• Satellite data can offer a fresh perspective of life on Earth.
  • From ice cover to river colour and light pollution, it's a vital resource for researchers.
  • A World Economic Forum report has shown the value data can bring in areas as diverse as healthcare, industry and education.

You're probably familiar with what the Earth looks like from space thanks to more than half a century of pictures sent back from above.

For example, chances are you know the iconic 'Earthrise' shot taken by Bill Anders aboard Apollo 8 - although maybe in its more familiar horizontal orientation.

This view of the rising Earth greeted the Apollo 8 astronauts as they came from behind the moon after the lunar orbit insertion burn. The photo is displayed here in its original orientation, though it is more commonly viewed with the lunar surface at the bottom of the photo. Earth is about five degrees left of the horizon in the photo.
This view of the rising Earth greeted the Apollo 8 astronauts as they came from behind the moon after the lunar orbit insertion burn.
Image: NASA

But, you might not know the sheer volume of photos taken from space and the work being done to build our understanding of life on Earth, from blue-green algae blooms to swings in Great Lakes ice cover.

1. What a difference a few days makes

Great Lakes ice cover February 20, 2021
20 February, 2021.
Image: NASA
Great Lakes ice cover March 3, 2021.
3 March 2021.
Image: NASA

You can learn more about the changing ice cover, long-term averages and the climate patterns that control it here.

2. Where continents meet

Wide-angle photo from International Space Station of the Nile Delta and Sinai Peninsula and the Levant
The wide-angle shot shows the Nile Delta in Africa and the Sinai Peninsula and the Levant in southwest Asia.
Image: NASA

Astronaut Andrew Morgan took this shot from the International Space Station (ISS) in 2019, capturing the point at which two continents meet. Learn more about it here.

3. Up on high

The Himalayas from space
The Himalayas on 5 December, 2017.
Image: NASA

Another photo from aboard the ISS - this time taken by Randy Bresnik - it shows the Himalaya Range. Find out more about how it was taken here.

4. Shining a light

Earth night time Asia.
'Night lights' have been a useful research tool for more than a quarter of a century.
Image: NASA

Night-time imagery can help monitor unregulated fishing, track sea ice movements and help reduce light pollution. Learn more about 'night lights' projects here.

5. Dust storms

natural-color image, acquired on March 15, 2021 of dust storm across China
Dust clouds enveloped Beijing during March 2021.
Image: NASA
A woman walks past Drum Tower during morning rush hour as Beijing, China, is hit by a sandstorm, March 15, 2021. REUTERS/Thomas Peter     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RC2EBM98T4K9
And the cloud from ground level.
Image: REUTERS/Thomas Peter

Satellite images can offer a fresh perspective of events on Earth, compared to 'on-the-ground' pictures. You can read more on the dust cloud's impact on air quality in Beijing here.

6. Blue-green algae blooms

A view over Australia.
Image: NASA

Authorities warned people to stay out the water as a result of the algae bloom, which can also harm fish populations. Read more about how fertilizer runoff can cause rapid reproduction of algae here.

7. Flooding in Mozambique

False-colour images flooding in Mozambique
These false-colour images show the extent of flooding in Mozambique.
Image: NASA

The images show flooding seven days after Tropical Cyclone Eloise struck Mozambique. Read more about the cyclone and its impact here.

8. Psychedelic phytoplankton

Phytoplankton southeast of St. John’s, Newfoundland in July-September 2020
The phytoplanktons' chalky outer shells are responsible for the milky blue colour.
Image: NASA

It's still not clear why the phytoplankton appeared in such numbers for so many weeks, but you can read more about the bloom here.

9. Changing river colours

US river colour 1984-2018
The rivers have been coloured as they would approximately appear to our eye.
Image: NASA

Recent research suggests that the dominant colour has changed in about one-third of large rivers in the continental United States over the last 35 years. Read more about the subtle changes that can drive this change here.

10. Missing snow

Mount Fuji December 2020 snow cover
Snow cover on Mount Fuji, 29 December 2013.
Image: NASA
Mount Fuji December 2021 snow cover
Snow cover on Mount Fuji, 1 January 2021.
Image: NASA

Snow cover on Mount Fuji in December 2020 was among the lowest in the 20 years NASA's Terra satellite has been monitoring it. Read more about it here.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

The World Economic Forum was the first to draw the world’s attention to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the current period of unprecedented change driven by rapid technological advances. Policies, norms and regulations have not been able to keep up with the pace of innovation, creating a growing need to fill this gap.

The Forum established the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Network in 2017 to ensure that new and emerging technologies will help—not harm—humanity in the future. Headquartered in San Francisco, the network launched centres in China, India and Japan in 2018 and is rapidly establishing locally-run Affiliate Centres in many countries around the world.

The global network is working closely with partners from government, business, academia and civil society to co-design and pilot agile frameworks for governing new and emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI), autonomous vehicles, blockchain, data policy, digital trade, drones, internet of things (IoT), precision medicine and environmental innovations.

Learn more about the groundbreaking work that the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Network is doing to prepare us for the future.

Want to help us shape the Fourth Industrial Revolution? Contact us to find out how you can become a member or partner.

A purpose beyond pictures

As these examples show, satellite imagery isn't just another perspective of life on Earth. Whether natural or with colours adjusted, it can offer lessons about some of the processes shaping the future of the planet.

And, as a World Economic Forum report from January 2021 shows, satellite images can support industrial growth, environmental protection, healthcare and education.

In Africa, this could unlock economic benefits worth billions.

Satellite data economic potential Africa
Taking advantage of satellite data could have big benefits.
Image: Digital Earth Africa