In July 2012, while working on a story about wildfires, NASA’s science writer and social media manager Adam P. Voiland spotted a V-shaped plume of smoke caused by a wildfire in the Caribou Mountains in northern Alberta, Canada. That image made him wonder if there are other alphabets hidden among the millions of photos of earth’s surface taken by NASA’s satellites. It was a mammoth task, so he enlisted the internet in the ambitious project. With the help of readers and colleagues, Voiland started collecting images of ephemeral features like clouds, phytoplankton blooms, and dust clouds that formed shapes reminiscent of letters. Now, over three years later, his search is completed and the results are exceedingly beautiful and educational.
“Some letters, like O and C, were easy to find,” said Voiland. “Others—A, B, and R—were maddeningly difficult.”
After he had tracked down all the letters, he wrote playful captions for each photos inspired by Dr. Seuss which he was reading to his son.
Here is a selection of alphabets from the gallery.
A, what begins with A?
There is Antarctica and the Arctic, algal blooms, acid rain, and the atmosphere. And aerosols altering an astronaut’s view of this ancient assemblage of rock in a state adjacent to Arizona!
An astronaut captured this photograph of Utah’s Green River doubling back on itself—a feature known as Bowknot Bend—from the International Space Station on January 22, 2014.
Bonjour B, what begins with B?
Biomass and boreal forests. Beirut, Barcelona, and Brasília. A bunch of babbling birds bunched up along Holla Bend.
On August 4, 2014, the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8 acquired this image of the Arkansas River and the Holla Bend Wildlife Refuge. In the winter, it is common for the refuge to host 100,000 ducks and geese at once.
Big C, little C, what begins with C?
This curving crescent of carbonate and quartz clinging to the coast. There is CloudSat and CALIPSO. Contrails from jets cruising over cumulus clouds. The Corolis force, chlorofluorocarbons, and crafty coccolithophores!
An astronaut captured this photograph of an artificial island at the southern end of Bahrain Island on January 23, 2011. The beach sand on tropical islands is mostly made up of calcium carbonate from the shells and skeletons of marine organisms.
What begins with D?
Decomposing detritus and dust deposited on a dimpled island during deglaciation. Deserts, deltas, and deforestation.What else? DATA! Data sets … databases … data systems …. data visualizations.
The Enhanced Thematic Mapper on Landsat 7 acquired this image of Akimiski Island in James Bay on August 9, 2000.
What begins with E?
Earth, of course. Evaporation and the exosphere. Egypt and Eyjafjallajökull. Eskers, erratics, El Niño, and EO-1. This ephemeral entourage of algae off the east coast of an island where English is spoken!
On October 25, 2009, the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite captured this image of a phytoplankton bloom off the coast of New Zealand.
Big F, little f. What begins with F?
Firn-filled fjords and frozen forms on folded, fossil-filled facies of rock! Fog, fossil fuels, and faults. France, Fort Collins, and don’t forget Fiji.
The Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8 acquired this false-color image of valleys and snow-covered mountain ranges in southeastern Tibet on August 4, 2014. Firn is a granular type of snow often found on the surface of a glacier before it has been compressed into ice.
Good day, G. What begins with G?
Geostationary satellites in geosynchronous orbits. Greenhouse gases and global warming. Glaciers…going, going, gone. These glorious grains of sand gently groomed by the grinding power of the Pacific Ocean.
This image of Pinaki Island was captured by astronauts on the International Space Station in April 2001.
Hello H, what begins with H?
Haze, hurricanes, and hydrocarbons. Hawaii and Hakodate. Hummocky humus heaped on these hills in the heart of Kyrgyzstan.
On, August 30, 2014, the Operational Land Imager on Landsat 8 acquired this image of rivers running through colorful ridges in southwestern Kyrgyzstan.
What begins with I?
In situ measurements and infrared radiation. Ice sheets and isthmuses. Istanbul and Ilopango. This intriguing image of India’s Andaman Island after an intimidating incident involving an earthquake.
On February 10, 2007, the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite captured this image of the Andaman Islands. The thin, bright rings surrounding several of the islands are coral reefs that were lifted up by a massive earthquake near Sumatra in 2004.
What begins with J?
Jason-1 and the jet stream. Jerusalem, Jakarta, and Johnson Space Center. This jade-colored coral reef juxtaposed against the jumble of the sea.
On July 17, 2015, the Operational Land Imager on Landsat 8 captured this image of the Trunk Reef near Townsville, Australia.
What begins with M?
The meandering Mississippi. MODIS and MISR. Mumbai, Miami, and Moscow. These medial moraines merging muck and minerals for millennia!
On August 14, 2015, the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8 captured this image of glaciers in the Tian Shan mountains in northeastern Kyrgyzstan. The trail of brown sediment in the middle of the uppermost glacier is a medial moraine, a term glaciologists use to describe sediment that accumulates in the middle of merging glaciers.
What begins with N?
Numerous cloud condensation nuclei in the North Pacific! Nefarious nitrogen dioxide and NOx. The near infrared and NDVI and the Nimbus satellite. Nor’easters and the Nile at night.
On March 4, 2009, the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on the Terra satellite captured this image of ship tracks over the Pacific. Ship emissions contain small particles that cause the clouds to form.
What begins with T?
Taal and Tolbachik. Taiga, typhoons, tornadoes, and thunderstorms. The trove of trees and towns tucked into this terrain in the United Arab Emirates.
On March 9, 2015, the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8 captured this image of development along two roads in the United Arab Emirates.
What begins with X?
There are xenoliths, the xylem in xeric woodlands, and the cities of Xian and Xalapa. Not much else begins with X, so relaX and enjoy this eXcellent icy X!
On August 7, 2012, the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) on NASA’s Terra satellite captured this false-color image of the northwest corner of Leidy Glacier in Greenland.
Z, what begins with Z?
Zambia and Zimbabwe. Zenith and zooplankton. Zillions of smoke particles zipping, zooming, and zigzagging above Canada!
On July 11, 2012, the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite captured this image of wildfire smoke over Canada.
See more of the gallery on NASA’s website.