Insights about Earth: 18 Unbelievable Landsat Photos from NASA

NASA’s website for the Landsat program quotes the baseball player Yogi Berra, saying “You can see a lot by just looking”. If you’ve never heard of the Landsat program before, that quote pretty much sums it up. There have been eight Landsats since 1972, and their purpose from the beginning was to take photographs of the earth. And by photographing the same place over 40 years, these photos give amazing insights into things like soil erosion, the effects of natural disasters, and the migration of penguin colonies.

Alaska’s Columbia Glacier

Alaska’s Columbia Glacier: The Columbia Glacier descends from an ice field 3,050 meters (10,000 feet) above sea level, down the flanks of the Chugach Mountains, and into a narrow inlet that leads into Prince William Sound in southeastern Alaska. It is one of the most rapidly changing glaciers in the world. This false-color image, captured by the Thematic Mapper (TM) instrument on Landsat 5, show the glacier and the surrounding landscape in 2011. Snow and ice appears bright cyan, vegetation is green, clouds are white or light orange, and the open ocean is dark blue. Exposed bedrock is brown, while rocky debris on the glacier’s surface is gray.

Yukon Delta

Yukon Delta: Countless lakes, sloughs, and ponds are scattered throughout this scene of the Yukon Delta in southwest Alaska. One of the largest river deltas in the world, and protected as part of the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, the river’s sinuous waterways seem like blood vessels branching out to enclose an organ.

Pretty much everyone knows the ‘blue marble‘ image. Taken by the crew of Apollo 17 in 1972, it’s a picture of the earth, framed against the vast emptiness of space. The image is common now, but no one knew what the earth looked like from space until the late 1960’s, when people actually went up there. And though we went up to explore space, there was no denying the sudden appeal of the earth below. For the first time we could really see the earth in all its glory, and NASA and the Department of the Interior decided to see more. So the Landsat program was born.

When Landsat 1 was being designed, a new type of imaging system was installed, which could detect light wavelengths outside the visible spectrum, like infrared. This was helpful in showing things like water saturation in soil. So instead of trying to tell the difference between slightly different shades of green, as you would in a ‘true color’ photograph, the imaging system could use other wavelengths and display saturated areas in pink and dry areas in yellow. The different way of looking meant greater understanding, and some amazing looking images.

Lake Eyre

Lake Eyre: The scary face in this image is actually inundated patches of shallow Lake Eyre (pronounced “air”) in the desert country of northern South Australia. An ephemeral feature of this flat, parched landscape, Lake Eyre is Australia’s largest lake when it’s full. However in the last 150 years, it has filled completely only three times.

Meandering Mississippi

Meandering Mississippi: Small, blocky shapes of towns, fields, and pastures surround the graceful swirls and whorls of the Mississippi River. Countless oxbow lakes and cutoffs accompany the meandering river south of Memphis, Tennessee, on the border between Arkansas and Mississippi, USA. The “mighty Mississippi” is the largest river system in North America.

Possibly even more amazing however, are the images that are ‘true color’. Red clouds, anyone?

The Rocky Mountain Trench

The Rocky Mountain Trench: The high reflectance of clouds compared to the surrounding land, coupled with the low sun elevation when this image was acquired, causes low clouds to appear red as they fill a portion of the Rocky Mountain Trench. Running parallel with the peaks of the Canadian Rockies and ranging from 2 to 10 miles (3 to 16 kilometers) wide and about 900 miles (1,448 kilometers) long, the Trench aligns with the Fraser River and makes its way past Mount Robson, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies at 12,972 feet (3,954 meters). Mount Robson is near the center of this image.

Algerian Abstract

Algerian Abstract: What look like pale yellow paint streaks slashing through a mosaic of mottled colors are ridges of wind-blown sand that make up Erg Iguidi, an area of ever-shifting sand dunes extending from Algeria into Mauritania in northwestern Africa. Erg Iguidi is one of several Saharan ergs, or sand seas, where individual dunes often surpass 500 meters-nearly a third of a mile-in both width and height.


Argentina: The Sierra de Velasco Mountains dominate this image in northern Argentina. The Catamarca province is in the northern part of the image, and the La Rioja province is to the south. The streams are fed by runoff from the snow in the Andes Mountains to the north. These intermittent streams can dry up rapidly. The larger urban area near the bottom of the image is La Rioja, the capital of the province of La Rioja.

Nazca Lines, Peru

Nazca Lines, Peru: In the desert of southwest Peru, between the Andes Mountains and the Peruvian coast, lies a plateau with huge geometric patterns and spirals, animal figures including a monkey, a spider, and an ‘owl man,’ and thousands of perfectly straight lines. The last of these was drawn about a thousand years ago. Known as the Nazca lines, the drawings have mystified scientists since they were first discovered in the 1920s. Pictured here is all that can be seen of these lines by Landsat 7’s 15 meter pan band, which has been used to sharpen the 30 meter Bands 3, 2, and 1.

Detroit, Michigan, USA

Detroit, Michigan, USA: Detroit, Michigan, is commonly referred to as Motor City because of the many automobile manufacturing plants located in the city. It is the largest city in Michigan, with a population approaching one million.

Al Basrah, Iraq

Al Basrah, Iraq: Smoke drifts south in this image of Al Basrah, located in southeastern Iraq. The green circles from the center to the left of the image represent irrigated crops.

Lena Delta

Lena Delta: The Lena River, some 2,800 miles (4,400 km) long, is one of the largest rivers in the world. The Lena Delta Reserve is the most extensive protected wilderness area in Russia. It is an important refuge and breeding grounds for many species of Siberian wildlife.

Icefall, Lambert Glacier, Antarctica

Icefall, Lambert Glacier, Antarctica: The Lambert Glacier in Antarctica, is the world’s largest glacier. The focal point of this image is an icefall that feeds into the Lambert glacier from the vast ice sheet covering the polar plateau. Ice flows like water, albeit much more slowly. Cracks can be seen in this icefall as it bends and twists on its slow-motion descent 1300 feet (400 meters) to the glacier below.

Alluvial Fan, China

Alluvial Fan, China: Image taken 5/2/2002 by ASTER: A vast alluvial fan blossoms across the desolate landscape between the Kunlun and Altun mountain ranges that form the southern border of the Taklimakan Desert in China’s XinJiang Province.

If you’re wondering what an ‘alluvial fan’ is and why they look like a hot air balloon, you’re not alone.  The type above is formed when a stream or river coming down a mountain ends at a flat spot at the bottom.  The stream spreads out, carrying sediment with it, which eventually breaks up to form the tendrils of water in the top of the image. In a dry season the streams may mostly dry up, but because they leave the sediment behind, the alluvial fan will probably still be visible.


Himalayas: April 12th, 2001. Soaring, snow-capped peaks and ridges of the eastern Himalaya Mountains create an irregular white-on-red patchwork between major rivers in southwestern China. The Himalayas are made up of three parallel mountain ranges that together extend more than 2,900 kilometers.

Akpatok Island

Akpatok Island: January 1st, 2001. Akpatok Island lies in Ungava Bay in northern Quebec, Canada. Accessible only by air, Akpatok Island rises out of the water as sheer cliffs that soar 500 to 800 feet (150 to 243m) above the sea surface. The island is an important sanctuary for cliff-nesting seabirds. Numerous ice floes around the island attract walrus and whales, making Akpatok a traditional hunting ground for native Inuit people.

Richat Structure

Richat Structure: Image taken 1/11/2001. The so-called Richat Structure is a geological formation in the Maur Adrar Desert in the African country of Mauritania. Although it resembles an impact crater, the Richat Structure formed when a volcanic dome hardened and gradually eroded, exposing the onion-like layers of rock.

Von Karman Vortices

Von Karman Vortices: July 4th, 2002. As air flows over and around objects in its path, spiraling eddies, known as Von Karman vortices, may form. The vortices in this image were created when prevailing winds sweeping east across the northern Pacific Ocean encountered Alaska’s Aleutian Islands.


Guinea-Bissau: This Landsat 7 image of Guinea-Bissau, a small country in West Africa, shows the complex patterns of the country’s shallow coastal waters, where silt carried by the Geba and other rivers washes out into the Atlantic Ocean. This is a false-color composite image made using infrared, red and blue wavelengths to bring out details in the silt was taken using Landsat 7’s Enhanced Thematic Mapper plus (ETM+) sensor on Jan. 12, 2000.

All of Landsat’s images are available through the US Geological Survey’s database. There are many more amazing sights, so if you’d like to see more, go here and click on ‘Gallery’. To learn more about the history of Landsat, NASA’s website explains it all, and if you’d like to keep up to date on the latest information and images still coming from Landsat 7 and 8, visit here.

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2 Comments on "Insights about Earth: 18 Unbelievable Landsat Photos from NASA"

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Laura from Ld Nature Photography

These are beautiful and very interesting! I love the ‘Meandering Mississippi’. Really puts in perspective how small we are in the grand scheme of things.

Jay Long

These images are breath-taking and awe-inspiring. I guess we wouldn’t expect much less from Mother Earth and NASA working together. Great views.

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