Natural Hazards

Geosciences column: Making aurora photos taken by ISS astronauts useful for research

Geosciences column: Making aurora photos taken by ISS astronauts useful for research

It’s a clear night, much like any other, except that billions of kilometers away the Sun has gone into overdrive and (hours earlier) hurled a mass of charged particles, including protons, electrons and atoms towards the Earth.  As the electrons slam into the upper reaches of the atmosphere, the night sky explodes into a spectacular display of dancing lights: aurora.

Aurora remain shrouded in mystery, even to the scientists who’ve dedicate their lives to studying them. Photographs provide an invaluable source of data which can help understand the science behind them. But, for aurora images to be of scientific value researchers need to know when they were taken and, more importantly, where.

You’ve got to be in the right place at the right time to catch a glimpse of the elusive phenomenon. In the Northern Hemisphere, aurora season peaks in autumn through to winter. Geographically, the best chance of seeing them is at latitudes between 65 and 72 degrees – think the Nordic countries.

That is unless you are an astronaut on the International Space Station (ISS), in which case, you’ve got the best seat in the house!

The orbit of the ISS means it skims past the point at which aurora intensity is at its peak, which also happens to be the point at which they look their most spectacular. Its orbital speed means it can get an almost global-scale snapshot of an aurora, passing over the dancing lights in just under 5 minutes.

Not as much is known about Aurora Australis (those which occur in the southern hemisphere) as we do about the Northern Lights (visible in the northern hemisphere), because there are far less ground-based auroral imagers south of the equator. The ISS orbit means that astronauts photograph Aurora Australis almost as frequently as Aurora Borealis, helping to fill the gap.

Testament to the privileged viewpoint is the hoard of photographs ISS astronauts have amassed over time – perfect for scientists who study aurora to use in their research.

Time-lapse shot from the International Space Station, showing both the Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis phenomena. Credit: NASA

Except that, until recently, the ISS photographs were of little scientific value because they aren’t georeferenced. The images are captured by astronauts in their spare time using commercial digital single lenses reflector cameras (DSLRs), which can’t pinpoint the location at which the photographs were taken – they were never intended to be used in research.

Now, researchers at the European Space Agency (ESA) have developed a method which overcomes the problem. By mapping the stars captured in each of the photographs and the timestamp on the image (as determined by the camera used to take the photograph), the team are now able to geolocated the images, giving them accurate orientation, scale and timestamp information.

Despite the success, it’s not a straightforward thing to do. One of the main problems is that the timestamps aren’t always accurate. Internal clocks in DSLRs have a tendency to drift. Over the period of a week they can be out by as much as a minute, making it difficult to establish the location of the ISS when the image was captured. This has implications when creating the star map, as the location of the station is used as a starting point.

To resolve the issue, aurora images which also include city lights can be aligned to geographical maps using reference city markers to get a timestamps accurate to within one second or less. In the absence of city lights, images which also capture the Earth’s horizon are aligned with its expected position instead. The correction works best if both city lights and the horizon can be used.

Errors are also introduced when the star maps can’t be fully resolved (due to the original image being noisy, for example) and because the method assumes that auroras originate from a single height, which isn’t true either.

detailed comparison between the ISS image plotted in Fig. 11 (b) and the contemporaneous image acquired by the SNKQ THEMIS ASI (a) . The original ISS image is plotted in (c) . Red and blue symbols trace the locations of the j shaped arc and northern edge of the main auroral arc, respectively, derived from their locations in the THEMIS image. The features are marked with the same coloured arrows in (c) . The magenta arrows point out a vertical feature projected very differently in (a) and (b) .

A detailed comparison between an ISS image of aurora (a) plotted and (b) the contemporaneous image acquired by the SNK THEMIS ASI [ground-based]. The original ISS image (a) is plotted in (c). For more detail see Riechert, et al., 2016.

Comparing images of an aurora on 4 February 2012, captured both by the ISS crew and a ground-based instrument, has allowed the researchers to test the accuracy of their method. Overall, the results show good agreement, but highlight that the projection of the ISS images has to be taken into account when interpreting the results.

Now, a trove of thousands of Aurora Borealis and Australis photographs can be used by researchers to decipher the secrets of one the planet Earth’s most awe-inspiring phenomenon.

By Laura Roberts Artal, EGU Communications Officer



Riechert, M., Walsh, A. P., Gerst, A., and Taylor, M. G. G. T.: Automatic georeferencing of astronaut auroral photography, Geosci. Instrum. Method. Data Syst., 5, 289-304, doi:10.5194/gi-5-289-2016, 2016.

Automatic georeferencing of astronaut auroral photography:

The research was accomplished using only free and open-source software. All the images processed to date are made freely available at htttp://, as is the software needed to produce them.

Celebrating Earth Science Week!

Celebrating Earth Science Week!

For those not so familiar with the Earth sciences, geosciences and all its subdisciplines might be shrouded in mystery:  boring, unfathomable, out of reach and with little relevance to everyday life. Nothing could be further from the truth!

Earth Science Week, an international annual celebration founded by the American Geosciences Institute in 1998, aims to change the public’s perception of the geosciences.  Since 2011, the London Geological Society also hosts a range of events and activities to raise awareness and better understanding of the Earth sciences.

In 2016, Earth Science Week takes place between 8 and16 October. For the first time, the EGU will run events to mark the special date, all of which we invite you to take part in!

Earth Science Week Photo Competition

From Wednesday 5th to Friday 14th October submit an original photo on any broad theme related to the Earth, planetary and space sciences to our open access image repository, Imaggeo.

For your image to be included in the competition be sure to include the tag #EarthSciWeek when prompted during the upload.

Upon the submission period closing, all entered images will be published to the EGU’s Facebook page. The photograph with most likes, as chosen by the public, will be crowned the competition winner.

The winner will get one free book of their choice from the EGU library and a pack of EGU goodies! We’ll also feature the top five most popular entries on our Instagram.

I’m a geoscientist – Ask me Anything: Live Twitter Q&As

Have you always wanted to know how glaciers move and carve out unbelievable landscapes? How about which emissions cause the most pollution? What are the benefits of publishing in an open access journal vs. a pay-walled publication? If politicians make all the decisions, how can we get them to take scientists more seriously?

If you’ve ever asked yourself these questions, stay tuned or, better still, take part in our daily Earth Science Week live #EGUchat with an EGU member on Twitter. Starting on Monday, every lunchtime, you’ll have the opportunity to put your questions to a range of scientists and EGU experts and discuss a variety of subjects.

Our very own Sarah Connors (@connors SL), the EGU’s Policy Fellow, will kick off a week, of what we hope will be fruitful discussions, by taking questions on all things science policy. Come Tuesday Emma Smith (@emma_c_smith) and Nanna Karlsson (@icymatters), Cryosphere Division Blog editors, will team up to shed light on the processes which operate in the iciest places on the planet.

Wednesday brings editor of the EGU’s open access journal Earth Surface Dynamics (ESurf) and Professor of Physical Geography at the University of Hull, Tom Coulthard (@Tom_Coulthard), who will shed light on the processes which shape our planet and the trials and tribulations of getting published.

If you are interested in natural hazards, how we mitigate, manage them and how they impact on our daily lives, then tune in to the chat on Thursday, where Giorgio Boni (@EguNHpresident), President of the Natural Hazards Division will be answering all your questions!

For the final chat of the week, we bring you Michelle Cain (@civiltalker), an atmospheric scientist and former Atmospheric Division Early Career Scientist Representative. Michelle will be taking questions on gaseous emissions and topics related to the Earth’s atmosphere.

Joining the conversation couldn’t be easier! To put your questions to our experts follow the hashtag #EGUchat on Twitter. Not on twitter or aren’t available during the chats? Not to worry, send us your questions in the comments below or via Twitter, Facebook or Instagram: we’ll ask the experts on your behalf.earth_sci_week_ama_twitter-01


Imaggeo on Mondays: The road to nowhere – natural hazards in the Peloponnese

Imaggeo on Mondays: The road to nowhere – natural hazards in the Peloponnese

The Gulf of Corinth, in southern Greece, separates the Peloponnese peninsula from the continental mainland. The structural geology of the region is complex, largely defined by the subduction of the African Plate below the Eurasian Plate (a little to the south).

The Gulf itself is an active extensional marine basin, i.e., one that is pulling open and where sediments accumulate. Sedimentary basins result from the thinning, and therefore sinking, of the underlying crust (though other factors can also come into play). The rifting in the region is relatively new, dating back some five million years, and results in rare but dangerous earthquakes.

The active tectonics result in a plethora of other natural hazards, not only earthquakes.  Minor and major faults crisscross the area and have the potential to trigger landslides, posing a threat to lives and infrastructure. A road, swept away in a landslide, in the northern Peloponnese (along the southern margin of the Corinth rift) is a clear example of the hazard.

“This photo was taken in the Valimi fault block [editor’s note: a section of bedrock bound on either side by faults], east of the Krathis valley. West of this valley, the landscape is characterised by  narrow and deep gorges as the present day rivers cut into the well-consolidated conglomerates deposited during the active extension of the basin,” explains Romain Hemelsdaël, author of this week’s imaggeo on Mondays photograph.

Characteristically, sediments deposited in actively extensional rifts where the Earth’s crust and lithosphere are being pulled apart, as at the Gulf of Corinth, change in size (both horizontally and vertically) and composition. To the east of the Krathis valley, the sediments are being uplifted and are dominated by less competent sandstones and siltstones, as opposed to the conglomerates found in the Valimi fault block.

“The present landscape along this part of the rift margin forms large valleys covered by active landslides,” clarifies Romain. “In this photograph, the road was initially constructed directly on silts which were deposited by lakes and rivers. Up the hill, a temporary track currently replaces the road but this track still remains within an active landslide.”


Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. Submit your photos at

GeoTalk: Raffaele Albano, Early Career Scientist Representative

GeoTalk: Raffaele Albano, Early Career Scientist Representative

In addition to the usual GeoTalk interviews, were we highlight the work and achievements of early career researchers, over the next few months we’ll be introducing the Division early career scientist representatives (ECS). They are responsible for ensuring that the voice of EGU ECS membership is heard. From organising short courses during the General Assembly, through to running Division Blogs and attending regular ECS representative meetings, their tasks in this role are varied.  Their role is entirely voluntary and they are all active members of their research community, so we’ll also be touching on their scientific work during the interview.

Today we are talking to Raffaele Albano, ECS representative for the Natural Hazard Division.

Before we get stuck in, could you introduce yourself and tell us a little more about yourself and your career?

Water, landscapes and nature have played an important role in my life as engineer, as I work to understand how they interact with one another and how they impact humans. As a citizen, I  also strive to build an awareness of my surroundings. Currently, I’m a research associate at University of Basilicata (Italy) and I’m co-founder of the Wat-TUBE spin-off devoted to the technology transfer of research results. I also love arts and historical heritages. I cultivate this passion as a volunteer in the UNESCO Young Italian Commission.

During my education and professional experience my curiosity has driven my passion for research and innovation. Therefore, I’m strongly motivated to research ideas to be converted into innovative actions which can lead to positive changes in our society. In particular, my aim is not only to develop and disseminate knowledge, but to also manage and enhance the results to build sustainable technologies.My main research interests revolve around developing models (mainly open-source software) to support flood and drought risk management.

The pluvial flood, July 2016, in Matera (South Italy), nominated European Capital of Culture 2019. The ancient system of tanks in the Sassi of Matera, in which rainwater is collected and accumulated with extreme care. The tanks are an outstanding example of an architectural system, unique engineering and landscape, leading them to be listed as World Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. In 1927 this water resource management system was replaced by the Sele Aqueduct.

The pluvial flood, July 2016, in Matera (South Italy), nominated European Capital of Culture 2019. The ancient system of tanks in the Sassi of Matera, in which rainwater is collected and accumulated with extreme care. The tanks are an outstanding example of an architectural system, unique engineering and landscape, leading them to be listed as World Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. In 1927 this water resource management system was replaced by the Sele Aqueduct.

Although we touch upon it in the introduction of this post: what does your role as ECS representative involve?

The ECS community makes up a significant proportion of the EGU membership and, furthermore, ECSs have different needs compared to more established scientists. Therefore, it is important that young members know that they have an important role to play within the Natural Hazard (NH) Division and, in general, in EGU activities. With this in mind, my key responsibility, as ECS representative, is to serve as a link between ECSs and the NH Division. In my role, I want to encourage ECS involvement and active participation in the EGU activities, in particular, during the General Assembly (GA).

I think that ECS Representatives should look at short-term benefits that spur momentum and long-term challenge in engaging young members using their enthusiasm and creativity in shaping an open and better geoscientific community.

I stay in close contact with the NH division president, Prof. Giorgio Boni, and also with some of the science officers in order to be involved in all the activities that concern ECSs (e.g. meetings, conferences, short courses, awards, social activities, and so on), both during the General Assembly and throughout the year. Indeed, as well as several activities organized during EGU 2016, this year, the NH Division has developed a presence on Facebook and Twitter. These are managed by the social media coordinator, Jackson Teller, (who is an ECS member). Moreover, the NH Division plans to propose a call among ECSs to implement and manage a division blog.

Finally, I participate in the regular Skype meetings with the ECS-reps from the other divisions in which we can exchange information, feedback and points of view that could be useful to bring it both to the EGU’s Program Committee and to each Divisions.

Why did you put yourself forward for the role?

At the EGU GA 2016, there were 13650 participants, of which 25% were students and 53% ECSs. It is clear that with so many ECS members, there is an enormous potential to increase ECS involvement, including them contributing at the division and council level. Moreover, typically, new papers, new ideas, new methods, come from the ECS community. Therefore, supporting and promoting, even small contributions for the ECS community (e.g. awards, travel grants, education activities, and other key information), can make a huge difference to young scientists’ careers and, indeed, for the future of the geosciences. It is a nice challenge to provide a real opportunity to re-think the role of ECS from simple consumers to contributors to the NH community .My motto is: Be open, be tuned, get inspired!

What is your vision for the EGU ECS Natural Hazard community and what do you hope to achieve in the time you hold the position?

NH is one of the biggest divisions in the EGU community. Moreover, the division is, by nature, diverse and multidisciplinary. Hence, it is a hard challenge to increase the links between members from different disciplines and backgrounds (e.g. engineering, geologists, sociologists, economists, remote sensing, and so on) in order to exploit its full richness. In this context, a key responsibility of the ECS Representative is to be receptive and responsive to the input provided by the members, creating an atmosphere of openness and inclusion which makes the scientific community more accessible to ECSs. Current goals include enhanced networking opportunities and organisation of short courses, but I believe there are other opportunities that reach far beyond these immediate needs. In this light, I call for more conversation on how the scientific community could be more accessible to ECS and on how ECS members can get organised and make the best use of available opportunities getting more involved in the union. I hope ECSs re-think Geosciences as open process of collaboration, sharing, exchange of ideas and skills in inspired way.

During the EGU 2016, I organised a meeting to which I invited scientists embarking on a career in natural hazards to share their research challenges, results on outreach efforts, and others forms of sciences that involve art, education, policy making, funding and so on. The outcome of the meeting was that we builta team of enthusiastic and motivated PhDs and post-docs who will work to build the NH Division ECS community, informally known as, NhET (Natural hazard Early career scientists Team). We will evaluate objectives, define goals, and create opportunities for ECSs to get involved in the NH scientific and professional community and within theEGU. In my vision, it could become the reference association for all the ECSs that work in this field and could work closely with national scientific associations, (in the field of NH).

Meet the team which makes up NhET (Natural hazard Early career scientists Team).

Meet the team which makes up NhET (Natural hazard Early career scientists Team).

What can your ECS Division members expect from the Natural Hazard Division in the 2017 General Assembly?

I encourage all ECSs to collaborate with the NhET team in the organisation of sessions, short course and other outreach activities. At EGU 2017, we plan to promote and publicised sessions and activities of relevance to ECS, such as the NH Division meeting, ECS Forum, and so on. In addition we will support the organisation of the incoming activities (in particular sessions and topical meeting on open data, models and publications, or geo-policy and other outreach emerging topics). Among the numerous activities that we are planning for EGU 2017, we will organize a PICO session, (principally for ECSs), which will be a platform to share ideas, research challenges, outreach and education activities. We are also planning a short course on the open-source and open data model.

To keep up to date with all GA related developments I can suggest attendees check the EGU’s official social media and the EGU website and, in particular,  the pages  dedicated to ECSs and the NH Division page.

How can those wanting to, get involved with the EGU?
EGU has a long history of actively supporting ECSs by providing reduced conference fees, recognising outstanding students, and awarding travel grants. Moreover, the ECS Representatives are giving more visibility to this big community within the EGU. Hence, I invite ECSs to follow theNH Division on Facebook  and Twitter and you can also contact me via email.For more information you can also check the NH Division pages, where you can find job openings, information on awards, publications, meetings and much more. Stay tuned for the upcoming call for the creation of the NH blog.

To find out about all the early career events and activities at the General Assembly and throughout the year be sure to check the dedicated ECS website. There, you’ll also be able to find out who you’re Division ECS representative is, if you’d like to get in touch with them and become involved in the Union. The website also hosts a page full of useful resources for career development as well as a database of undergraduate and postgraduate courses spanning the geosciences across Europe.


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