyclone Amphan

The storm can be seen in this natural-color image, acquired at 1 p.m. Indian Standard Time on May 20 with the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS). Image by Joshua Stevens.

Fuelled by climate change, the first tropical cyclone of the 2020 season in the North Indian basin affected more than 13 million people and destroyed over 1.5 million homes, only in the state of West Bengal, in a time when the densely-populated areas were already grappling with the pandemic.

Follow Snigdha on Twitter.