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Rejected satellite data provides a fresh look at our floating companions
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Rejected satellite data provides a fresh look at our floating companions


Through human history, clouds have been a source of wonder and reverie, inspiring art and imagination, as well as warning of extreme weather events.

Clouds are also central players in Earth’s climate. They move water around the world, reflect sunlight, and interact directly with radiation emitted on Earth. In this way, they can cool and heat the planet.

It is important to be concerned about how clouds react to heat from the planet. As the earth heats up, clouds react. latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reportReiterates that we are on the edge of a precipice when it comes to our ability to slow down or halt the global warming humans are causing.

Although climate scientists closely study clouds, translating scientific findings into forms that capture the public’s imagination is not always an easy task. Our new film Path 99Satellite imagery is combined with science and art to show clouds in a new way.

Data from the Himawari 8 weather satellite shows water vapour flowing through Earth’s atmosphere.

Satellites, clouds, and invalid data

A large multinational effort is required to produce remote sensing satellite data. This makes a huge contribution to our understanding of the world. Satellite data is essential for meteorology, geoscience, and climate science.

We can get even more out of this data if you explore it through the creative arts. Through imagination and feeling, knowledge can be brought to life and we can find new ways to understand and respond to the planet.

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Curious Kids: where do clouds come from and why do they have different shapes?

Path 99 – which launches next week at the New Zealand International Film Festival – uses satellite images of clouds over Australia to highlight the importance of clouds to climate. It was created to be viewed from the planetarium’s domed screen. The soundtrack plays an enveloping electronic music that combines art, science, and Earth.

We used data from two satellites, America’s Landsat 8 and Japan’s Himawari 8Geoscience Australia and The Digital Earth AustraliaProgram, and Bureau of Meteorology.

Landsat 8, an Earth observation satellite, is primarily used to monitor environmental conditions at ground-level. Its orbit takes it over the poles while the planet spins beneath it, which means it can view the entire globe over the course of a 16-day cycle of 233 orbits or “paths”. The track running down the centre of Australia is path 99, hence the film’s title.

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An artist’s surreal view of Australia – created from satellite data captured 700km above Earth

Clouds can block the view of the earth from orbit for geoscientists. Software is used to scan satellite data pixel-by-pixel, removing clouds and other atmospheric noises to create clear images.

At any given time, clouds cover around two-thirds of Earth, so what the scientists sift out creates a vast archive of “invalid data” – a multi-year record of incredible cloud formations.

Satellite image showing clouds over Kati Thanda / Lake Eyre

‘Invalid Data: Kati Thanda / Lake Eyre 12/03/2017’ (2019). This Landsat 8 satellite photo shows clouds over Katithanda / Lake Eyre, March 12, 2017.
Grayson Cooke. NASA/USGS Landsat 8.

Our project focuses on this “invalid data”, showing the clouds, cloud shadow and gauzy fragments of land that are deemed unusable for scientific Earth observation.

A scientist’s waste can be an artist’s treasure. Our project, which combines science and art, shows what can be achieved when we view the aesthetic qualities of scientific inquiry objects from a more human-centred viewpoint.

A new light on clouds

Landsat 8’s sensor records what is known as “multi-spectral” imagery. This is data recorded in “bands” that isolate specific parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, from visible light to the near infrared.

Scientists study the infrared band. plants and water. When we used them to create clouds, we discovered striking colours, textures, forms.

True colour and false colour images of clouds.

On the right is a ‘true colour’ image, mapping the red, green and blue bands (432) of the sensor to RGB in the output image. On the left is a ‘false colour’ image, mapping the near infrared, and two shortwave infrared bands (567) of the sensor to RGB. The infrared images pick up more variation in cloud structure and temperature than the true color image.
Grayson Cooke. NASA/USGS Landsat 8.

The dramatic shifts in colouration that result from mapping the visible spectrum into the infrared channels, turning shades of grey and white into highly coloured tableaux transforms clouds into something radically new.

The coloured images show the amazing spectral complexity of clouds in terms of the wavelengths of sunlight that they absorb and reflect. The colours reflect many factors such as cloud temperature, density, height, and presence or absence of dust.

Tracing vapour

The Himawari 8 satellite is located in a geostationary orbit, high above a point at the equator north of Papua New Guinea. Its wide field of view allows it record multi-spectral images covering much of the Asia-Pacific region every ten minutes. This includes several infrared bands that are used to track gases and other particles within the atmosphere.

Path 99 uses bands to show water vapour transport around the planet in the video clips. This allows us to see Australia’s clouds in their wider context, as part of the massive circulations that distribute thermal energy around the Earth.

The “Path 99” trailer for planetarium. Imagine the circular image as a dome that is flipped up and rotated over your head.

Heads in clouds

Modern human activity is transforming the Earth, its atmosphere, and climate in a way that is increasingly unsustainable. We need new ways to understand, represent, and address this transformation.

Cloud behaviours provide crucial clues as to the extent of climate and weather changes. We should all be looking up at the clouds more than ever.

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