The Heart Of Climate Change: New ESA Image Shows 'Island Love' Under Threat

Consider this picture a love letter — from Planet Earth. Just in time for Valentine's Day, this cute new "island love" space image shows the heart-shaped island of Moorea in French Polynesia. But the picture also stands as a stark symbol of climate change, the European Space Agency says.

"Moorea is part of a chain of islands formed by hot-spot volcanism. This means that volcanoes are created by 'fixed' hot areas in Earth's mantle," ESA officials said in a statement accompanying the image, which was taken by the satellite Copernicus Sentinel-2. ESA further explained that plate tectonics — the movement of the Earth's surface over time — forces the plate away from the hotspot. This process gradually carries hotspot volcanoes to a new location while, at the hotspot, new volcanoes form.

"These kinds of islands are constantly changing, eroding and sinking back into the ocean over millions of years," ESA added. "However, changes are taking place at a much faster rate because of the marks human activity leaves on the natural landscape and because of climate change."

Heart-shaped Moorea in French Polynesia is a symbol of climate change. (Image credit: ESA)

While you may think the image was dyed red just for Valentine's Day, ESA explained that the image processing turns vegetation red — revealing that Moorea is home to a lush ecosystem. Humans have inhabited this island for 1,200 years and continue to alter its vegetation.

Another delicate part of Moorea lies just around the island. The coral reef in that area appears pristine for now, ESA said, but like all coral reefs it faces dangers from ocean plastics, fishing and pesticide runoff from agriculture. In general, coral reefs around the world are dying in large part due to rising temperatures, which are linked with ocean acidification and hurt or kill corals themselves. 

ESA officials said that through images like these, satellites like Sentinel-2 remind scientists and the public how fragile Earth is. The satellite is also part of a network of sentinels that send information back to Earth about climate change and how local ecosystems are responding to that change — helping us learn how to better love the Earth. 

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: