EARTH MATTERS : An Ongoing Mission

Ladies and Gentleman,

It is with some regret but with a a great sense of accomplishment that I announce the end of the Earth Matters exhibition. And with the closing of this monumental exhibition at the Smithsonian, National Museum of African Art, so goes the Earth Matters blog. We are glad to have been able to bring to light so many of the issues that touch our lives and our earth. There is more to be done, and we have no delusions about how much. Consequently, we hope that this mission will be carried on by all those people who saw the exhibition and followed our blog. Many thanks to all of you.


If you are in the Los Angeles area, the Earth Matters exhibition will be traveling to the Fowler Museum and is scheduled to open on Earth Day of this year.



From The Archives : Pende Masquerade


Pende Masquerade at LufushiPhotograph by Leon de Sousbeghe 1957

EEPA 1999-100042
Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives
National Museum of African Art
Smithsonian Institution



Leon de Sousberghe, a Belgian ethnologist and Jesuit, took this photograph of  a Pende Giwoyo and two Tundu masks used in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Tundu masks represent Pende ideas of the anti-aesthetic and were intended to encourage social obedience. Giwoyo masks, by contrast, are among the most longstanding types of masks still used by Pende performers and are used to usher the spirits of the deceased out of villages. Giwoyo thus always performs in the transitional area between a community and the surrounding wilderness — a zone considered to tie the land of the living with that of the dead. For many Pende, the seemingly endless underground has served as a powerful metaphor for spiritual realms. The Pende mask shown here, of which there is a related example in the Earth Matters exhibition, displays the connectedness of the underground to the living world. Worn like a cap on the top of the head, the mask evokes a face and body floating horizontally above its dancer. The mask is designed to suggest a corpse wrapped in its funerary shroud, the alternating black and white stripes suggesting the journey between the land of the living and the underground

Earth Matters Around the Web : Necessity Breeds Invention

When it comes to the environment, we probably hear more horror stories than we do success stories. Quite understandable, of course, as with all there is left to do heal our environment we don’t want to give the impression that we can rest on our laurels. On the other hand, too much pessimism is not any more helpful. So, if were to now mention the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, you might not be sure which direction this post is going.

Of course, the Fukushima nuclear breach was an utter disaster. However, in its wake, Japan as taken many of their nuclear plants offline. Consequently, the island nation’s need to cut down on electricity demands has become crucial. This is where necessity breeds invention, as relayed by a recent article in the New York Times, which tells of new experiments in submerging supercomputers. What does that mean, exactly? Well, apparently, the supercomputers that crunch the mountains of data we all climb tend to overheat, requiring, sometimes, millions of dollars in electricity to run air conditioners. That cost is high for the companies paying it, the waste is bad for the environment, and, for Japan, too high a demand for electricity. To cut the demands of supercomputers, Tokyo Institute of Technology has successfully submerged such a computer in mineral oil, dramatically reducing the need for air conditioning. Now, you would not expect it to be healthy for a computer to be submerged in liquid, but because the liquids that this laboratory and others are testing do not conduct electricity, there is no risk of short circuiting the computers. There may, however, be other side-effects, but those have not been revealed. For the moment, the submerging of supercomputers to reduce demands for toxic coolants and large amounts of electricity seems to be a promising endeavor.

13supercomputer-pic1-sfSpanJeremie Souteyrat for The New York Times

Satoshi Matsuoka, the project leader, with the Tokyo Institute of Technology supercomputer that is cooled with mineral oil rather than air conditioning.


Does anyone know of any other such environmental success stories or promising prospects?

Please share by leaving a comment!

Earth Matters Around the Web : The Winter Olympics

Ladies and Gentleman, the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, have officially begun!

Of course, the olympics in Sochi have not started without a bit of scandal. For weeks, even months, we have been hearing mostly about the anti-gay stance of the Russian leadership and for days we have been hearing comic-horror stories about the accommodations in Sochi, as well as nightmare tales of cyber-insecurity. I am a little surprised, however, that it was only today that I heard about the environmental damage that the Sochi olympics have been born out of. According to an article published just three days ago on, of all places, Yahoo’s sports page, the filling in of valuable marshlands, destruction and obstruction of other habitats, deforestation, and rampant unregulated dumping have done considerable damage in the less visible parts of Sochi, those parts being where much wildlife and many humans live. Another article sums it up more bluntly, stating in its opening line that “The enormous infrastructure upgrade for the Winter Games has had a major impact on the environment. Some say the region may never recover from the damage that has been done.”


A view of Olympic Park in December. Dump sites for construction debris litter hills in and around Sochi, Russia. Other such damage has been well documented. Mikhail Mordasov/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images. Taken from the New York Times

To tell you the truth, I live in Eastern Europe for seven years and the rag tag, unregulated, almost maniacal construction effort that was undertaken to prepare Russia for the olympics does not surprise me, personally, but as long as this construction must have been going on, I am surprised that I cannot find articles on the environmental impacts that are more than a couple weeks old.  Then again, with recent reports of the arrests of several ecologists, for such offenses as swearing in public, perhaps it is not strange that we have hard so little so late.

Clearly, Russia has done much to construct and safeguard an image of itself as eco-friendly. And Image is everything, I suppose, especially since one of the criterion for choosing the location of the olympics is “the cit(y) needs to maintain a highly positive media exposure to carry the games.” Another criterion is described as “the tangible effects of hosting the Olympic games may not prove beneficial if the bid committees do not exercise proper judgment in developing the city to host the Olympics.” But in these respects, Russia does not carry the sole blame. Surely, plans and strategies for developing the cities that host the games are reviewed by the committees that make the final decision. Everybody involved has an image to protect, and hopefully, as the environmental damage in Sochi is assessed, the organizers of the olympics will take more caution in the future to ensure that the winter olympics are healthy and sustainable.

Guest Voices : Dr. Reda Amer

Today’s guest post comes from Dr. Reda Amer in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Tulane University. The followers of this blog may have noticed that, in recent months, a number of our posts have addressed issues specific to the Gulf of Mexico and the coastal south of the United States. Followers may also recall much earlier posts that talked about the use of Landsat satellite images and the collaboration between the National Museum of African Art, the National Air and Space Museum, and our non-Smithsonian partners at NASA. In an interesting twist, Dr. Amer brings these factors together to reveal how satellite images are now being used to detect plumes and concentrations of run-off into the Gulf of Mexico. Truly, the technology is remarkable and hopefully paves the way for cleaning up and improving the health of our environment.

Thermal Remote Sensing Analysis for Submarine Groundwater Discharge Plumes along the Gulf Coast

Dr. Reda Amer, Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118

Fresh groundwater flowing through the inland aquifers and discharge into the Gulf of Mexico. Groundwater discharge into Gulf water occurs as a slow diffusive flow but can be concentrated at fractures zones. Shallow groundwater aquifers contain high concentration of dissolved inorganic nitrogen, soluble phosphate, and fecal bacteria from the agricultural and human activities. Exiting of this groundwater into Gulf water can result in changes in water salinity and decreased oxygen content; which known as eutrophication. This process impacts fragile coastal ecosystems (e.g. estuaries, coral reefs, fish kills, and shifts in the dominant flora).

Because of the different thermal signatures between groundwater and ocean water, remote sensing thermal infrared images are useful to trace groundwater outflow and can identify the location of concentrated discharge along the Gulf coast. The images employed in this study are from the Earth Explorer database provided by the USGS taken during Landsat missions between September and November of 1999. Landsat is a multispectral satellite mission, and the thermal band provides 60 m resolution. The attached figure exemplifies using thermal infrared imagery to identify groundwater discharge plumes into the Gulf water southeast Louisiana.

The Landsat thermal infrared image was processed using ENVI software where the pixels digital numbers were converted into temperature in Kelvin. The image shows that the lowest temperature is about 300 K and indicated by blue colors, and the highest is 329 K indicated by red colors. At lower latitudes groundwater is generally has cooler signature than the ocean water. The anomalously cooler plumes are indicated as yellow colors within pale-red and red color of Gulf water. The salinity data from Shiller and Mao (1999) was used to validate the results of thermal image analysis. Comparison of salinity (green points) and thermal signatures revealed that there are several zones where lower salinity values correspond to lower temperature values, specifically at the salinity values 20.2 psu and 16.2 psu (indicated with blue circles). The results show that thermal infrared remote sensing imagery can be used as a time and cost-effective tool for identifying submarine groundwater discharge plumes.

Image Image: Landsat Thermal Infrared images of the Gulf coast along southeastern Louisiana. Blue colors indicate low temperature, red colors indicate high temperature. Salinity data from Shiller and Mao (1999) represented by green points. The blue circles indicate a correlation between lower temperatures and lower salinity.