John Nelson is known for building extremely complex visualizations of weather patterns. But his latest creation is a simple animated GIF of 15 frames from NASA’s cloudless satellite photography collection. It’s essentially a year in the life of Earth.
Here, he shares why the visual is so haunting to him personally and to us collectively. We felt that his thoughts were simply too earnest to abridge.
“I was surprised by the response, really. Especially my own. After working a few hours on getting the cartographic mumbo jumbo out of the way (projection, coloration, atmospheric haze, and stuff), and I first got to see the frames flicker in front of me, I just stared at it as it looped over and over again. Something that I was familiar with as a static thing was now pulsing and alive and I didn’t expect to feel so locked into it. And it’s hard for me to even describe how I felt about it without sounding ridiculous or sentimental. It’s just an animated GIF.
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“But you know that scene in Ratatouille, where the grizzled food critic takes a bite and he is whooshed into a memory? I stared at my home of Michigan and saw it alternatingly encased in ice then green with life—over and over and over. My mom wrestled with bipolar disorder and seasonal affective disorder for much of her life, and there is nobody that I know who was held more tightly in that alternating grip than she was. And I could relate to her struggle maybe more clearly than I ever was before, seeing it illustrated so directly for me. And just as surely as the ice came down the ice rolls back and it is covered in life again. It hurt me to watch that sequence pass so quickly, but seeing that shift wash steadily back and forth gave me comfort, too. I saw a quote recently from John Steinbeck that does a beautiful job of summing that up: “What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.” From this perspective I feel that in some way, her tight link to that seasonal change was pretty wonderful.
“Time is a really weird thing, but most of us can track it pretty well over the long term if we live in a place with seasons—or remember living in a place with seasons. Stepping back and crunching my perception of a whole year down into a short repeating sequence made me feel more a part of the place I live and that place seems alive in a way.
“There are no remarkable discoveries or new insights in this image. And essentially all of the work and credit belong to NASA for capturing the remarkable seasonal images in the first place. All I did was put them back into a perspective more familiar to us as the thing of Earth, and stitch them together.”