A graphic shows two images of our planet, one dated 1978 and the other dated 2012. The 1978 photo shows a much greener United States, while the 2012 image appears to be devoid of vegetation. The caption reads, “The same planet just 34 years after. Kinda sad, right?” How accurate is this comparison?
The images are real, but they have been altered, and the caption is wrong.
Let’s take a look at these images a little closer. The graphic in circulation looks like this:
The “1978” Image
The image on the left, dated 1978, is actually a composite of images taken in 2001 and published on on February 8, 2002. You can find the original photo here, and the NASA page including a discussion of it here.
Below we have compared the alleged 1978 image (which we’ll now refer to as the 2001 image) with the original NASA photo. The original NASA image is on the left and the 2001 photo in circulation (mis-labeled as 1978) is on the right. It is clear that the colors have been altered from the original to appear more vibrant, and the subtle greens of the original are much brighter in the altered version.
The “2012” Image
The photo dated 2012 in the circulated image was taken on January 24, 2012. The original can be found on the NASA website, here. The description of the image reads:
A ‘Blue Marble’ image of the Earth taken from the VIIRS instrument aboard NASA’s most recently launched Earth-observing satellite – Suomi NPP. This composite image uses a number of swaths of the Earth’s surface taken on January 4, 2012. The NPP satellite was renamed ‘Suomi NPP’ on January 24, 2012 to honor the late Verner E. Suomi of the University of Wisconsin.
If we compare the original with the photo in circulation, we see that the two are similar with only slight color variation between them.
This leads us to the original comparison, of what are photographs taken in 2001 and 2012 – only 11 years apart. How can we account for the discrepancy that does exist between the two images?
Comparing the colors of these photos, we see that the unaltered 2001 image has much more vibrant colors, perhaps altered after the fact, or due to other processes. Comparing the blue in the oceans in the two images reveals that the oceans in the 2001 image have a nearly purple tint. This alone could account for much of the color differences.
The 2001 image is clearly a different angle of North America than the 2012 image. This angle makes the continent appear significantly larger in the 2012 image.
It has been argued that the 2012 image has a “deforested” look because it was taken in the middle of winter when trees are likely to be bare, and the 2001 image was compiled from images taken in the summer. It’s unclear whether the seasons in 2001 and 2012 were as different as the colors in these images may imply.
In short, the image being circulated does not show a comparison of North America in 1978 and 2012, but two very different images taken only 11 years apart.
Comparison of unaltered images
Below we have recreated the comparison, using the original unaltered images:
The photos in circulation were taken only 11 years apart and have been altered. A comparison of the two unaltered photos reveals stark differences in all colors – not just of vegetation, but of the oceans as well. The photos were taken by different satellites from different angles at different times of the year, using different color enhancements after the fact.
Updated August 7, 2015
Originally published July 2012