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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Nearly iceless Iceland and an icy island

By Phil Plait

Sometimes, you have to leave a planet to appreciate it.

I love pictures of Earth from space. They provide a perspective you just cannot get from the ground, or even from the air. For example, have you ever seen a nearly iceless Iceland?


[Click to enbjörkenate.]

This picture was taken by the European Space Agency's Envisat satellite in July 2010 and is a rare shot of the island nation completely cloud-free. Since it was summer it's nearly ice free as well, though you can see glaciers dominating some parts of the landscape (contrast this with one of my all-time favorite pictures of Earth from space, also of Iceland).

The blue-green swirls to the north are phytoplankton blooms - another favorite of mine when seen from space.

Half a planet away is another island, far smaller, that was also cloudless but this time encased in ice: South Gerogia Island off the coasts of South America and Antarctica, seen by the Terra satellite:


This picture was taken in late September, 2012, and the island is locked in by ice. You can see large icebergs floating nearby too. To give a sense of scale, both bergs are about 35 kilometers (roughly 20 miles) across. South Georgia Island is pretty rugged, with quite a few peaks over 2000 meters high and one at nearly 3000 meters (impressive for an island only about 150 km long).

When I saw the picture, I knew I had heard of the island, and the caption at the Earth Observatory site reminded me of how I knew it: Antarctic explorer Shackleton went there with a small number of men on an ailing lifeboat after his ship Endurance was crushed by the ice of Antarctica. He left most of his crew on Elephant Island after a harrowing trek across the ice, went to South Georgia Island, hiked across those ridiculously difficult peaks, got to a whaling station and set up a rescue mission for his men... which took months to be completed.

And get this: he didn't lose a single man. Not one.

The story of Shackleton, the Endurance, and his men, is in my opinion the single greatest tale of exploration and adventure that has ever been recorded. Even reading an abbreviated timeline will chill you. Trust me: go find a book about this, settle down in a comfortable (warm!) spot, and read it. There are instances in history where the human spirit is uncrushable, unstoppable. This is one of those times, and will inspire you.

It's that same spirit, in fact, that put our telescopes in the sky so we can better look at ourselves.

Image credits: ESA; Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC.

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