Now that we all have surprisingly powerful cameras in our pockets at all times, you would think we would be overflowing with crystal clear pictures of Bigfoot, UFOs, Nessie Monster, and zombie Elvis. Unfortunately, even the best smartphone cameras can’t seem to crack those anti-photography fields that most cryptids, alien aircraft, and paranormal beings seem to emit. Ambiguously fuzzy images at low-resolutions will have to do for now.
In the study of natural and man-made activity, however, the ubiquity of cameras have allowed us to view and study anomalous meteorological and atmospheric events in unprecedented detail. Aside from cellphone footage, the ubiquity of closed-circuit security cameras and dash cams have allowed us to preserve and witness multiple perspectives on meteorite explosions, natural disasters, and industrial accidents like never before. Combine that with the sheer scale of big data and social media, and suddenly we have a new medium for procuring hard evidence of anomalous events.
Just this week, scientists from the European Space Agency have announced the discovery of a strange new atmospheric phenomenon based in part on pictures of auroras gathered from social media. The University of Calgary’s Eric Donovan pored over pictures posted to Facebook by the Alberta Aurora Chasers, a group of Canadian amateur aurora enthusiasts and photographers. Donovan and his colleagues discovered that dozens of pictures contained a strange purple streak stretching across the sky which appeared to Donovan to be distinctly different from the usual cloud-like haze of the auroras or from proton arcs, another type of luminous atmospheric phenomenon.
Using the images gathered from the Facebook group, Donovan secured a European Space Agency SWARM satellite pass over one of this strange arcs of light and found that it was, in fact, a 25 kilometer-wide (15.5 miles) streak of 3,000°C (5,400° F) burning gas 300 kilometers (185 miles) above the Earth. Who could miss it? What did the researchers name such a streak of fire in the sky? Why, Steve, of course. What else?
According to Donovan, it appears that Steve has somehow gone completely unnoticed by atmospheric scientists up to now:
It turns out that Steve is actually remarkably common, but we hadn’t noticed it before. It’s thanks to ground-based observations, satellites, today’s explosion of access to data and an army of citizen scientists joining forces to document it.
The discovery (but not naming, surprisingly) of Steve is another example of citizen scientists coming together to gather data on a scale that would not be possible without the internet and social media. Just wait until we can share our thoughts instantly with the world. The impact of big data is gonna get real weird, real fast.