Scientists find billion-dollar treasure trove of long-lost satellite images

Contributed by
Oct 15, 2014

All David Gallaher -- who manages technical services at the National Snow and Ice Data Center -- wanted at first was some old satellite photos of Greenland. He'd heard at a conference that images taken by the Nimbus 2 satellite in 1964, 17 years before any of the data already known to him were gathered, might be available, and asked the National Climactic Data Center in North Carolina if they could send him the old Nimbus photos of Greenland. According to him, the NCDC laughed at the notion that they could send him specific Nimbus 2 data.

“If you want it, you’re going to have to scan all of it,” they told him.

The NCDC sent Gallaher and his team that data, which amounted to thousands of rolls of film -- each as long as the wingspan of a jetliner -- tucked into more than two dozen boxes. None of the film had ever been opened, and none of it was labeled by location of the photographs. It was going to be a massive task, but Gallaher felt he needed to unlock the Nimbus 2 data before the scientists who'd originally gathered it passed away and could no longer offer him their own insights and memories. So the archiving and sorting of the film began.

A company in Montreal, JBI, scanned all the images for $10 per roll of film, and by the time they'd gone through it all, Gallaher and the NSIDC crew had more than 200,000 satellite images (like the one above) previously unknown to modern scientists. Among the best finds in the data: The earliest known satellite photo of Europe, a photo of the Aral Sea when it still held water, and images of both the largest and the smallest extents of sea ice on record. 

“That was an incredible amount of data,” Gallaher said, and noted that in 1964 the data would've amounted to "more [computer] storage than there was available on the planet.”

Gallaher and the NSIDC did more than just digitize this data, though. They also put it all online in a sorted, searchable database, at the fingertips of other scientists who can use it to study everything from weather patterns to deforestation to glacier movement. Adjusted for inflation, the Nimbus 2 photos would've cost billions of taxpayer dollars to collect in 1964, and now they're finally available to be studied. Plus, Gallaher notes there's still more data to mine, still more rolls of film tucked away in storage, waiting for the world to see.

“Before this stuff gets lost, let’s keep it," Gallaher said.

(Via Barents Observer)

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