How one artist in isolation is keeping his head in clouds

Himawari earth with water vapour credit Grayson CookeWater vapour swirling around the Earth: a screenshot from Grayson Cooke’s latest art/science project (credit Grayson Cooke).

In these dark and uncertain times, the creative output of artists — writers, musicians, filmmakers, singers, dancers, actors and more — is enriching our thoughts, imagination and wellbeing. The latest contribution is an art/science video project capturing the breathtaking movement of water vapour swirling around our planet, set to a musical soundtrack.

“What else are you going to do during COVID-19 than process thousands of hours of satellite images of the Earth?” said multimedia artist Associate Professor Grayson Cooke from Southern Cross University.

“I’ve spent some of my lockdown time getting my head around accessing and processing the incredible imagery and data that comes off the Himawari weather satellite, run by the Japan Meteorological Agency.

“Working with the water vapour data recorded by the satellite – from the geostationary orbit, 35,786km above the Earth – we are all one organism under the giant swirling mass of water that makes our planet liveable.

“We often ignore the clouds – someone whose ‘head is in the clouds’ is someone not living in reality. And yet clouds and swirls of water vapour are literally what keep us alive! They distribute water across the globe, and they both reflect and hold in the sun’s energy, keeping Earth at a liveable temperature. And under global warming, it is becoming more and more vital that we understand how clouds behave, so this project is designed to draw attention to this fact.”

The video uses two days’ worth of satellite data from last year, February 3 and 4. The music is by New Zealand sound artist Dugal McKinnon.

This work is the latest in Professor Cooke’s series of art/science video projects using satellite data and Geoscience Australia and the Digital Earth Australia platform.

The Bureau of Meteorology draws data from Japan’s Himawari satellite for forecasting weather in Australia.

The Himawari video forms part of a new larger project Grayson is developing called Path 99. Path 99 will be a fulldome planetarium projection at the Carter Observatory in Wellington, New Zealand, in 2021. Dugal McKinnon is creating the soundtrack.

“The project uses Landsat and Himawari satellite data to investigate Australia’s cloud layer, using scientific imagery in an artistic context to reflect on the wonder and complexity of Earth processes vital to all life on this planet,” Professor Cooke said.

“Whereas Landsat satellites orbit at around 700kms from the Earth and see a swathe of the planet only 185km wide, weather satellites sit at a geostationary orbit, 35,786km from the surface, and they see around 42% of the Earth’s surface at one time. And because they’re multi-spectral, they record both visual images as well as invisible details such as water vapour and cloud temperature – and when you map the water vapour bands to the red, green and blue channels of a digital image, you get this stunning and constantly unfolding imagery of the Earth.”

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