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Video lets you imagine Earth breathing

NASA video simulating a massive typhoon spinning toward China, with something extra added. Plus a word about the Gaia hypothesis.

A friend sent a link to this mesmerizing video, which was originally released in 2014 from NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio. NASA producers used real data on sea surface temperatures and more to simulate these clouds, which depict a hypothetical cyclone spinning toward China. Then a YouTube user, The Mad Hatter, must have added the sound of breathing. At the original page on NASA’s site, it says:

Clouds bend and swirl into a massive Category 4 typhoon that spins toward China. Luckily the storm only exists inside the mind of a supercomputer. The artificial storm is seen in a new visualization of Earth’s atmosphere that’s based on an extremely high-resolution supercomputer simulation created by NASA’s Goddard Earth Observing System Model, Version 5 (GEOS-5). The model uses data to generate virtual scenes that mimic the natural world.

So the video is wholly imaginary. There is no evidence that Earth “breathes” in the way depicted by this video. The idea is compelling enough, though, to have given this video over 1 million views.

The video will remind some of the well-known Gaia hypothesis, formulated in the 1970s by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis. The Gaia hypothesis doesn’t claim that Earth is actually “alive,” either, although you sometimes hear non-scientists suggest that it does. Instead, it claims that Earth’s living things interact with the physical world around us to form a self-regulating, complex system that contributes to maintaining the conditions for life on our planet.

One reason this video seems linked to the Gaia hypothesis (although NASA did not intend that link) is that, as a scientific theory, Gaia has gained some of its staying power from the photos of Earth taken from outer space. The website ScienceClarified suggests that:

…once people could travel beyond the atmosphere of Earth and put enough distance between them and their planet, then they could view their home from an extra-terrestrial viewpoint. No doubt that the 1960s photographs of the blue, green, and white ball of life floating in the total darkness of outer space made both scientists and the public think of their home planet a little differently than they ever had before. These pictures of Earth must have brought to mind the notion that it resembled a single organism.

The Gaia hypothesis hasn’t been proven, although some scientists are still exploring it. In 2010, a survey of 400 British scientists placed the Gaia hypothesis alongside the discovery of DNA, as one of the top 10 scientific breakthroughs of all time.

Bottom line: NASA Scientific Visualization Studio video simulating a massive typhoon spinning toward China, with “breathing” added YouTube user The Mad Hatter. Plus a word about the Gaia hypothesis.

What does Earth look like from space?

Read more about the Gaia hypothesis here.

Deborah Byrd

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