18 May 2011

National Geographic’s “X-Ray Earth”

Posted by Jessica Ball

On Sunday night, I watched the National Geographic Channel’s new special “X-Ray Earth”. From the commercials advertising it, I thought the show might be interesting; it looked like there would be a significant part devoted to remote sensing techniques that I (and other Earth scientists) are familiar with using – and the show didn’t disappoint me. NatGeo’s own summary bills the show as follows:

Similar to the way doctors use X-rays to diagnose unseen medical problems, scientists are using an army of sensors located underground, in the sky, the ocean and our cities to monitor the Earth more than at any other time in our history. From the undisturbed far reaches of the planet to the busiest cities on the globe, X-RAY EARTH uses technology and CGI to give us a new view of our world.

The show runs for two hours, and covers a number of different technologies. It covers a variety of topics, including seismic tomography (with a nice feature on the EarthScope USArray network of seismometers), satellites and airborne sensors used to monitor hurricanes, seafloor sensors which track the proliferation of deoxygenated zones, assessment of CO2 uptake by plant life through fractal mathematics, and more.┬áIf you’re more interested in the Earth science applications of the show, then I’d stick with the first hour. The second hour goes into the use of technology for social science applications, such as using video cameras to prevent crime and studying whether our entire environment (homes, workplaces, cities, etc.) can be fitted with sensors of various types. There is an neat segment about citizen scientists collecting data on air quality using self-contained backpacks with GPS and gas sensors.

I was somewhat impressed with the touted CGI graphics, although the “Earth’s interior” sequence was a bit overdone (they went beyond the Earth as onion-type graphic and literally exploded the planet). I was also impressed with the seismic tomography sequence in that the narrator did not refer to the mantle as ‘molten’, but rather described it as “plasticized rock”. (Not quite accurate, but better than completely wrong.) There is also an overarching theme of climate change – nicely presented, not as a controversy, but as a reality well-supported by numerous avenues of research. One segment about time-lapse photography of glaciers was particularly striking, and reminiscent of the USGS’s Repeat Photography Project, which documents retreating glaciers over a nearly century-long timescale.

Overall, I found that while the show skipped around quite a bit in terms of subject matter, the topics were well-explained and the segments entertaining. The CGI could be distracting at times, but did help illustrate some pretty tricky concepts. The focus on remote and semi-remote sensing was a refreshing take on Earth science topics that have been done to death in other documentaries, and it’s a great way to introduce viewers to some very modern research tools.