Using Clouds to Map Ecosystem Boundaries

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Clouds are an important part of life here on Earth; they are part of the atmosphere, help contain heat, and are an integral part of the water cycle. New research now shows that clouds can also be used to map life on Earth.

NASA’s Aqua and Terra satellites are equipped with something called the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer, or MODIS. The MODIS captures images of clouds on Earth throughout the year, and 14 years of images have gone into recent studies on the patterns of clouds during each season of the year.

Cloud seasonality can influence Earth’s ecosystems; for instance, tropical forests have a near constant layer of clouds over them, while savannas may experience a drop in cloud cover during dry seasons every year. Clouds are also being used to research species range, or the geographical boundaries in which a specific species of plant or animal could live and thrive.

Cloud cover based on 15 years of satellite observations captured by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) sensors on NASA’s Aqua and Terra satellites.

Cloud cover based on 15 years of satellite observations captured by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) sensors on NASA’s Aqua and Terra satellites.

Researching clouds and their impact on ecosystems and species could help researchers find an entirely new way to see the Earth. By looking at clouds, researchers can add a layer of evidence to existing theories and practices of conservation of land and animals. The cloud research and satellite imagery from NASA’s satellites are going to add a layer of imagery and information to a project scientists are calling the Map of Life, which will depict different ecosystems around the globe.

Map showing timing of peak cloudiness within a given year.

Map showing timing of peak cloudiness within a given year.

Without clouds, the world would be a much less hospitable place for humans, plants, and animals. Clouds differentiate tropical rainforests from savannas, deserts, and rainy seasons. Researching clouds and cloud seasonality could help researchers find more ways to conserve valuable plant and animal life in the places that need it the most.

More:

Using Clouds to Map Life, NASA, April 22, 2016.

NASA Earth Observatory maps by Jesse Allen and Joshua Stevens, using MODIS data processed by Adam Wilson and Walter Jetz available at EarthEnv.