Our planet’s thin airy envelope is made of many layers, each moving in its own direction and speed, whose interaction with the sea and landmasses produce what we call weather. The system is incredibly complex, with exchanges of matter and energy happening at every fuzzy border, shaping the surface of the world in which we live. Ultimately these interactions control erosion and sedimentation patterns and hence the distribution of nutrients and life around the world.
Every now and again, a phenomenon brings a part of this reality to our attention, stimulating human curiosity, spurring us to develop our current understanding of the global paradigm known as Earth system science, an alliance between such disciplines as geology, climatology, oceanography and ecology, with a sprinkling of Gaia theory, (whose inventor, James Lovelock, is credited as the father of this new paradigm) all tied together by the laws of physics and chemistry in an attempt to understand how the world works as an entire entity, protected from the harsh environment of outer space by its atmosphere and magnetosphere.
The crew of the space station snapped this photo over southern Borneo depicting the effect of atmospheric layering on clouds. Storms are rising as moist air passes over the mountains at the centre of this large island, visible as anvil clouds at the top centre of the image. They rose through the air column until they reached a different layer, in which cold high altitude winds effectively decapitated the storm cells, carrying streamers of newly frozen ice crystals that formed cirrus clouds extending for many hundreds of kilometres downwind towards the viewer.
Lower down in the air column, cloud streets of cumulus clouds are aligning from left to right in the image with the prevailing wind in that particular layer of air, as are smaller plumes of smoke from the ever present forest fires, making way for palm oil plantations. They say that clouds are physics, drawn in the sky, and this photo provides us a glimpse into the fascinating workings of the dance of matter and energy that make up the beautiful (and only) planet on whose thin outer rind we all live.
Image credit: NASA