It will be a profound irony if NASA’s lasting value will be to document from space the planet’s decline.
Case in point: The agency released today a scientific visualization video showing the transition of the entire African rainforest in the Congo from green to a drought-stricken brown.
The visualization is based on data from NASA satellites, and the related study is published today in the scientific journal Nature. The rainforest is the second largest in the world, after the Amazon.
“It’s important to understand these changes because most climate models predict tropical forests may be under stress due to increasing severe water shortages in a warmer and drier 21st century climate,” said study leader Liming Zhou of the University of Albany, State University of New York, in a statement.
The drought in that region has been ongoing since 2000. Droughts affecting African rainforests are less severe but last longer than ones in the Amazon rainforest, which had its own water shortages in 2005 and 2010.
The study specifically measures the Enhanced Vegetation Index, tracked by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer aboard NASA’s Terra satellite. The decreasing green and increasing brown shows a long-term adjustment to the waterless conditions.
Study co-author Sassan Saatchi from NASA’s famed Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Calif., clearly laid the blame on climate change.
He told news media that forests in the Congo tend to be “resilient to moderate climate change because they have been exposed to dry conditions in the past few hundred years.”
But this is different.
“The recent climate anomalies as a result of climate change and warming of the Atlantic Ocean,” Saatchi said, “have created several droughts in the tropics, causing major impacts on forests.”
The browning of the African rainforest is only the latest data capture by NASA of climate change’s massive effects. This year, it is launching five Earth-observing missions, more than it has done in one year in more than a decade. To understand in more detail how climate change is occurring, they will measure global precipitation, the soil moisture cycle, carbon dioxide, winds, and other metrics.