Changing Planet

Mesmerizing GIFs of Breathing Earth

The biodiversity of Earth as we know it is made up of millions of species—from Baobab trees to narwhals to tiny anemones attached to the ocean floor. But can we think of Earth in a holistic way, as one living entity of its own, instead of the sum of its parts?

This is what John Nelson illustrates in “Breathing Earth,” two animated GIFs he designed to visualize what a year’s worth of Earth’s seasonal transformations look like from outer space. Nelson—a data visualizer who works for software company IDV Solutions—stitched together from NASA’s website 12 cloud-free satellite photographs taken each month over the course of a year. Once the images were put together in a sequence, the mesmerizing animations showed what Nelson describes as “the annual pulse of vegetation and land ice.” (See: “Striking GIFs of Our Breathing Earth.”)

As the climate changes, the planet comes alive. Earth appears to breathe when ice cover grows and melts—in and out, in and out.

“I expected the poles to creep down and encompass lots of the northern hemisphere and I expected the change between green and dry, green and dry,” Nelson said.

“I expected there not to be much change in the southern hemisphere, and this [GIF] illustrates that change,” he added. “But when it came to life in front of me, I still had this ‘Gee, shucks,’ kind of moment.” (Related: “Earth’s Green Places Mapped in High Resolution.”)

Courtesy of John Nelson

The first GIF is taken from a perspective looking down on the planet, with the North Pole directly in the center. White frost radiates out from the top of the globe and creeps south in all directions. It travels through Siberia, Canada, and northern Europe, heading towards the equator located around the circle’s edge, but ends before the top of Africa. The Mediterranean Sea is the visible body of water on the top left hand side, and the Great Lakes make up a small network of dark blue shapes on the land mass to the right.

Nelson also animated a complete map to make sure people can see all reaches of the temperate planet. Beyond the expanding and shrinking ice cover, the annual push and pull of the green wet season and brown dry season are striking—particularly on the African savannah and the coastal areas of Australia.

Breathing Earth animated gif
Courtesy of John Nelson

To Nelson, these GIFS represent the power of data visualization to translate natural phenomena into a format where users can think about information as more than just a muddle of numbers.

“I don’t think I would feel quite the same way about summertime if I didn’t have that long harsh winter to set me up for it,” Nelson said of living in Michigan, a center on his map where stark white intersects the crisp green. “The Earth has this wonderful alternating character to it, and experiencing the changing seasons each year—it’s reassuring.”

—Follow Jaclyn Skurie on Twitter.

  • Kevin Woolf

    Where is the sea ice?

  • Jj

    Amazing how a change of perspective…so changes your perspective.

  • Rono Cabono

    Have you ever noticed in most pictures of the Earth, that its always black around it? As if there is nothing else in space. Hahahaa!

  • mohammed

    How the earth take a breath?

  • Garra

    Bo, que pinta que no ponen el hielo marino????

  • sarah

    now, do the same from the south pole!!

  • Khaleel

    Is not He (Most Charitable) Who made the earth a residence, and made amidst it rivers, and made for it anchorages, (i.e., firm mountains) and made a partition between the two seas? Is there a god with Allah? No indeed, (but) most of them do not know.
    27:61 The Noble Qur’an

  • Nilotpal

    Amazing !

  • Lp Valencia

    Are this 12 photographs from this year??

    • Jaclyn Skurie

      The satellite images are from 2004.

  • Montserrat

    It’s like a pulsating heart … it’s maybe a pulsating heart … maybe the whole universe is a pulsating heart.

  • angelitomoral

    Amazing ..Many have been bless to see those things but Many also has been blinded becaused they are ignorant of this kind..very true the Earth is breathing..Thats how the Lord GOD created Earth a special place where life exist.i wished that Mankind will preserved its Beauty,Lets stop destruction of Life.Human , animals,creatures,trees,Environment..everythings that surrounded us are created in perfection by God. I do pray that people will integrate the technology to protect not to destroy LIFE & EARTH ..theres only one Planet proven to sustain us Human in everything we needs..and thats Planets Called EARTH..

  • Honeyzel Llenares

    It’s not really tells you “a breathing earth” or the earth can breath… its the season change every month of the year and they fast forwarded it for us to see the change and its just wonderful! 😀

  • Neil carroll

    Fascinating view of breathing Earth

  • Lorccan

    Ar an léarscáil dealraíonn sé nach mór an aimsir a athrú san Indinéis.

  • Johnnysynth

    @Rono Cabono I’ve noticed when you photograph something bright, less bright objects around do not show.

  • Rahim


  • CW


    Because of the contrast between how bright earth is and how dim the stars are, stars barely ever show up in photographs. That’s why there are no stars in any photographs taken from the moon – the moons surface is so bright that the stars don’t even register!

  • Erika

    I really wish everyone would stop cutting off New Zealand in these types of pictures. We are curious too

  • Robiomoh

    Sub7an’Allah <3

  • John Lawrence Arrogante

    Philippines is almost not changing 😀

  • Paul

    New Zealand is not relevant to this planet.

  • Diana

    Why there is no snow in the Korean peninsula, the English island and ireland island in winter?

  • Susan Farmer

    agrees with Kevin — why no sea ice?

  • ritwik chattaraj

    pulsating earth,wow

  • Shanthi Venkatesh

    Wonderful view of the Earth breathing !!

  • Krishna Dutta

    It actually looks like the planet is breathing, but its a very slow and shallow breath! Lets hope it never stops breathing!

  • jay patel

    Amazing and nice

  • TJ

    I wish this animation showed the “breathing” a bit slower, like the pace of a human breath. Fascinating pictures but I got out of breath as I unconsciously matched the animation speed to my own.

  • Marites TAmayo -Fagaragan

    This is not my first time to hear that the earth seems to breath every change of season. This photos confirm one thing, God made an amazing world for us, and that we need to take care of it.

  • Rosalie


  • Tony Hartshorn

    Fantastic. Since some commenters are getting excited about the “Earth breathing” analogy, someone might want to pair this Northern Hemisphere animation (slowed down, and even though it’s only one year… or better yet, why not match 6? years of imagery) alongside a multiyear monthly average CO2 animation from Mauna Loa, as presented here:!!

  • Anubhav

    The breathing earth signifies that the nature tries to provide us the same set of conditions every season , every year .. it is up to us how we preserve it year after year and season after season..

  • K.Kasturi

    We could see the pulsating earth as it takes CO2 in and out it be that h CO2 in and out..Could it be that the pulsation is a part of breathing of all living creatures in infinite frequencies-humans breathe in 12-15 second cycles. cells breathe in 1/1000 secon cycles etc ? Has any scientific research been made in this direction at all ? I shall appreciate comments on this aspect.

  • Eager Beaver

    To those of you asking about New Zealand, you can see it in the image centered on the Antarctic

  • rick

    It is hard for me to believe that people do not understand that the earth is a living breathing organism. When you plant a tree, grass or shrub and it grows that is all you need to know.
    On a larger scale the earth is a self regulating sentient living being!

  • carlos nestor armanth ceballos


  • Sarah DeMarcus

    The Pinterest icon appears to have been removed. There are more share options than I’ve ever seen, so I’m guessing a hacker removed the Pinterest option.

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