Thoughts of penguin research may bring to mind Antarctic research vessels and scientists layered in puffy down coats. However, in 2012, researchers Peter Fretwell and colleagues figured out a new way to study penguin populations… from space .
Fig. 1 Typical emperor penguin (not as seen from space). (Source: Christopher Michel Flickr License CC By 2.0)
Using satellite images, scientists confirmed seven new Emperor Penguin colonies on the Antarctic coastline by finding their guano (another word for poo). Although guano typically appears dark against a stark white background, it can be difficult to distinguish from snow or shadows. To be sure of their detection methods, scientists ground truthed their observations, meaning they actually visited suspected penguin sites to make sure their interpretations of satellite images were correct. This ended in good news for penguin lovers as it nearly doubled the estimate of Emperor Penguins in Antarctica.
Fig. 2 Typical emperor penguin guano (as seen from space). (Source: Modified from Fretwell et al., 2012.)
If we can study penguins, you may be wondering what else is visible from space. A hostile grass takeover? Desert dust? The Great Wall of China?
In the 1800s, long before we introduced satellites into Earth’s orbit, we introduced cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) into the western US. Since then, cheatgrass has aggressively invaded native ecosystems destroying native grassland and shrubland species. But don’t most grasses look alike? Surely we can’t identify a grass species in a satellite photo taken from over 400 miles away. It is true that we couldn’t… until we learned how we could. In 2005 researchers Bradley and Mustard figured out how cheatgrass’ response to rain would set it apart from other Great Basin species in the western US . Native species in the western US are used to dry climates. In particularly rainy years, these native species are not able to take advantage of the extra water, and so their growth rates remain similar. Cheatgrass however is able use the extra water for very productive growing seasons. By examining the changes in satellite images between years in vegetation cover, Bradley and Mustard created large scale accurate maps of the current cheatgrass distribution.
Fig. 3 Areas in the Great Basin invaded by cheatgrass show an extremely positive response to high rainfall totals (red and blue). This map was created using information from satellite images. (Source: Modified from Bradley and Mustard, 2005).
So far we have covered penguins and grass. But can we see anything smaller?
From space, the ocean is a beautiful blue color. However it can be distorted by dust particles and other aerosols in that atmosphere. For years, scientists corrected these distortions and used the resulting images to study the ocean and its properties. But in 2006, researchers Antoine and Nobileau used the color distortions to find information about the problem particles themselves. By deciphering the meaning behind ocean color inconsistencies in satellite images, Antoine and Nobileau provided further evidence that dust from the Saharan Desert was blowing over the Mediterranean Ocean at an increasing rate . These dust particles can impact marine life, and even affect rain acidity .
Fig. 4 Aerial image of Epares archipelago, Indian Ocean. (Source: NASA)
That leaves us with the Great Wall of China. While tough to see, parts of it are indeed visible from space. Though the use of satellite images in science, called remote sensing, has become increasingly popular, you don’t need to worry about satellites snapping a picture of you poolside because they can’t take detailed pictures of small individual things. However, scientists have found that we can get a better idea of what is happening here on Earth by taking a few BIG steps back.
 Fretwell, Peter T., Michelle A. LaRue, Paul Morin, Gerald L. Kooyman, Barbara Wienecke, Norman Ratcliffe, Adrian J. Fox, Andrew H. Fleming, Claire Porter, and Phil N. Trathan. “An emperor penguin population estimate: the first global, synoptic survey of a species from space.” PLoS One 7, no. 4 (2012): e33751.
 Bradley, Bethany A., and John F. Mustard. “Identifying land cover variability distinct from land cover change: cheatgrass in the Great Basin.” Remote Sensing of Environment 94, no. 2 (2005): 204-213.
 Antoine, David, and D. Nobileau. “Recent increase of Saharan dust transport over the Mediterranean Sea, as revealed from ocean color satellite (SeaWiFS) observations.” Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres 111, no. D12 (2006).
More From Thats Life [Science]
- WEIRD Science
- Hug an Oyster for Wildlife Conservation
- The Big Data Revolution
- If I Only Had A Brain (Organoid)
- Bang! 'Ouch' *Grab*
- Interview with Dr. Matthew Moore - Viral Perspectives
- Why are Parka Ruffs Made with Wolverine Fur?
- Why Don’t We Keep Resolutions?
- Genetic Diversity and Its Impact on Disease Treatment
- How Rat Fur can Help Diabetics Heal Wounds
- Using eDNA to Revolutionize Wildlife Conservation
- Fat is Good for Your Brain
- Why Wash Your Hands?
- A Unique Case of Arthropod Vision
- How does your clock tick?
- Expand Your Mind
- Going on Autopilot? Thank Your Place Cells
- Immunohistochemistry: One man’s illness is another man’s experimental verification method
- The Power of Fear: Four Ways Being Scared Affects Wildlife
- The crime-fighting field of forensic palynology
- Bioremediation - One Species’ Trash, Another’s Treasure?
- Brain Surgery… It’s Not Rocket Science!
- Changing the climate change conversation
- Why does alcohol make you dizzy?
- It’s Not Science Fiction, Chimeras Are Real
- A Peanut A Day Keeps the Allergist Away
- The Rise of Sourdough and Mason Jar Ecosystems
- Radioactive Bananas, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Greenhouse Gases, OH MY!
- Uncharted Intellectual Territory: Science Isn’t Linear
- It’s a Trap! How Looks Can Be Deceiving in Habitat Selection
- The Feelings that Linger: Good vs. Bad
- Go With Your Gut...
- Live Fast, Die Young: Why Some Animals Die After Mating
- New Culture, New Microbiome, New Problems
- If Only There Were a U.S. Census Question About Biodiversity…
- How An Invasive Plant Helped Fuel The Largest Wildfire You’ve Never Heard Of
- Human Eye Structure Makes No Sense…Or Does It?
- The Price of Pigment on Your Immune System
- Midnight Snacks Could Be the Death of You
- Lobster Fight Club
- Making a Murderer - A Matter of Biology?
- Got Lactase? Breaking Down the Enzyme
- Why Do I Shiver When It’s Cold?
- Crap you didn’t really need to know
- You Can't Observe A Lot Just By Watching
- What Do You Do When It's Too Hot to Move?
- 5 Fun Facts about Hormones
- Death stinks - literally
- Why the sea salt fad could be very bad
- Henry's Pockets: A Poem
- Biology Superpowers: X-Ray Vision
- How to Expand Your Senses by Reading a Blog Post
- What's up with bat echolocation?
- Seeing is Believing - How Can We Visualize Tiny Colorless Bacteria?
- Saving water is no longer a matter of how short our showers are · Water balance in a man-made world
- Double Digestion in Rabbits · Why Does Mopsy Eat Her Own Poop?
- Should I say sex or gender? Pt. 2
- Should I say sex or gender? Pt. 1
- How To Catch Hard-to-Catch Fish?
- Finding the Perfect Partner
- Is your gut trying to kill your resolve? · Mind over microbe
- Why Do Mothers Mother?
- GMO! The Places You'll Go!
- New-Fangled Paleontology · Really Old Fossils, Really Strong Predators, and Cool New Tech
- A Brief History of Evolutionary Thought, part III
- Saving face: transplanting our most distinctive features
- A Brief History of Evolutionary Thought, part II
- DNA as a solution for data storage · DNA - Nature’s Hard Drive
- A Crash Course in the Coolness of Mitochondria · Mitochondria: The Underrated Organelles
- A Pollinator’s Job Description and Why We Should All Care About Them · Pollination 101
- You May Say I’m Biased, But I’m Not the Only One
- The evolution of one of the greatest medical discoveries in history. · The Path of Least Resistance: Our Relationship with Antibiotics
- Mother Nature’s History Book · Estimating the Age of Life Long-Gone
- Proprioception as a vital sense · Know Your Limb-its
- Man’s Best Artificially-Selected Friend · Your Dog is a GMO Wolf
- Better Safe Than Sorry: The Pesticide Industry is Getting a Revamp
- Sometimes scientists have to get creative in order to effectively do science – especially on a budget. · The Bizarre Shopping List of a Determined Scientist
- Insects Get Sick Too: The Study of Insect Pathology
- Our teeny tiny friends and their huge potential · Employee of the Month - Hire a Microbe to Do Your Work
- A Brief History of Evolutionary Thought - Part I
- The Effects of Custom Build Paradise · Artificial Islands
- To B(PA) Or To Not B(PA): Regulating Endocrine Disruptors
- Bioluminescence truly looks like it is nothing short of sorcery, and although this naturally occurring phenomenon is well studied and explained, that does not take away from its beauty. · Fireflies of the Ocean: Lighting up the Dark with Science
- Part II - Cases of altruism in the animal kingdom · Charity cases in nature - when are animals more likely to be altruistic?
- Part I - Why true altruism is a rare behavior in the animal kingdom · Being selfish means staying alive
- Penguins and other strange things we study from space
- Pseudoreplication and the Art of Biological Statistics
- What is wrong with my tomatoes?...And other plant disease questions · Why did orange prices increase?
- How fecal microbiota transplants can improve lives and possibly save them · The Wonders of Fecal Transplants
- The scientific facts behind the safety and efficacy of childhood vaccines · Calling the Shots - Discussing Vaccines
- 3D Printing for Fun and Science
- What is wrong with my tomatoes?...And other plant disease questions · What is Phytopathology?
- Medical Mysteries Still Surrounding Zika Virus
- More ›