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Adam P. Voiland – Observing—And Writing About—Earth from Above

Adam Voiland in front of the hyperwall.
Voiland in front of the hyperwall.
Credits: Courtesy of A. Voiland

Name: Adam P. Voiland
Title: Science Writer, Social Media Lead for NASA Earth Observatory
Organization: Code 613, Climate and Radiation Laboratory, Earth Sciences Directorate

NASA Earth Observatory writer and social media manager Adam P. Voiland balances technical detail with readability.

What do you do and what is most interesting about your role here at Goddard? How do you help support Goddard’s mission?

I am a science writer for the NASA Earth Observatory, a website that covers Earth science through the lens of remote sensing. Day to day, that means I spend time tracking down satellite images, prepping and labeling imagery, interviewing scientists, and reading reams of scientific studies and news stories. When I get through all of that, I finally get to the writing part of the job.

While we aim to cover all NASA centers equally, we end up doing a lot of Goddard-based stories because Goddard is such a huge player in Earth sciences. People usually think about Johnson Space Center or Kennedy Space Center when they think about NASA because those centers have a history of working closely with the astronauts, but Goddard is the place to be if you’re writing about Earth.

What is the main focus of the NASA Earth Observatory team?

We’re very focused on marrying imagery and text in ways that tell compelling stories. In many cases, the story or caption is inspired directly by a satellite image. For instance, if I was deciding whether or not to write about a new study about lakes shrinking in Mongolia, I would only pursue the story if we could locate satellite imagery or make a map that actually showed the lakes shrinking.

What keeps the job interesting?

It’s a real thrill to come into work every day and ask myself: “What did the satellites see today?” My officemate, Jeffrey Schmaltz of the Earth Observing System Data and Information System (EOSDIS) Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) Rapid Response team and curator of a daily gallery of MODIS imagery, likes to joke that we’re both pretty lucky because we get to start each work day by flying around Earth a few times. Browsing images of Earth on Worldview isn’t exactly the same as being an astronaut, but it’s still incredibly satisfying to have an opportunity to study our planet from such a unique perspective day in and day out. Whether it’s a typhoon, a wildfire, an outbreak of haze, or just a beautiful cloud formation, there is always something new to discover. The job never gets boring.

What are some of the main products of the Earth Observatory?

Our most popular product is Image of the Day. We also usually publish at least one natural hazards image of a breaking event such as a hurricane, wildfire or volcano each day. We occasionally publish special World of Change galleries that document how an area has changed over a long time period. Finally, we publish a mix of longer features that offer deep looks at topics like air quality or global warming. In collaboration with NASA Earth Observations, we maintain global maps that showcase some of NASA’s key Earth science datasets. And of course, when we have time, we stay active on social media.

What goes into choosing an image?

We don’t consider ourselves artists, but we try to present imagery with an eye toward aesthetics and what looks good. We also carefully consider how the color choices we make will be interpreted and understood by readers. For instance, we go out of our way to avoid using the “rainbow” color palette in our maps and data visualizations. While rainbow color palettes are widely used within the scientific community, they’re often confusing to non-experts and lay readers alike and unintelligible to people who are color blind. In some situations, using rainbow color palettes even distorts data in ways that can be misleading.

Mississippi delta
Landsat imagery shows how much the deltas have grown since the early 1980s.
Credits: NASA Goddard MODIS Rapid Response Team

Instead, we usually use perceptual color palettes—color schemes in which one of the perceptual qualities of color (hue, saturation or lightness) matches the data being shown. You can find more details about what makes rainbow color schemes problematic in this series of posts.

Can you please give us an example of a memorable story you recently wrote?

In March we published a story about two deltas in Atchafalaya Bay, Louisiana. We used Landsat imagery to show how much the deltas have grown since the early 1980s. Their growth makes the deltas in Atchafalaya Bay quite remarkable because the vast majority of the Mississippi River Delta Plain is rapidly losing land. Some of the scientists I interviewed for the story made the point that there’s an important lesson to be learned from these deltas because if we divert water from certain parts of the main Mississippi River channel, we could start to build new land in other places that really need it.

The Earth Observatory has been around since 1999. How has the site changed? 

When the site started, Image of the Day was only, at best, “Image of the Week” or “Image of the Work Day.” Over the years, satellite imagery has become more accessible and ubiquitous online. We work harder now to provide quality background and context about imagery to make them meaningful. Also, we find ourselves weaving multiple images together in ways that allow us to tell deeper stories.

What do you find challenging about science writing?

Readability is a constant struggle. The scientific community has a habit of using technical language and stringing together acronyms in ways that make it a real challenge for non-scientists to understand what is being spoken or written about. As a science writer, you have to simplify and synthesize scientific language and concepts into something that a non-expert can understand.

How do you make a story more readable?

As the writer, I have to work hard to understand the concepts and the jargon for myself. Sometimes this means interviewing scientists until we’re both blue in the face. Somebody it means sifting through the footnotes of technical journal articles and looking up every word I’m not familiar with until the study really comes into focus. Once I understand a concept properly, then I can break it down piece by piece for readers in more approachable language.

Earth Observatory has quite a following6.5 million likeson Facebook. What makes it so popular?

We make an effort to post timely content that is making national news and is relevant to people’s lives on a daily basis. If there is a big tropical cyclone bearing down on the Philippines or a wildfire threatening homes in Colorado, chances are we’ll be covering it. On most days, we post to Facebook at least twice, and we try to mix things up and surprise people. We’ve done stories about floating tomato farms in Burma and a heart-shaped mountain in Greenland called Uummannaq. And of course, we try to keep social media interactive and fun. Every month, for instance, we publish a special puzzler image on our blog and ask readers to tell us where they think the image is, what it shows and what makes it interesting. A week later, we post the answer as our Image of the Day.

How did you get involved in science writing?

I got hooked on writing and journalism as a high school student. In college, I majored, somewhat unexpectedly, in geology. I thought I was going to be an English or history major, but I had an excellent geology professor who really opened my mind up to science. I remember being astounded that plate tectonics—the central theory in modern geology—was only widely accepted in the 1950s. People tend to think about geology as a dusty, boring subject. It’s actually a surprisingly young and dynamic field.

Who is your science hero?

John McPhee, a writer for The New Yorker and book author, would have to be at the top of my list. “Annals of the Former World,” one of his best books, explains not only how North America became the continent we know today, but also what the people who devote their lives to studying it are like. McPhee has a remarkable talent for taking complex, seemingly esoteric topics and bringing them alive with lyrical prose. As part of “The Control of Nature,” another one of his books, in a story called Atchafalaya, he details the incredible effort the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has gone through to try to prevent the Mississippi River from shifting its course. I couldn’t help but weave in a reference to McPhee’s article in a story I did for Earth Observatory about control structures on the Mississippi River.

Voiland and son, Calvin, checking out the Earth Observatory Facebook page.
Voiland and son, Calvin, checking out the Earth Observatory Facebook page.
Credits: Courtesy of A. Voiland

What brought you to Goddard?

After college, I spent a year teaching English in Japan. Then I moved to Washington, D.C., for a job with U.S. News & World Report. The magazine had downsized its science section when I arrived, so I ended up as a medical writer. I mainly covered men’s health, but I also did some environmental health reporting. I wanted to write about hard science more, especially geology and climate change, so when I saw a job at Goddard I jumped on it. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, but I figured it had to be interesting if NASA was involved. It turned out to be a great move. I spent a few years writing for the Office of Communications and for the Glory mission before joining the Earth Observatory.

What would be your dream story to write?

It would probably be one where I could travel some place distant and exotic. I love looking at satellite imagery, but seeing so many beautiful and fascinating areas from above really makes me want to go visit them. I’d like to take photographs on the ground and then link that to what the satellites are seeing from above. In terms of the topic, I can get interested in pretty much anything. A videographer once pitched me the idea of an expedition to the part of the Democratic Republic of Congo that faces more lightning anywhere else in the world. Kayaking down the Yarlung Tsangpo, the “Everest of rivers,” or exploring Piqiang fault in western China would be pretty amazing as well.

A six-word memoir describes something in just six words. What is your “six-word memoir?”


By Elizabeth M. Jarrell
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.

A graphic with a collection of people's portraits grouped together in front of a soft blue galaxy background. The people come from various races, ethnicities, and genders. A soft yellow star shines in the upper left corner, and the stylized text "Conversations with Goddard" is in white on the far right.
Conversations With Goddard is a collection of question and answer profiles highlighting the breadth and depth of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center’s talented and diverse workforce. The Conversations have been published twice a month on average since May 2011. Read past editions on Goddard’s “Our People” webpage.

Conversations With Goddard is a collection of Q&A profiles highlighting the breadth and depth of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center’s talented and diverse workforce. The Conversations have been published twice a month on average since May 2011. Read past editions on Goddard’s “Our People” webpage.