Watch 20 years of the Earth breathing in five minutes

NASA footage reveals the ebb and flow of ice, deserts and plankton.

NASA has released a short video comprising 20 years of satellite imaging showing the Earth as it changes across the seasons.

The result, arguably, is the single most effective depiction of the incessant churning dynamism of our planet’s climate and biological systems. Ice fields advance and retreat; grasslands grown and wither; oceans warm and cool; plankton blooms and dissipates.

The images are drawn from those taken by the Sea-viewing Wide Field-of-view Sensor (SeaWiFS), a satellite launched in 1997.

On the first look, the high-speed animation provides a reassuring view of Earth: the seasons come and go and come back again, just like several religious texts and many folk songs assure us is the case.

More detailed analysis, however, reveals a less pleasant picture. The imaging reveals the growth of “biological deserts” – vast areas of nutrient-poor ocean caused by warming surface temperatures affecting phytoplankton abundance.

Visible too are massive forest fires, shrinking woodlands, and disappearing permafrost.

NASA’s scientists are using data from Earth-watching satellites to estimate change in a wide range of areas, from wilderness loss to the rates of photosynthesis in crop fields.

“This is the capability that will allow us to understand how Earth’s biology responds to a changing planet,” says Joanna Joiner, a NASA Goddard research scientist.

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