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NASA camera captures Amazon fires

Satellite movie shows clouds of carbon monoxide drifting over South America.

NASA's Aqua satellite keeps an eye on the atmosphere over South America

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech
  • The Amazon fires were captured by the AIRS camera on the Aqua satellite.
  • A movie clip released by NASA shows a huge cloud of CO drifting across the continent.
  • Fortunately, carbon monoxide at this altitude has little effect on air quality.

Infrared evidence

You don't need eyes to see the massive fires raging in the Amazon. An infrared camera fitted on a satellite will do.

This movie, based on data collected from 8th to 22nd of August by the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) on NASA's Aqua satellite, shows carbon monoxide (CO) levels at 18,000 feet (5.5 km) above South America.

The colours denote the density of carbon monoxide, from green (approximately 100 parts per billion by volume) over yellow (app. 120 ppbv) to dark red (app. 160 ppbv). Local values can be much higher. Each separate shot is the average of three days' worth of measurements, a technique used to eliminate data gaps.

As the clip shows, the CO plume rises in the northwest part of the Amazon, a massive region covering Brazil's western half. First it drifts further northwest, towards the Pacific Ocean; then, in a more concentrated plume, towards Brazil's southeast.

CO (1) can persist up to a month in the atmosphere and can travel large distances. At the altitude shown in this clip, it has little effect on the air we breathe. However, strong winds can carry it down to inhabited parts, where it can impact air quality.

Fishbone pattern

Fishbone Deforestation in Rond\u00f4nia state

Deforestation in the Amazon forest, just east of Porto Velho, following the typical 'fishbone' pattern.

Image: Planet Labs, Inc. / CC BY-SA 4.0

The rainforests of the Amazon are often called the 'lungs of the planet', because they absorb large amounts of CO2 and produce roughly one-fifth of the planet's oxygen. In other words: one in every five of the breaths you take you owe to the Amazon.

But the Amazon's respiratory function is impaired by deforestation, a process which continues on a massive scale, both in Brazil and worldwide. In 2018, the planet lost 30 million acres of tree cover (roughly the size of Pennsylvania). This included almost 9 million acres of rain forest (slightly more than the size of Maryland).

Thanks to efforts by Brazil's previous administration, deforestation in the Amazon had slowed down to its slowest paces since records began; but a recession in 2014 again placed economic needs above ecological concerns. The pace of deforestation increased again and it has only accelerated since the election last year of Brazil's new president, Jair Bolsonaro.

850,000 acres lost

Terra Ind\u00edgena Porquinhos, Maranh\u00e3o

Amazon forest fires raging in Brazil's Maranhão state.

Image: Ibama / CC BY 2.0

Mr Bolsonaro's campaign pledge to open larger swathes of the Amazon for exploitation has emboldened local ranchers and farmers. From January to August this year, Brazil's National Institute of Space Research identified more than 40,000 separate forest fires in the country – 35% more than the average for the first eight months of each year since 2010.

Few of these fires occur naturally: most are set in order to increase the land available for crops and pasture. As a result, the Amazon lost more than 850,000 acres of forest cover in the first half of this year alone. That's 39% more than in the same period last year and represents an area the size of Rhode Island.

Satellite images: NASA/JPL-Caltech, found here at NASA.

Strange Maps #986

Got a strange map? Let me know at strangemaps@gmail.com.


(1) Carbon monoxide (CO) is often confused with carbon dioxide (CO2). Both are gases without colour, smell or taste, both are formed by the combination of carbon and oxygen, both are released during combustion or fire, both can be lethal in high concentrations and both play a role in air pollution and climate change.

CO2 is a very common gas.

  • The current average CO2 level in Earth is 400 ppm. It is a natural by-product of respiration, fermentation and combustion, and is required for plant life.
  • Although this is the gas that gives divers 'the bends', CO2 poisoning in general is rare.
  • CO2 is life-threatening only from 80,000 ppm (8%).

CO, on closer inspection, is quite different.

  • It is a by-product of oxygen-starved combustion of fuel. In nature, it occurs only in trace amounts – main sources include volcanic eruptions and forest fires, as currently in the Amazon.
  • So, CO is relatively rare component of the Earth's atmosphere. The current average is 0.1 ppm.
  • Concentrations of less than 100 ppm can induce headaches and dizziness. By 700 ppm, CO can be deadly.
  • Dangerous levels of CO are produced by improperly ventilated ovens, heaters, furnaces and other fuel-burning appliances, as well as car engines without catalytic converters. CO poisoning is the most common type of poisoning in the world.

Neom, Saudi Arabia's $500 billion megacity, reaches its next phase

Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.

Credit: Neom
Technology & Innovation
  • The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
  • The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
  • It will feature an artificial moon, cloud seeding, robotic gladiators and flying taxis.
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Tuberculosis vaccine shows promise in reducing COVID deaths

A new study suggests that a century-old vaccine may reduce the severity of coronavirus cases.

Closeup of a BCG vaccination.

Credit: Kekyalyaynen.
Surprising Science
  • A new study finds a country's tuberculosis BCG vaccination is linked to its COVID-19 mortality rate.
  • More BCG vaccinations is connected to fewer severe coronavirus cases.
  • The study is preliminary and more research is needed to support the findings.
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Human brains remember certain words more easily than others

A study of the manner in which memory works turns up a surprising thing.

Image Point Fr / Shutterstock
Mind & Brain
  • Researchers have found that some basic words appear to be more memorable than others.
  • Some faces are also easier to commit to memory.
  • Scientists suggest that these words serve as semantic bridges when the brain is searching for a memory.

Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.

The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

An odd find

Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock

Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.

"Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."

Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.

The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."

Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.

"We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."

Why understanding memory matters

person holding missing piece from human head puzzle

Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock

"Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.

If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."

Party chat

Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock

Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.

Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."

spinning 3D model of a brain

Temporal lobes

Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia

At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.

Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.

In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.

Seek, find

Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."

He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.

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