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Portraits Of Earth

Global Feature Tour: Ash, Dust, Clouds, and Smoke

Embark on a tour of visible components of Earth's atmosphere, as viewed from NASA satellites.

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Earth’s atmosphere is made of more than just invisible gases like nitrogen and oxygen. It also contains tiny solid and liquid particles, including those that make up ash, dust, clouds, and smoke. These components of the atmosphere are visible from space and can be tracked by NASA’s Earth Observing System of satellites.

Volcanic Ash Sakura-jima Volcano, Japan  March 21, 2015
Volcanic eruptions can spew ash—tiny particles of rock— high into Earth’s atmosphere. While larger particles settle near the volcano, smaller particles can be carried vast distances downwind. The smallest, dust-sized particles can travel around the globe and can remain in the atmosphere for months.

Smog Beijing, China  January 14, 2013
Smog is a type of visible air pollution composed of toxic gases, liquid droplets, and solid particles. The yellow haze seen here above Beijing is sulfurous smog, largely a result of burning coal and other fossil fuels. Pollution lingers in this area because of both weather patterns and the presence of mountain ranges that act as barriers to air flow. 

Dust Persian Gulf  February 25, 2017
Winds can pick up dust—fine, dry particles of rock and soil—and carry it across continents and oceans.  Here dust blows across the Persian Gulf, carried from the arid regions of Iraq and Saudi Arabia by strong northwesterly winds known as the shamal. Periods of drought increase the severity of these dust storms, which can engulf the region in a haze and even alter the wave characteristics of the Arabian Sea.

Clouds Pacific Coast of Peru December 27, 2016
Clouds consist of water vapor, ice crystals, and tiny droplets of liquid water that have condensed around particles of dust and sea salt. Off the coast of South America, deep, cold ocean currents have cooled the humid near-surface air, forming low-lying clouds. Prevailing winds have pushed the clouds inland where they flow up deep river valleys cut into the high coastal plateau. 

Wildfire Smoke California November 10, 2018
Every year, wildfires burn hundreds of thousands of acres, sending tiny particles of organic matter into the air. Smoke from the most intense fires can billow high into the atmosphere and travel thousands of kilometers.  Particles from California’s Camp Fire were blown west out over the Pacific, and then carried east back across the US, creating haze as far as New York City.

Ship Tracks Eastern Pacific Ocean January 20, 2013
Water vapor condenses on tiny particles from ship exhaust to form long, thin clouds. The serpentine paths of these clouds are a result of the original ship routes as well as air flow patterns in the atmosphere. Ship tracks are brighter than natural clouds because the water droplets are smaller and more abundant than those in natural clouds, with more surface area to reflect light.

NASA satellites are important tools for imaging ash, dust, clouds, smoke, and other visible components of Earth’s atmosphere. Monitoring solid and liquid particles, as well as gases, helps us better understand how natural and human activity on Earth’s surface influences the ever-changing makeup of the air above.