As calm as it seems from space, Earth is ever-changing as land and sea are constantly reshaped by natural and man-made disasters. Presently, NASA has more than a dozen spacecrafts and instruments orbiting around our planet, studying and imaging all aspects of our ecosystem. The majority of these images are the work of NASA’s Landsat program, a joint U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) satellite-imaging program that offers the longest continual global record of the Earth’s surface. Using that resource, here are seven before-and-after images of places struck by natural disasters as seen from space.

Fires in northern Mexico

View of a wild fire in northern Mexico from space
Photo: USGS Landsat Missions Gallery, courtesy of the U.S. Department of the Interior / U.S. Geological Survey

Blazing wildfires plagued northern Mexico in the spring of 2011. The Mexican government worked around the clock, using aircraft and heavy machinery to fight the blazes, one of the worst outbreaks in years.

Left: March 8, 2011. Right: April 25, 2011. “On March 16, 2011, lightning in the drought-stricken Mexican state of Coahuila sparked two fires, which were so close to Texas that the U.S. provided assistance in suppressing them,” according to USGS. “The northwestern portion of the scene is in Texas, and the rest is Coahuila. Burned vegetation appears dark red in the April image.” These images were taken by the Thematic Mapper sensor aboard Landsat 5.

Record flood in North Dakota

Image of flood in North Dakota taken from space

North America experienced severe flooding in 2011. In June, the Souris River of North Dakota, “which curls from Canada through north central North Dakota back into Canada” reached levels never before witnessed, according to the Washington Post.

Pictured here is the town of Minot, N.D., during the floods. Left: May 16, 2011. Right: June 25, 2011. “Heavy rain in Canada pushed the Souris River to overflow its banks here, flooding more than 4,000 homes and hundreds of businesses,” according to the USGS. “About one-quarter of Minot’s 40,000 residents evacuated the city. The water level at Minot’s Broadway Bridge exceeded the previous record high set in 1881 by nearly 1.2 meters (4 feet).” The May 16 image was taken by Landsat 5, while the June 25 image taken by Landsat 7.

Tsunami flooding near Sendai, Japan

View of tsunami in Japan from space
Photo: MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

After the devastating 8.9-magnitude earthquake on March 11, 2011, Japan experienced a series of tsunamis. Tens of thousands of people were killed by the devastation.

Pictured here is the Japanese coastline near the city of Sendai. Left: Feb. 26, 2011. Right: March 13, 2011. The image on the right reveals extensive flooding two days after a powerful tsunami swept ashore, caused by the earthquake, according to the USGS.s: “Water still covers the ground more than 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from the coast. The image on the left shows the coastline weeks before the tsunami struck.” The Feb. 26 image was taken by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA's Terra satellite; the March 13 image taken by the MODIS instrument on NASA's Aqua satellite.

Drought in the Black Hills

View of drought in Black Hills, ND from space

The Black Hills are a major source of water for the South Dakota region. However, periodic droughts, along with a population explosion, have increasingly stressed the area. The region experienced a severe drought in 2004.

Left: July 12, 2000. Right: July 24, 2004. This photo shows Black Hills from South Dakota to Wyoming in the United States. “These natural-color images were taken by NASA's Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer (MISR) from its downward-looking camera,” according to the USGS. The browning that appears in 2004 compared with 2000 indicates that the vigor of green vegetation was significantly diminished in 2004.”

Flooding in Queensland, Australia

Photo: MODIS Rapid Response Team/NASA

Australia experienced record flooding in late 2010 and early 2011, after unusually heavy rains washed through the landscape after many years of drought. Pictured here is Queensland, Australia, before and after flooding. The water is usually black in this kind of image, but the sediments from the river tainted them blue in this 2011 post-flood photo from NASA.

Left: Dec. 14, 2010. Right: Jan. 4, 2011. “The straight, well-defined channel through the city of Rockhampton indicates some measure of flood control, but north of the city, the Fitzroy River burst its banks and surrounded Rockhampton on the northwest.,” according to the USGS. “Similar flooding appears to be happening south of the city, but clouds (turquoise and white) obscure the view. Floods throughout Queensland, partially shown in the 2011 image, affected more than 200,000 people according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.”

Dusty day


Dust storms are a natural part of our planet, but experts fear that they are growing in frequency and severity. Dust recently plagued the United States when a tremendous storm swept through Phoenix in July 2011. In 2010, another giant dust storm engulfed much of the Korean Peninsula after strong winds swept through the deserts of China and Mongolia.

Left: March 23, 2002, “a relatively clear day.” Right: April 8, 2002, “a day of extremely dusty skies.” Pictured here is a similar dust storm from 2002, where dust obscured “most of the Liaoning region of China and parts of northern and western Korea.” The USGS says that the dust largely comes from the deserts of Mongolia and China, combining with pollution from agriculture, industry and power generation. Ultimately, the thick dust clouds have a “cooling effect” on the region.

Carbon counter


While politicians debate climate change, NASA research shows that carbon dioxide levels on our planet are indisputably rising — a potential disaster for our planet.

Left: July 2003. Right: July 2007. “Both images show the spreading of carbon dioxide around the globe as it follows large-scale patterns of circulation in the atmosphere,” according to the USGS. “The color codes in these two pictures are different in order to account for the carbon dioxide increase from 2003 to 2007. If the color bar for 2003 were to be used for 2007, the resulting 2007 map would be saturated with reddish colors, and the fine structure of the distribution of carbon dioxide obscured.” These images are from the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) instrument onboard NASA's Aqua spacecraft.

Aftermath of 7 natural disasters as seen from space
View Earth's natural disasters as seen from NASA's satellites.