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Astronauts' photos from the space station reveal the highs and lows of watching Earth from above in 2021 so far

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earth seen from space above the red sea and the nile river snaking down africa
The thin blue line of Earth's atmosphere appears on the horizon beyond the Red Sea and the Nile River in Africa, February 3, 2021. NASA

Astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) drink in stunning views every day.

panorama photo shows deep blue Caribbean sea with brown green islands stretching across the curvature of the earth
This composite photograph of Cuba, the Bahamas, and southern Florida was taken from the ISS on May 2, 2021. NASA

From more than 250 miles above the Earth, they can see city lights, mountain ranges, major storms, and melting glaciers.

istanbul city grid lit up yellow gold at night with dark ocean waters and river splitting the city as seen from above
The night lights of Istanbul, Turkey, split by the Bosphorus Strait and the Golden Horn, May 10, 2021. NASA

Since the space station orbits Earth every 90 minutes, astronauts see 16 sunrises and sunsets per day.

sun rises yellow orange above the dark surface of the earth below blue atmosphere and black space above
The sun rises above the Indian Ocean off the coast of Western Australia, as photographed from the space station, May 20, 2021. NASA

There are currently seven people on the station.

yellow brown mountain rises above deep green forest
Mount Taranaki in New Zealand, captured from the ISS, January 25, 2021. Roscosmos

Some of them - including European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet and NASA astronaut Megan McArthur - regularly post stunning photos on social media.

tokyo city grid lit up green at night with thin dark rivers splitting the city as seen from above
The night lights of Tokyo, Japan, February 27, 2021. NASA

Agricultural areas can make beautiful patterns, like these farms in the desert. It's not easy to pin down exact locations from space, but Pesquet said this was somewhere in Africa.

desert peppered with blue and green circles of crops
A desert peppered with blue and green circles where crops are grown, captured from the ISS. ESA/Thomas Pesquet

In some places, like Bolivia, those pretty patterns - and the crops growing within them - come at the expense of clearing tropical forests.

agricultural areas make star-like patterns in the rainforest of bolivia
Astronaut Thomas Pesquet shared this image on Twitter with the caption: "Star-like patterns in San Pedro Limón, Bolivia where areas of the tropical dry forest have been cleared for agriculture." ESA/Thomas Pesquet

When spaceships launch towards the station, carrying astronauts or supplies, those aboard the ISS often watch the rocket streaking towards them.

bright rocket streak rises in the distance above deep blue and black nighttime clouds
The plasma trail of Russia's Progress 77 resupply ship launching towards the ISS, July 26, 2021. NASA

Astronauts don't always know what they're looking at.

brown desert covered in islands of rust-colored or shrubby land
The far eastern, desert-covered portion of Western Australia, May 14, 2021. NASA

But sometimes they spot something distinct and dramatic, like a volcano spewing gas.

volcano emits vapor above snowy mountains
A volcano in Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula, captured from the ISS, April 2, 2021. Roscosmos

Occasionally, they even spy their homelands - like this picture Pesquet snapped of his birthplace in Normandy, France.

normandy france coast purple yellow green speckled land against deep blue ocean
Astronaut Thomas Pesquet snapped this image of Normandy shortly after arriving at the International Space Station, April 28, 2021. ESA/NASA-T. Pesquet

"How can something so beautiful be tolerated by human eyes?" NASA astronaut Mike Massimino told the Washington Post, referring to his feelings the first time he saw Earth from above.

cape town jagged mountainous coast extends into silvery atlantic waters
Cape Town in South Africa is pictured with the sun's glint beaming off the South Atlantic coast, captured from the ISS, February 28, 2021. Roscosmos

Source: The Washington Post

But lately, some of the sights from the ISS have been more concerning.

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"We've been very saddened to see fires over huge sections of the Earth, not just the United States," McArthur told Insider on a recent call from the space station.

wildfire smoke plumes rise from california mountains surrounding a valley as seen from space
Plumes of smoke billow from wildfires in Northern California, August 4, 2021. NASA/Megan McArthur

Other consequences of climate change are easily visible from the ISS, too. "We can see all of those effects from up here," McArthur said.

melting glacier flows into icy blue water
The declining Upsala Glacier in Patagonia, captured where it melts into water by astronaut Thomas Pesquet. ESA/NASA-T. Pesquet/A. Conigli

Pesquet photographed Hurricane Ida just hours before it struck Louisiana as a Category 4 storm.

hurricane ida swirling clouds dominate the earth as seen from space
Hurricane Ida as a Category 2 storm on August 28, 2021. NASA

"It's worrying to see these weather phenomena becoming stronger and more frequent from our vantage point," Pesquet said on Twitter.

hurricane ida cyclone seen through a window port on the space station
Hurricane Ida as a Category 2 storm, photographed through a space station window port on August 28, 2021. NASA

Lately the astronauts can even see dwindling reservoirs along the Colorado River, which is in its first-ever official water shortage.

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On the bright side, though, astronauts caught a stunning view of the southern aurora earlier this month.

aurora green stripes on the horizon against the starry background of outer space with shadowy space station solar panels in the foreground
The aurora australis above the southern Indian Ocean, in between Asia and Antarctica, photographed from the space station on August 2, 2021. NASA

"I wasn't surprised by the auroras, but I was kind of bowled over by how breathtaking they really were, and how mesmerizing it was to see it with my own eyes," McArthur said.

aurora green glow lines the curvature of the earth with starry outer space behind it
The aurora australis above the southern Indian Ocean, in between Asia and Antarctica, photographed from the space station on August 2, 2021. NASA

McArthur has also been scoping out US National Parks to visit with her husband - astronaut Bob Behnken - and their son once she's back on the ground.

joshua tree national park seen from space sandy shrubby rocky brown mountains
Joshua Tree National Park, photographed from space by astronaut Megan McArthur. NASA/Megan McArthur

Passing over the US, she can see several National Parks in just a few minutes.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks granite grey mountains peppered with blue alpine lakes
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, photographed from space by astronaut Megan McArthur. NASA/Megan McArthur

"The other thing that we can see, of course, is the very thin lens of atmosphere," McArthur said.

thin atmosphere glowing orange against space stars above nighttime earth city lights
The atmosphere glows above the southeastern African coast, as seen from the International Space Station. NASA

"That is what protects our Earth and everything on it," she added. "We see how fragile that is, and we know how important it is."

earth seen from space above the red sea and the nile river snaking down africa
The thin blue line of Earth's atmosphere appears on the horizon beyond the Red Sea and the Nile River in Africa, February 3, 2021. NASA

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