You might have spotted the amazing imagery from the NASA/NOAA SUOMI NPP satellite in the news over the last few days. It's been all over. I spotted it first as a news item on the weather website It was also featured on the websites for Discover Magazine, Science News, and many national newspapers including the Washington Post ( among many others. There are almost too many of these links to post so I have given you what I think is the best of them, which is the photo gallery at the Washington Post. Unfortunately, some time in the future, I know that link at the Washington Post will die, but for now, feast your eyes on some really cool imagery.

In addition, there is a lovely less-than-four-minute web video from NOAA which gives an overview of the SUOMI NPP vegetation program, which is must-see in my book. Note I'm recommending you watch this web vid and I'm someone who absolutely hates web videos. Just saying... The URL for the NOAA vid is

Yeah - way cool science, n'est pas? Now I'm afraid that the captions to the photos that NASA wrote to accompany the photos had a few small problems. I'm not sure most folks would have picked up on the so-called green fertile crescent of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers which really was hardly green at all... But it was photo number three in the photo gallery that is the reason there is a blog post today. Before we zoom in on photo number three, I need to make a brief digression about the nature of "press packages" of materials given to the press by the government of the USA.

If you look at the reporting on the NASA SUOMI NPP satellite images in the press, you will notice that every instance of this news piece is identical in content in every publication on the internet. The number of photos, the photos themselves, the order of the photos and the text of the captions that go with the photos is identical REGARDLESS of the news outlet; only the individual "wrapping" unique to each news site varies - but everything else is the same. There's a reason for this and it has to do with how federal agencies interact and feed news to the press. The way it works is that NASA or NOAA or the USGS or some other federal agency will assemble a coherent media package of photos plus captions or narrated video for the press to use. The material is free for anyone to use with the proviso that the government has a rights restriction that the released material must be presented as the coherent package with adequate attribution of its source (i.e., the gov't agency making the material available has to be credited). The benefit for the federal agency is that is gets to put out its "story" the way it feels it should be presented to the public. The benefit for the press is that they get a nicely done slick presentation for free.

So now that you understand that it was a government press liason who mated photo and caption, let us now look at photo number three from the NASA/NOAA SUOMI NPP satellite presentation.


Yes, it's what folks in the USA call the "Pacific Northwest." (I've always wondered what the folks who live in BC call it.) The caption is the reason for today's blog post. Here's the NASA/NOAA caption:

The Pacific Northwest: In deserts and mountainous regions with sparse vegetation, the amount of reflected visible and near-infrared light are relatively high, so the Rocky, Cascade and Coast mountain ranges shown here dominate the landscape of the Pacific Northwest. Potato farms and other agriculture can be seen in the bottom center of the image, as the Rockies give way to the plains of Idaho. NASA/NOAA

At this point, all the folks I know from Idaho are collectively rolling their eyes. I hope that everyone else reading this is too - but in case you're not up on your Idaho geography, I will now give you a guided tour of exactly where it is that people grow their spuds in Idaho. And for those of you who don't know this, I still own a house in Idaho, in the town with the leading claim to being the spud capital of nation, just six blocks from the Idaho Potato Expo (a museum all about spuds, online at and hometown to the leading manufacturer of potato farming equipment, the very aptly-named Spudnik Equipment Company of Blackfoot, Idaho (

Let us start with the SUOMI NPP image, but this time with a few places actually labeled so you have an idea of what the image covers.


The image is looking at the upper half of the state of Washington and the southern portions of British Columbia and Alberta. Over on the right edge are the two well-known lakes of the Idaho panhandle: Lake Pend Oreille and Lake Coeur d'Alene. The star labeled as "Coeur d'Alene" is the town with the same name at the northern end of the lake. If you've ever been lucky enough to make the drive from Seattle to Missoula, Montana, Interstate-90 climbs up the river valley that connects Spokane and Coeur d'Alene and then winds its way along the north shore of the lake for about 10 miles of amazing scenery, best right at sunrise or sunset. The drop down through the passes from Lake Coeur d'Alene to Missoula is pretty eye-popping too. Here's a zoomed-in view of the Spokane to Idaho panhandle region, with yellow arrows pointing to Lake Pend Oreille and LAke Coeur d'Alene. You can match the lakes on this image with the labeled lakes on the SUOMI NPP image. ID_panhandle_1.png

It should be obvious by now that the potato farms of the "plains of Idaho" on the SUOMI NPP image is really the middle of the Columbia River Plateau in the middle of Washington. As someone who spent several productive years as a working geologist in that part of the world, please take my world for it that the Columbia River Plateau is a big layer cake of basalt a few thousand feet thick, as anyone who has driven the Columbia River Gorge can attest. Since this flat region between the Cascades and the Northern Rockies is in the Cascade rain shadow, agriculture is limited to areas of sufficient soil thickness and sufficient run-off or irrigation. Farming tends to be concentrated along the west, north and east rim of the plateau in Washington, leaving agricultural bare spots centered between Yakima and Kennewick. Fruit and root crops, mostly onions, are prominent around Yakima on the backside of the Cascades. To the west of Kennewick, Pasco, and the Columbia River, apples, pears, cereals and root crops dominate in that order. (ref: If you've ever driven I-90 or I-82 across Washington, you already know that onions and spuds are the root crops of choice.

Well, so much for the spud rich plains of Idaho on the SUOMI NPP imagery...

Here's a USGS image of Idaho.


What's most noticeable about the state is that it's more mountainous than not. If you've got sharp eyes, you can spot Lake Pend Oreille and Lake Coeur d'Alene up north in the panhandle. Now in the south, across the bottom of the state is the "smiley-face" formed by the Snake River Plain. Weirdly enough, that flat smiley face was once all mountains too - but that was before the Yellowstone Hotspot passed through. The path of Yellowstone magmatism from southwest to northeast across the bottom of the state is what created the smiley-face. The physical form of the smiley face is basalt, hundreds of small basalt eruptions that barfed out onto the ground in the wake of the Yellowstone Hotspot. The heat signature of the transiting Yellowstone super-volcanoes plus the fluid nature of the post-hotspot basalts flattened the once bumpy landscape into an elevated high plain between mountains to either side. This didn't happen overnight, mind you. The Snake River Plain took 16 million years of active ongoing tectonics to achieve its present form. If you're interested in the geology here, check out the geology pages on the Digital Atlas of Idaho website, built by my friend Prof. Paul Link of Idaho State University at

The flat smiley face in the south of Idaho is where most the spuds are grown. In fact, since a lot of the plain is still bare basalt, only relatively-depressed areas along rivers and streams with soil accumulation are cultivated, as shown on the figure below. land_of_spuds.png

The areas within the red dotted line are where most of the spuds are grown in Idaho. Spuds are the number one crop in Idaho and comprise a third of the total yearly potato crop in the USA. The other major crops on the Snake River Plain are peas, sugar beets and barley in the eastern half of the plain. Idaho is the number one producer of spuds, peas, and barley in the nation. (ref:

What's the bottom here? It's that two federal agencies put out a joint press package with some stunning faux pas mistakes of geography. The Eurasian mistakes were minor, more or less. But putting the spud fields of Idaho in central Washington was a bit much, especially for two scientific powerhouses like NASA and NOAA. How bad was it really? Here's a final graphic that illustrates just how far astray their geography went...