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