Earth from Space

High-def­i­ni­tion satel­lite im­ages are rev­o­lu­tion­is­ing nat­u­ral-his­tory tele­vi­sion, as the se­ries pro­ducer of Earth from Space re­veals.

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Contents - By Chloë Sarosh

The BBC One se­ries rev­o­lu­tion­is­ing nat­u­ral his­tory tele­vi­sion through its use of high-def­i­ni­tion satel­lite im­agery

Back in 1946, a group of sci­en­tists launched a 35mm cam­era on a rocket al­most 105km into or­bit. The cam­era it­self was smashed to pieces on land­ing, but its film sur­vived. The pic­tures – grainy and in­dis­tinct – were our first glimpse of Earth from space. Now, over 70 years on, tech­nol­ogy has im­proved al­most beyond imag­i­na­tion. Not only can we mar­vel at the im­ages taken by as­tro­nauts from the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion, but re­mote cam­eras on board satel­lites or­bit­ing Earth are now cap­tur­ing its sur­face in in­cred­i­ble de­tail. Great land­scapes be­come beau­ti­ful ab­stract works of art – ex­quis­ite colours and shapes form­ing in­tri­cate pat­terns.

Satel­lite cam­eras of­fer a chance to look down at our planet from a new per­spec­tive. In­spired by their im­ages, a de­vel­op­ment team at the BBC’s Nat­u­ral His­tory Unit be­gan to won­der if this could be an op­por­tu­nity to tell the story of life on Earth in a new way.

We were gifted the chance to take a pic­ture any­where on the planet.

And so, the se­ries Earth from Space started to take shape. We re­alised we could fol­low huge swirling weather sys­tems as they raced across con­ti­nents, af­fect­ing all life in their path, and show re­mote habi­tats change over years or trans­form with the sea­sons, putting the adap­ta­tion of an­i­mals into a global con­text. We were gifted the chance to take a pic­ture any­where on the planet at any given mo­ment. Satel­lites could be­come truly re­mote cam­era op­er­a­tors. So ad­vanced is satel­lite cam­era tech­nol­ogy that each sin­gle pixel within a pic­ture can equate to as lit­tle as 30cm on the ground. This means that if you were to zoom in on Lon­don, you’d be able to find Big Ben, in­di­vid­ual houses, even cars lin­ing the streets.

But we were in­ter­ested in more than just the ul­ti­mate selfie – in what kind of de­tail could we ex­plore the nat­u­ral world? If you’re able to see a car in Lon­don, then surely you could find an ele­phant roam­ing the plains of Africa? There was only one way to find out.

Film­ing an ele­phant from space – how hard could it be? Se­ries direc­tor Barny Revill flew out to Kenya to put the­ory into prac­tice. To find an in­di­vid­ual an­i­mal in such a vast land­scape, he needed to tell the satel­lite cam­era which part of the plains to point at – en­ter, the con­ser­va­tion char­ity Save the Ele­phants, which uses GPS col­lars to mon­i­tor ele­phants. The col­lars send up­dates on their lo­ca­tion ev­ery hour, via satel­lite.

Right place, right time

But when you take a pic­ture from space, you don’t see it in­stantly. ‘Our’ cam­era was on a dif­fer­ent satel­lite, which wouldn’t be in the cor­rect po­si­tion for an­other 48 hours and, dur­ing that time, a herd could eas­ily move from the area and thus be out of shot. “Once I re­ceived a GPS co­or­di­nate from Save the Ele­phants, I im­me­di­ately sent it on to the com­mer­cial satel­lite com­pany we were us­ing, while rac­ing to the lo­ca­tion in a 4x4,” Barny ex­plains. “Luck­ily, we found

the herd and our cam­era­man set up. Then we put a drone into the air. It was just a ques­tion of cross­ing our fingers and hop­ing the herd would stay put.”

It was sev­eral days be­fore the im­age made it down from space and onto Barny’s lap­top com­puter. While he waited, he found him­self in the cen­tre of an un­ex­pect­edly dra­matic wildlife story.

North­ern Kenya was in the midst of a se­ri­ous drought – the rains had not ar­rived. “It was clear that the an­i­mals were strug­gling,” Barny says. “We saw oryx with jut­ting ribcages, and lots of dead bod­ies on the ground. It was shock­ing – heart­break­ing.” But this was not the only sur­prise.

Barny had ex­pected to find the ele­phants in the rel­a­tive safety of Sam­buru Na­tional Re­serve. But, in­stead, the GPS sig­nal guided the crew to a small patch of green around 10km out of the park, close to a busy main road, where the ele­phants were feed­ing on scrubby veg­e­ta­tion. Led by an ex­pe­ri­enced

ma­tri­arch, this herd wouldn’t will­ingly have cho­sen to be so close to hu­man habi­ta­tion – es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing their new­est ad­di­tion, a calf un­der a week old.

“I had gone out to Kenya to see if we could cap­ture an im­age of an ele­phant from space, yet I found my­self watch­ing a herd des­per­ate for food,” Barny says. “The herd had been forced to put its new baby in dan­ger, and it was clear how badly this fam­ily needed it to rain.”

As Barny and the rest of the crew waited for the satel­lite im­age, he fol­lowed the vul­ner­a­ble fam­ily as they fed by the road­side, and it dawned on him that they had in­for­ma­tion that the ele­phants could not hope to know. By track­ing weather satel­lites, the crew could see that clouds were build­ing. Rain was just days away. “When the rain ar­rived, the re­lief for ev­ery­one, both hu­mans and ele­phants, was pal­pa­ble,” says Barny. “Al­most im­me­di­ately, the herd started head­ing back to the re­serve.”

The story had evolved in a way the team could not have imag­ined. Not only had satel­lite cam­eras suc­cess­fully picked out the herd from or­bit, they were able to track the weather sys­tems and fol­low the rain as it made its way to­ward the ele­phant fam­ily. They con­tin­ued to cap­ture im­agery of Sam­buru over sev­eral weeks, as the or­ange of drought-starved ground trans­formed into lush green. The view from space en­abled the drama of a sin­gle herd’s strug­gle to be told from a brand new per­spec­tive.

Be­ing able to scour Earth’s sur­face in such re­mark­able de­tail is an in­cred­i­bly pow­er­ful tool, al­low­ing sci­en­tists to ex­plore the most re­mote parts of the planet with­out hav­ing to set sail or put boots on the ground. This has led to one of the most im­por­tant, un­ex­pected and up­lift­ing wildlife dis­cov­er­ies in the past decade.

Leav­ing their mark

Re­searchers study­ing im­ages taken of the Antarc­tic ice shelf no­ticed brown patches on the white. They were dis­tinct in shape from the shad­ows and rocks, but it was the colour that re­ally gave the game away – they were look­ing at the guano from a huge colony of em­peror pen­guins. Af­ter this ini­tial dis­cov­ery, sci­en­tists found pen­guin colonies across the ice shelf, pre­dict­ing the num­ber of birds present by the size of the patch.

As daily tem­per­a­tures on the Antarc­tic ice shelf plunge to –40°C, all fresh wa­ter is frozen, so em­peror pen­guins eat the snow be­neath their feet. But with hun­dreds of birds in a colony, the snow can quickly be­come pretty un­ap­peal­ing. As a re­sult, the colony moves to find fresh snow, leav­ing be­hind a trail of brown. By com­bin­ing satel­lite im­ages, taken over days and weeks, it is pos­si­ble to fol­low a colony’s progress across the ice shelf.

Spot­ting pen­guin poo from space has now led to the dis­cov­ery of 26 pre­vi­ously un­known colonies of em­peror pen­guins, dou­bling the known global pop­u­la­tion. Now sci­en­tists have re­ally got their eye in, they’re able to dif­fer­en­ti­ate be­tween dif­fer­ent species of pen­guin, just from the colour they leave be­hind. “If you’ve ever changed a baby’s nappy, you’ll find the con­tents can be dif­fer­ent colours, and the same is true of pen­guins,” ex­plains Peter Fretwell of the Bri­tish Antarc­tic Sur­vey.

Be­ing able to scour Earth’s sur­face in such de­tail is an in­cred­i­ble tool.

Through­out the mak­ing of Earth from Space, we were as­tounded by the sheer de­tail with which satel­lite cam­eras can ex­plore our home. Black flecks along the sur­face of Namibia’s coastal dunes were in­di­vid­ual Cape fur seals in a colony of thou­sands. Tiny white dots set against the green veg­e­ta­tion of re­mote Antarc­tic is­lands were wan­der­ing al­ba­trosses, while spots of red on sea ice pin­pointed the birthing sites of Wed­dell seals. By zoom­ing in on the warm wa­ters off the coast of Baja Cal­i­for­nia, we were able to make out the un­mis­tak­able bod­ies of grey whales be­low the sur­face, there to give birth at the end of an epic mi­gra­tion from Alaska.

Dig­ging around

Even an­i­mals too small to be seen in­di­vid­u­ally by satel­lite leave marks that re­veal their where­abouts – and, in South Aus­tralia, we fi­nally found a team favourite. Direc­tor Paul Thomp­son was read­ing a pa­per about a cer­tain Aus­tralian mam­mal while in the BBC pro­duc­tion of­fice in Bris­tol. The study claimed that this species’ ac­tiv­ity could be seen from space. “I was du­bi­ous, but cu­ri­ous enough to search through the satel­lite im­ages,” Paul says.

“We zoomed in over South Aus­tralia, and, sure enough, found huge ar­eas cov­ered in white patches. I couldn’t be­lieve it,” Paul con­tin­ues. These white patches stood out against the dusty, arid or­ange earth, each mea­sur­ing only a few me­tres or so on the ground, with a darker spot to­ward the cen­tre – bur­rows dug by wom­bats.

“It seemed such an im­prob­a­ble species to cre­ate pat­terns vis­i­ble from space,” laughs Paul. “I had no idea that wom­bats were ca­pa­ble of con­struc­tion on such a huge scale.” We despatched a cam­era team to the site, to cap­ture the in­dus­tri­ous mar­su­pi­als at work. It quickly be­came clear that south­ern hairy-nosed wom­bats spend the ma­jor­ity of their time asleep, wak­ing only when the tem­per­a­ture drops. But when they wake up, you sud­denly un­der­stand their need for rest – they’re com­pul­sive dig­gers.

Each wom­bat digs and main­tains a bur­row, be­cause liv­ing un­der­ground is cooler. It’s a smart way to es­cape the in­tense heat. How­ever, what’s clear from the satel­lite im­ages is that these bur­rows have many en­trances and ex­its – they are far more com­plex than is nec­es­sary just to beat the heat. The as­sump­tion is that wom­bats sim­ply like to dig. Ev­ery an­i­mal might ex­ca­vate 10 bur­rows in its life­time, and with over a mil­lion in­di­vid­u­als es­ti­mated to be liv­ing in the area, the re­sult is a pock-marked wom­bat me­trop­o­lis.

Track­ing changes

Once ev­ery­one on the Earth from Space team had sated their urge to look for the weird and won­der­ful from space, we re­alised that there was an­other pow­er­ful use to which we could put this lat­est-gen­er­a­tion satel­lite im­agery. By com­bin­ing many im­ages taken of the same lo­ca­tion over days, weeks, months or years and weav­ing them into time-lapse se­quences, we could re­veal the planet chang­ing as never be­fore.

Ever-ex­pand­ing cities are per­haps the most im­pres­sive ex­am­ple, their suburbs me­chan­i­cally scut­tling out over Earth’s sur­face. More sober­ing is to watch huge ar­eas of for­est dis­ap­pear as trees are lost to make way for plan­ta­tions and the wood is used for build­ing and pa­per. But it isn’t all doom and gloom. Our new time-lapse tech­nique also shows the majesty of the pass­ing of the sea­sons, and sheds new light on the per­son­al­ity of one of Earth’s great­est nat­u­ral won­ders: the Ama­zon River.

By com­bin­ing satel­lite im­ages of the mighty Ama­zon, taken over 10 years, the wa­ter be­comes alive. It twists and turns as it changes course through the rain­for­est, bends be­com­ing cut off and cre­at­ing oxbow lakes. The ef­fect is mes­mer­iz­ing. In fact, this is the great­est take­away from the se­ries. Ev­ery sin­gle im­age is ex­cit­ing.

The view from space re­veals how unique, di­verse and beau­ti­ful Earth is. If our se­ries does noth­ing more than in­spire a sense of won­der at our spe­cial home, and mo­ti­vate us to look af­ter it bet­ter, that is enough.

FIND OUT MORE The ac­com­pa­ny­ing book Earth from Space, by Chloë Sarosh and Michael Bright, is pub­lished by BBC Books.

By com­bin­ing many im­ages, we could re­veal the planet chang­ing as never be­fore.

Above left: satel­lite im­ages taken from over 600km above the Earth cap­ture a herd of ele­phants at Buf­falo Springs Na­tional Park in Kenya. Above: drones are able to get a closer look. Be­low left: chimps in Tan­za­nia ben­e­fit from for­est re­cov­ery. Be­low: rain spot­ted via satel­lite saved ele­phants in Sam­buru Na­tional Re­serve from a se­vere drought.

Lo­cat­ing patches of pen­guin poo has led to the dis­cov­ery of 26 colonies of em­peror pen­guins ( above right). Right: grey whales can be spot­ted from space.

Top right: Florida’s beach mice are sen­si­tive to cli­mate and habi­tat changes. Be­low: an aurora, viewed from the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion, shrouds the Earth.

Above: this south­ern hairy-nosed wom­bat is bliss­fully un­aware that its bur­rows can be viewed from space ( right).

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