Gaze a While at ImaGeo, a Synthesis of Earth Images and Lively Imagination

An animation of Saharan dust moving across the Atlantic Ocean, used in ImaGeo.

Tom Yulsman was sick of the circular arguments with self-professed (and often, professional) “climate skeptics” – people who cling to the notion that humans play little or no role in climate change, despite a preponderance of evidence to the contrary. Worse, they seemed completely disinterested in the very principles of scientific inquiry, Yulman says.

“These repetitive and vituperative conversations didn’t reach very far,” recalls Yulsman, who has more than 30 years of experience writing about science and the environment for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and several national publications. Yulsman’s book, “Origins, The Quest for Our Cosmic Roots,” was so authoritative that a reviewer for The New Scientist confessed he was surprised to learn that Yulsman was not himself an astronomer. (The reviewer – it should be noted – was.)

Tom Yulsman. Image Credit: Michael Kodas.

Tom Yulsman. Image Credit: Michael Kodas.

Debating climate change with ideologues was enervating. “I found myself retreating into photography as a way to repair my psyche and soul from the damage done by decades of participation in that pointless conflict,” Yulsman says.

In time, “image therapy” did the trick – which gave Yulsman an idea. “If visuals were both restorative and compelling for me in this way,” he thought, “why not try visual communication in a blog?”

The result is ImaGeo, a unique synthesis of images and Yulsman’s lively imagination, appearing several times a week in, the online iteration of the popular science magazine.

For Yulsman, who directs the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado, just about any natural event on the planet is fair game for an ImaGeo post. He’s covered wildfires in the United States, annual fluctuation in Greenland’s ice sheet, global tropical cyclones patterns back to 1842, and recent flooding in Australia.

Atlantic cyclone tracks from 1842 to 2012. Image Credit: NOAA.

Atlantic cyclone tracks from 1842 to 2012. Image Credit: NOAA.

Yulsman occasionally finds even this extensive beat too limiting. He has, for example, blogged about solar filaments that are 50 times larger than Earth and written, unabashedly awestruck, about a thunderstorm on Saturn that stretched 190,000 miles. Yulsman has just one inviolable rule: “If I can’t come up with a compelling graphic for a story. I won’t post it. It’s as simple as that.”

Yulsman talked with Earthzine about his approach to using Earth observation.

Yulsman: Earth observation, as I understand it, emphasizes remote sensing of our planet’s natural processes. And it is not limited to imagery. So, for example, images of Earth from NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites and data on changes to ice sheets from the GRACE satellites are both examples of remote sensing. The former produce beautiful images of Earth; the latter produce data that can be visualized in compelling ways. And both are fair game for me at ImaGeo, as is remote sensing in general.

But the blog is about much more than remote sensing. It also includes photography, including my own images. In fact, one of the my favorite kind of features at the blog falls into a category that I have come to think of as “upstairs/downstairs” — meaning imagery of a particular phenomenon acquired both from orbit and on the ground.


Colorado’s Front Range at sunset on Feb. 5. Image Credit: Tom Yulsman.

Colorado’s Front Range at sunset on Feb. 5. Image Credit: Tom Yulsman.

A variety of imagery related to the science of our planet, ranging from photography, to remote sensing, to data visualization, are at the heart of ImaGeo. My goal is for every post to be anchored by at least one compelling image. But that doesn’t mean it is simply a visual blog. As many of my posts show, reporting and writing also are important.

Earthzine: As consumers of news, we seem increasingly visually oriented. What are the upsides and downsides to this?

Yulsman: I’d prefer not to think of upsides and downsides to visual communication versus other forms. I prefer to think in terms of integrating the different forms, and taking advantage of the unique powers of each kind to help tell stories and enhance both appreciation for the wonders of our planet, and knowledge of the impacts we’re having on it. We need all of it — the long-form narratives, the short news stories, the engaging (and often enraging) blog posts, AND the visuals that stop us in our tracks and, in a single frame, speak volumes.

Earthzine: What does ImaGeo provide viewers/readers that they don’t get elsewhere?

Yulsman: We’ve long had NASA’s Earth Observatory as a fabulous platform for remote sensing imagery. Ditto other sites featuring visuals from a host of satellites ranging from Landsat to GOES to photography by astronauts. And over the years a host of even more nichey sites have sprung up, including the fabulous satellite blog of the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies. But these are from government agencies or researchers. So I thought there would be room for an independent journalistic blog, one at the sweet spot of imagery, science, and the home planet. I’m not sure that anyone else is doing quite the same thing.

It’s true that you can get incredible imagery and clear, incisive explanation at the Earth Observatory. But at the end of the day, it is a vehicle for NASA — which is not at all a bad thing. But as an independent journalist-blogger, I have many more degrees of freedom to cover what I want. So, for example, the Earth Observatory probably would not tackle a critique of the Mail story on alleged global cooling…. But I can, and I did — and my unique contribution was to emphasize visuals to drive home just what an outrageous hack job that story was.