A Thousand Miles From Nowhere

Pelicans gliding along the east coast of Florida.

Cranes, heading inland at sunset with the crescent moon.


There is perhaps no better place to get away from it all than Norway’s Bouvet Island. Located in the South Atlantic Ocean between Africa, South America, and Antarctica, this uninhabited, 49-square-kilometer (19-square-mile)shield volcano is one of the most remote islands in the world. The nearest large land mass is the Princess Astrid Coast of Queen Maud Land, Antarctica—1,700 kilometers (1,100 miles) to the south. The nearest inhabited place is Tristan da Cunha, a remote island 2,260 kilometers (1,400 miles) to the northwest that is home to a few hundred people.

On May 26, 2013, the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8 acquired this natural-color image of Bouvet Island. Thick ice covers more than 90 percent of the island year round. Christensen glacier drains the north side; Posadowsky glacier drains the south side. A ring of volcanic black sand beaches encircles most of the island. (Download the large image to see them). In many areas, the thick layer of ice stops abruptly at the island’s edge, forming steep ice cliffs that plunge to the beaches and oceans below.

Seen from above, one of the most prominent features is Wilhelmplataet caldera, the large circular depression on the western side of Bouvet. Calderas form following volcanic eruptions as land collapses into newly empty or partly-emptied magma chambers. The most recent eruption occurred on Bouvet about 2,000 years ago.

The island is the southernmost extension of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the underwater mountain chain that runs through the Atlantic Ocean and serves as the dividing line between the African and South American plates in the southern hemisphere. Bouvet is located near the triple junction between the African, South American, and Antarctic plates.

The highest point—780-meter Olav Peak—lies midway across the island near the northern coast. Notice the long shadows that the peak casts into the caldera. Although it is not particularly tall, the peak's remoteness and the fact that it had never been climbed inspired filmmaker Jason Rodi—who had already climbed the highest mountain on all seven continents—to organize an expedition and give it a try. In 2012, a team of filmmakers, adventurers, and artists landed on the island and climbed to the highest point, where they planted a time capsule.

    1. References
  1. Beck, W. Bouvet Island: 3Y5X. Accessed November 4, 2013.
  2. Central Intelligence Agency (2013, July 1) World Factbook: Bouvet Island. Accessed November 4, 2013.
  3. Earth Observatory (2008, October 6) Bouvet Island, South Atlantic Ocean.
  4. Johnson, L. Marine geology in the environs of Bouvet Island and the South Atlantic triple junction. Marine Geophysical Researches, 1973 (2), 23-26.
  5. NOAA Photo Library Bouvet Island. Accessed November 4, 2013.
  6. Smithsonian Volcano Observatory Bouvet. Accessed November 4, 2013.
  7. Expedition for the Future The Last Place on Earth: Bouvet Island. Accessed November 4, 2013.

NASA Earth Observatory image by Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey. Caption by Adam Voiland.


Landsat 8 - OLI


In the United States, “fire” is synonymous with large wildfires burning in western forests, but more than half of all fires in the United States are in the Southeast. Several fires were burning on February 17, 2014, when the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite acquired this image. The fires are outlined in red.

It’s impossible to tell from the image alone what is burning or how the fires started. The southeastern United States is a highly managed landscape, and fire is an important management tool. State and federal forest services and industrial foresters use fire to thin tree stands. Sugarcane producers burn fields to strip away unneeded leaves before harvest in the winter. Farmers raising row crops such as soy, cotton, or rice burn residual stubble after harvest and before replanting, typically in the summer and fall.

These fires may also be prescribed fires in farms, grasslands, swamps, or forests. Florida is prone to fire, and so the Florida Forest Service promotes the use of prescribed fire to cut down on wildfire risk. At the end of January 2014, the agency had authorized more than 1,600 prescribed burn managers to burn 2.3 million acres of land annually—one of the most extensive prescribed burning programs in the nation. This means that it is likely that at least some of the fires seen in the image are prescribed burns.

The Florida Forest Service also reported a number of wildfires burning throughout the state. According to local news reports, a warm, wet summer spurred plant growth. The plants dried out as a result of freezing temperatures during the winter, leaving plenty of fuel for fires.

    1. References
  1. Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (2014, January 27) Florida’s prescribed fire awareness week ignites interest, participation in prescribed fire programs. Accessed February 19, 2014.
  2. Florida Forest Service (2014, February 19) Fire incidents. Accessed February 19, 2014.
  3. McCarty, J.L., et al. (2006) Agricultural burning in the Southeastern United States as detected by MODIS. Remote Sensing of Environment. Accessed February 19, 2014.
  4. StAugustine.com (2014, January 27) Controlled burns now means fewer wildfires later. Accessed February 19, 2014.

NASA image courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE/EOSDIS MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC. Caption by Holli Riebeek.


Aqua - MODIS


Why do sea gulls congregate in mall parking lots?

The birds that ornithologists call gulls, not sea gulls, do not strictly live by the sea and often find the open spaces of parking lots provide plenty of food.

There are more than 50 species of gulls worldwide, with many found hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean. Some live primarily inland, including the ring-billed gull, which thrives in suburban settings around the United States.

Gulls are opportunistic omnivores. That is to say they'll eat anything. Traditionally thought of as scavenging along beaches or swooping to the ocean surface to catch fish, they eat many things, including insects, earthworms, rodents, grains and, of course, french fries.

For species like the ring-billed gull, a mall parking lot offers the chance of a handout, a left-behind takeout meal and trash bins filled with food scraps. Grassy medians and recently mowed fields can be a good source of invertebrates.

An empty parking lot or a big-box store’s roof can also offer a safe resting place between bouts of foraging.

Gulls prefer open areas where they can spot predators and take off easily, which makes parking lots a seemingly ideal habitat.

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