PHOTO: US Corn Crops Shine With Fluorescent Glow

By Michael Kuhne, Staff Writer
August 6, 2014; 4:25 AM ET
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In March, NASA unveiled the invisible fluorescence of North America's rich agricultural productivity in a new photograph compiled with data from satellite sensors.

According to the data, the Midwest region of the United States during the growing season is a hot spot, flashing with more ‘photosynthetic activity' than any other area on the entire planet.

"Healthy plants convert light to energy via photosynthesis, but chlorophyll also emits a fraction of absorbed light as fluorescent glow that is invisible to the naked eye," NASA reports. "The magnitude of the glow is an excellent indicator of the amount of photosynthesis, or gross productivity, of plants in a given region."

The magnitude of fluorescence portrayed in this visualization prompted researchers to take a closer look at the productivity of the U.S. Corn Belt. The glow represents fluorescence measured from land plants in early July, over a period from 2007 to 2011. (Photo/ NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center)

The information was obtained between 2007 and 2011 utilizing satellites that were designed for other purposes.

While the tropics are most productive annually from the data NASA researchers obtained, the U.S. Corn Belt took the number one spot during the North American growing season, which is almost entirely a product of agriculture.

"The researchers set out to describe the phenomenon observed by carefully interpreting the data from the Global Ozone Monitoring Experiment 2 (GOME-2) on Metop-A, a European meteorological satellite," NASA reports. "Data showed that fluorescence from the Corn Belt, which extends from Ohio to Nebraska and Kansas, peaks in July at levels 40 percent greater than those observed in the Amazon." Meteorologist Dale Mohler said that it is amazing to see how agriculture has boomed since the early 1900s to the modern day with relatively the same amount of acreage used in the past.

"With the hybrids that are grown in that area, they can just produce phenomenal yields," Mohler said. "They're getting more corn in the Midwest than ever before."

Mohler said the combination of modified corn, favorable soil and sustainable weather are all major contributors in the successful crop yield.

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"In the 1900s, [before mechanization] there would be about 30 bushels per acre," he said, adding that today a harvest nears 165 bushels per acre.

The weather in the Midwest provides mostly favorable growing seasons, with a severe drought only impacting the region on average every 20 years, Mohler added.

"It's rare you get a perfect growing season, but it is usually good enough," he said.

Utilizing this information, the fluorescence is a better indicator of agricultural productivity than anything used in the past, NASA reports, adding that when the data was compared with other measurements and yield statistics, their results were confirmed.

This research may further scientists' understanding of Earth's carbon cycle and advance knowledge regarding the blue planet and its complex systems.


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