Former Montague man’s new book reveals Mother Earth’s hidden ABCs, seen from space

  • Adam Voiland NASA photo

  • Farmland and forest, appearing red in this 2015 photo from the Landsat 8 satellite, are topped with a dusting of snow around Norway’s Lake Mjosa to form an “A.” Submitted photo

  • Twin tropical cyclones in 2015 churn over the Indian Ocean, forming the letter “S.”  Submitted photo

  • Tropical Storm Douglas on July 4, 2014, churns off Mexico’s west coast, creating the shape of a “G.” Submitted photo

  • Former Montague resident Adam Voiland’s new book is a fanciful look at NASA satellite images of our planet. Submitted photo

Recorder Staff
Published: 8/4/2017 10:57:30 PM

For anyone who’s ever looked skyward and seen a bunny-shaped cloud, the African continent or the profile of a face, writer Adam Voiland’s discovery of an entire alphabet in images from space may not sound all that odd.

Who’d think of turning to NASA for their ABCs?

For the former Montague resident, a science writer for the National Atmospheric and Space Administration’s Earth Observatory website, the idea just appeared one day.

Not all that surprisingly, it was a ‘V’ that Voiland spotted in a July 2012 cloud of smoke over Canada, caused by wildfires burning in northern Alberta’s Caribou Mountains, as captured by the MODIS imager (Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiomater) aboard satellite Aqua.

Could there be an entire alphabet of letters visible from space, he wondered?

On a “Help Find an Alphabet in the Sky” blog post, he invited readers to compile a gallery of letters they could find on the NASA, Jet Propulsion Laboratory and other websites.

The geologic gallery that resulted, “Reading the ABCs from Space,” was posted on Voiland’s NASA blog in December 2015.

And that led to a book of Voiland’s own ABCDiscoveries being published this month by Simon & Schuster, “ABCs from Space.”

The 34-year-old graduate of Great Falls Middle School and Deerfield Academy, with a geology degree from Brown and a master’s in science writing from Johns Hopkins University, whose website writing job involves tracking down satellite images and digesting scientific studies and interviews with scientists, wasn’t looking for Mother Nature’s cryptic notes written in the landscape.

He was just hoping that kids, like his own 2½-year-old son, Calvin, would have fun looking for letters in the landscape and clouds below … and maybe learning something about science in the process.

Scanning thousands of images for his ABCs was “meditative,” he says, though hardly as simple as 1-2-3. His publisher insisted on all capital letters — and huge, colorful ones at that — with young readers in mind.

“I have reams and reams of great letters that are small little bends in rivers and just smaller features,” he says, “but a lot of them couldn’t work for the book because they need to be really large features because we wanted them to print at high quality.”

Global Ps and Qs

Finding an ‘R’ was really rough, for example.

“Turns out that nature doesn’t like to put curved, straight, and diagonal lines right next to each other,” according to Voiland. “Meanders in rivers can do it quite nicely, but we were really trying to keep the features in this book large to ensure that they printed well. I can’t tell you how many really great letters I found that weren’t large enough to print well!”

But then it turned up in a swirl in a cloud formation in a turbulent area a little more than a year ago over the Southern Ocean, which is now recognized as the world’s fifth ocean, near Antarctica.

Blazing his way to a ‘B’ in the blanks between bright clouds over the South Pacific was also brutal, for the same reason.

And with his brother and sister-in-law working the land at Red Fire Farm and his parents operating the Montague Center farm stand and setting up a new store and bakery, Voiland says, “I still feel very connected to the area. … I looked pretty hard to find letters in New England and western Mass., but the pickings unfortunately turned out to be pretty slim. Some other parts of the world have a great deal of contrast and exposed geological features that make stark patterns in satellite imagery, but the imagery of western Mass. tended to be uniformly green in the summer or white in the winter.”

Voiland says he managed to find a P in a photo of the Connecticut River oxbow, but it was puny compared to other letters.

“Also, (Interstate) 91 cuts straight through the oxbow in a way that was distracting,” he says.

He had to settle on a “P” formed by the blue Euphrates River flowing toward Iraq and an irrigation canal in Syria. “The irrigated fields along the river there really show up well compared to the desert background.”

And OH!

For each letter, Voiland focused on areas that he thought would have clouds, rock formations and other land forms that would be likely to feature a particular shape — fjords, glaciers and sea ice for the straight lines of letters like E and X, for example, with ocean clouds likely to yield the curves of an S or a G.

In addition to New England, the alphabet was largely absent throughout most of Asia, the Atlantic and South America.

And oh, Voiland’s favorites turned out to be his H and O.

For the H, made of narrow clouds caused by ship trails across the Pacific near Baja California, “there is something about the way the wind has dispersed those ship track clouds just a little and gives them just the right amount of texture that is absolutely stunning,” he says.

And Voiland can see why astronauts are almost always amazed by the O-like Richat Structure in Mauritania, a massive circular feature that shows up well from space.

“It was once thought to be an impact crater or the remnants of a volcano, but geologists now think that the structure formed because of the power of windblown sand and flowing water,” he says. “These erosive forces likely uncovered alternating layers of folded rock in the shape of a bull’s-eye.”

The trophy for Voiland’s least favorite letter goes to T — formed in northern Morocco, where the Moulouya River and one of its tiny tributaries intersect.

“The bottom doesn’t show up as well as I thought it would,” he says, admitting. “I was on a pretty tight deadline and eventually I had run out of time when I was putting this book together, but I sure wish I could have kept looking.”

For a little more exploration, Voiland’s “ABCs from Space,” subtitled “A Discovered Alphabet,” ends with a five-page legend, which explains exactly where and when each photo was taken and what it represents, as well as an explainer about satellite images and natural and geologic forms.

“We’ve got to tell people what these places are,” he says. “They’re beautiful pictures, and it’s really neat to look at them, but there’s also really interesting stories behind them.”

Some of the images, taken by the Terra, Aqua, Landstat 8 and Suomi NPP satellites, are observing Earth from not only many angles and locations, but also at many different wavelengths — visible light but also shortwave, infrared and near-infrared parts of the spectrum. NASA assembles the various layers of data,” Voiland assures. “We’re not changing anything. Everything is as you can see it.”

Voiland admits that he has “sort of a dream job …. I kind of pinch myself because I get to write about geology and look at the earth.” He did most of his research for the book late at night, as Calvin slept.

Now that his son is older — and has a 7-month-old sister, Mae — the toddler is looking for letters everywhere. “He’s just learning his letters, and the idea of searching for hidden letters is a good thing, because it made him so interested and enthusiastic and interested in letters. The book is fun, but I hope it will kind of inspire people to go around and look … ‘oh, there’s a rock formation that makes a T!’ You don’t have to do it from space, necessarily, but it’s fun.”

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