Single-Purpose Flour

Think of a snowflake. What happens when that snowflake hits the ground? Now, picture other snowflakes – millions of them – all hitting the ground and piling up on top of each other, crushing our first poor snowflake. Skiers love to talk (and dream) about “fresh powder.” But, what happens when the “powder” isn’t so fresh?

Those delicate, little snow crystals we imagine (or look at directly, if we click on links included in the text) undergo a transformation as soon as they hit the ground. Compression from the weight of the snow above, plus the occasional partial thaw and re-freeze cycle (when temperatures are in the right range), breaks up the snow flakes and converts the 6-pointed crystals into more circular grains of snow. As more and more snow accumulates on top, the air in between the individual snowflakes/grains (which is what helps make it a good insulator) gets squeezed out, making the snow more dense. If enough time passes and enough snow accumulates, individual snow grains can fuse together. These bonded snow grains are called “névé.” If this extra-dense snow can survive a whole summer without melting, then a second winter of this compaction and compression will squeeze out more air and fuse more snow grains, creating the more dense “firn.” After 20 or 30 years of this, what once was a collection of fragile snowflakes becomes a nearly solid mass of ice that we call a “glacier.” Glaciers can be made up of grains that are several inches in length.

But, you don’t need to hear me say it (or read me write it), you can watch a short video where a guy in a thick Scottish accent explains it. (Did you notice his first sentence was a lie? Snow is made of frozen water, so glaciers are made of frozen water, since they are made of snow. I think what he means is that glaciers aren’t formed the same way as a hockey rink, but the way he said it is technically incorrect.) At the end of the video, the narrator hints at why we are looking at glaciers today: glaciers have the power to grind down solid rock.

When a glacier forms on a non-level surface, gravity acts on it, pulling it down the slope. This mass of ice and friction from the motion acts like sandpaper on the underlying rock, converting the rock into a fine powder known as “glacial flour” or, simply, “rock flour.” In the spring and summer months, the meltwater from the glacier collects this glacial flour and transports it downstream, where it may be deposited on the river’s banks. During dry periods, it doesn’t take much wind to loft these fine particles of rock into the air, creating a unique type of dust storm that is not uncommon in Alaska. One that can be seen by satellites.

And, wouldn’t you know it, a significant event occurred at the end of October. Take a look at this VIIRS True Color image from 23 October 2016:

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (21:24 UTC 23 October 2016)

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (21:24 UTC 23 October 2016)

See the big plume of dust over the Gulf of Alaska? Here’s a zoomed in version:

Zoomed in version of above image.

Zoomed in version of above image.

That plume of dust is coming from the Copper River delta. The Copper River is fed by a number of glaciers in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, plus a few in the Chugach Mountains so it is full of glacial sediment and rock flour (as evidenced by this photo). And, it’s amazingly full of salmon. (How do they see where they’re going when they head back to spawn? And, that water can’t be easy for them to breathe.)

Notice also that we have the perfect set-up for a glacial flour dust event on the Copper River. You can see a low-pressure circulation over the Gulf of Alaska in the above picture, plus we have a cold, Arctic high over the Interior shown in this analysis from the Weather Prediction Center. For those of you familiar with Alaska, note that temperatures were some 30 °F warmer during the last week in October in Cordova (on the coast) than they were in Glennallen (along the river ~150 miles inland). That cold, dense, high-pressure air over the interior of Alaska is going to seek out the warmer, less dense, low-pressure air over the ocean – on the other side of the mountains – and the easiest route to take is the Copper River valley. The air being funneled into that single valley creates high winds, which loft the glacial flour from the river banks into the atmosphere.

Now, depending on your preferences, you might think that the dust shows up better in the Natural Color RGB composite:

VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels I-1, I-2 and I-3 (21:24 UTC 23 October 2016)

VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels I-1, I-2 and I-3 (21:24 UTC 23 October 2016).

But, everyone should agree that the dust is even easier to see the following day:

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (21:01 UTC 24 October 2016)

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (21:01 UTC 24 October 2016)

VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels I-1, I-2 and I-3 (21:01 UTC 24 October 2016)

VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels I-1, I-2 and I-3 (21:01 UTC 24 October 2016)

You can also see a few more plumes start to show up to the southeast, closer to Yakutat.

Since Alaska is far enough north, we get more than one daytime overpass every day. Here’s the same scene on the very next orbit, about a 100 minutes later:

VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels I-1, I-2 and I-3 (22:42 UTC 24 October 2016)

VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels I-1, I-2 and I-3 (22:42 UTC 24 October 2016)

Notice that the dust plume appears darker. What is going on? This is a consequence of the fact that glacial flour, like many aerosol particles, has a tendency to preferentially scatter sunlight in the “forward” direction. At the time of the first orbit (21:01 UTC), both the sun and the dust plume are on the left side of the satellite. The sunlight scatters off the dust in the same (2-dimensional) direction it was traveling and hits the VIIRS detectors. In the second orbit (22:42 UTC), the dust plume is now to the right of the satellite, but the sun is to the left. In this case, forward scattering takes the sunlight off to the east, away from the VIIRS detectors. With less backward scattering, the plume appears darker. This has a bigger impact on the Natural Color imagery, because the Natural Color RGB uses longer wavelength channels where forward scattering is more prevalent. Here’s the True Color image from the second orbit:

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (22:42 UTC 24 October 2016)

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (22:42 UTC 24 October 2016)

The plume is a little darker than the first orbit, but not by as much as in the Natural Color imagery. Here are animations to show that:

Animation of VIIRS True Color images (24 October 2016)

Animation of VIIRS True Color images (24 October 2016)

Animation of VIIRS Natural Color images (24 October 2016)

Animation of VIIRS Natural Color images (24 October 2016)

There are many other interesting details you can see in these animations. For one, you can see turbid waters along the coast in the True Color images that move with the tides and currents. These features are absent in the Natural Color because the ocean is not as reflective at these longer wavelengths. You can also see the shadows cast by the mountains that move with the sun. Some of the mountains seem to change their appearance because VIIRS is viewing them from a different side.

The dust plumes were even more impressive on 25 October 2016, making this a three-day event. The same discussion applies:

VIIRS True Color composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (20:43 UTC 25 October 2016)

VIIRS True Color composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (20:43 UTC 25 October 2016)

VIIRS True Color composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (22:26 UTC 25 October 2016)

VIIRS True Color composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (22:26 UTC 25 October 2016)

VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels I-1, I-2 and I-3 (20:43 UTC 25 October 2016)

VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels I-1, I-2 and I-3 (20:43 UTC 25 October 2016)

VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels I-1, I-2 and I-3 (22:26 UTC 25 October 2016)

VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels I-1, I-2 and I-3 (22:26 UTC 25 October 2016)

Full disclosure, yours truly drove through a glacial flour dust storm along the Delta River on the north side of the Alaska Range back in 2015. Even though it was only about a mile wide, visibility was reduced to only a few hundred yards beyond the hood of my car. It felt as dangerous as driving through any fog. The dust event shown here was not a hazard to drivers, since it was out over the ocean, but it was a hazard to fisherman. Being in a boat near one of these river deltas means dealing with high winds and high waves. To forecasters, these dust plumes provide information about the wind on clear days (when cloud-track wind algorithms are no help), which is useful in a state with very few surface observing sites to take advantage of.

The last remaining issue for the day is one of terminology. You see, “glacial flour dust storm” is a mouthful, and acronyms aren’t always the best solution. (GFDS, anyone?) “Haboob” covers desert dust. “SAL” or “bruma seca” covers Saharan dust specifically. So, what should we call these dust events? Something along the lines of “rock flour”, only more proactive! And, Dusty McDustface is right out!

Watch for Falling Rock

Q: When a tree falls in the forest and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

A: Yes.

That’s an easy question to answer. It’s not a 3000-year-old philosophical conundrum with no answer. Sound is simply a pressure wave moving through some medium (e.g. air, or the ground). A tree falling in the forest will create a pressure wave whether or not there is someone there to listen to it. It pushes against the air, for one. And it smacks into the ground (or other trees), for two. These will happen no matter who is around. As long as that tree doesn’t fall over in the vacuum of space (where there is nothing to transmit the sound waves and nothing to crash into), that tree will make “a sound”. (There are also sounds that humans cannot hear. Think of a dog whistle. Does that sound not exist because a human can’t hear it?)

What if it’s not a tree? What if it’s 120 million metric tons of rock falling onto a glacier? Does that make a sound? To quote a former governor, “You betcha!” It even causes a 2.9 magnitude earthquake!

That’s right! On 28 June 2016, a massive landslide occurred in southeast Alaska. It was picked up on seismometers all over Alaska. And, a pilot who regularly flies over Glacier Bay National Park saw the aftermath:

If you didn’t read the articles from the previous links, here’s one with more (and updated) information. And, according to this last article, rocks were still falling and still making sounds (“like fast flowing streams but ‘crunchier'”) four days later. That pile of fallen rocks is roughly 6.5 miles long and 1 mile wide. And, some of the rock was pushed at least 300 ft (~100 m) uphill on some of the neighboring mountain slopes.

Of course, who needs pilots with video cameras? All we need is a satellite instrument known as VIIRS to see it. (That, and a couple of cloud-free days.) First, lets take a look at an ultra-high-resolution Landsat image (that I stole from the National Park Service website and annotated):

Glacier Bay National Park as viewed by Landsat (courtesy US National Park Service)

Glacier Bay National Park as viewed by Landsat (courtesy US National Park Service)

Of course, you’ll want to click on that image to see it at full resolution. The names I’ve added to the image are the names of the major (and a few minor) glaciers in the park. The one to take note of is Lamplugh. Study it’s location, then see if you can find it in this VIIRS True Color image from 9 June 2016:

VIIRS True Color RGB composite image of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (20:31 UTC 9 June 2016), zoomed in at 200%.

VIIRS True Color RGB composite image of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (20:31 UTC 9 June 2016), zoomed in at 200%.

Anything? No? Well, how about in this image from 7 July 2016:

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (21:42 UTC 7 July 2016)

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (21:42 UTC 7 July 2016), zoomed in at 200%

I see it! If you don’t, try this “Before/After” image overlay, by dragging your mouse from side to side:

afterbefore

That dark gray area in the image from 7 July 2016 that the arrow is pointing to is the Lamplugh Glacier landslide! If the “Before/After” overlay doesn’t work, try refreshing the page, or look at this animated GIF:

Animation of VIIRS True Color images highlighting the Lamplugh Glacier landslide

Animation of VIIRS True Color images highlighting the Lamplugh Glacier landslide

Of course, with True Color images, it can be hard to tell what is cloud and what is snow (or glacier) and with VIIRS you’re limited to 750 m resolution. We can take care of those issues with the high-resolution (375 m) Natural Color images:

Animation of VIIRS Natural Color images of the Lamplugh Glacier landslide

Animation of VIIRS Natural Color images of the Lamplugh Glacier landslide

Make sure you click on it to see the full resolution. If you want to really zoom in, here is the high-resolution visible channel (I-1) imagery of the event:

Animation of VIIRS high-resolution visible images of the Lamplugh Glacier landslide

Animation of VIIRS high-resolution visible images of the Lamplugh Glacier landslide

You don’t even need an arrow to point it out. Plus, if you look closely, I think you can even see some of the dust coming from the slide.

That’s what 120 million metric tons of rock falling off the side of a mountain looks like, according to VIIRS!

Remote Islands V: St. Helena and Ascension

You may have missed it in the news, but history was made last week:

A plane landed! Wow!

But, that’s not any old plane – that’s the first commercial airliner to land on St. Helena Island, which just completed the construction of their very first airport. That means there may be no more commercial sailing to this tiny island.

People prone to seasickness may be cheering the news. People afraid of flying might not. Did you notice it took three attempts to land that plane in the video above? The first pass was getting everything all lined up with no intention of landing. The landing gear wasn’t even down. The second – which looked like a roller coaster – was waived off due to the heavy crosswinds. The third time was the charm. However, it was such a shaky first landing, they’ve postponed the official opening of the airport.

So, where is St. Helena (pronounced Ha-LEEN-a), anyway? And why should I care?

Well, to answer the first question, it’s somewhere in this image:

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (12:45 UTC 26 April 2016)

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (12:45 UTC 26 April 2016).

Did you find it? To help you with your bearings, Africa is just outside this VIIRS swath on the right side of the image. Two hints: click on the image to bring up the full resolution version. St. Helena is just northwest of the center of the image. It’s the only island in the image not covered by clouds. Fun fact: every island within this VIIRS swath is part of the British Overseas Territory of St. Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha. We already looked more closely at Tristan da Cunha, so let’s take a look at the other two.

We can get a higher resolution look if we use the I-band Natural Color RGB composite:

VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels I-01, I-02 and I-03 (12:45 UTC 26 April 2016)

VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels I-01, I-02 and I-03 (12:45 UTC 26 April 2016).

Notice the island appears green in the center, surrounded by a ring of brown – just the way it looks on a really high resolution satellite image. VIIRS has the resolution to pick this out!

As for why you should care, I don’t know if I can answer that. If your first thought is to ask that question, you probably don’t care. But, there are a few interesting things to note about St. Helena (besides its new airport):

– It was once an important stopping point for ships sailing from Europe to India in search of spices. At least, until the Suez Canal opened.

– It later became a prison, housing those who fought against the British government and lost, including Napoleon Bonaparte, Dinuzulu, King of the Zulu Nation, and POWs from the Boer War.

– Along with Ascension Island, St. Helena helped inspire the modern environmental movement. And it was here that the first large scale experiments in weather modification took place. (Not counting rain dances, of course.)

After witnessing the effect of deforestation on the island in the late-1700s and early-1800s, it was believed that re-foresting would help keep moisture on the island, which would lead to more clouds and more rainfall. Ascension Island, which was essentially a barren wasteland when first discovered, was also planted with trees, creating it’s Green Mountain, which is clearly visible on very high resolution satellites.

Speaking of Ascension Island – where is that located? In the first image above, showing most of the Southern Atlantic, Ascension is near the upper left corner. It’s hard to see because it is covered by clouds. Just follow the 8 °S latitude line in from the left edge of the image.

Here it is at high resolution during a clear day:

VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels I-01, I-02, and I-03 (14:03 UTC 20 April 2016)

VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels I-01, I-02, and I-03 (14:03 UTC 20 April 2016).

If you look closely, you’ll see that there is a small cloud or two right over Green Mountain, so maybe the efforts of the early environmentalists paid off!

For completeness, Tristan da Cunha is in the lower left of the True Color image I posted at the top. While it is covered by clouds, you can tell it’s there because it is creating its own waves. Here it is on the next orbit, where it is closer to satellite nadir:

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (15:24 UTC 26 April 2016)

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (15:24 UTC 26 April 2016).

If I’ve inspired you to visit these islands, ask the government to give me a commission. But, seriously, don’t forget to say “Hi!” to Jonathan. Or see the many other plants and animals that are found nowhere else on Earth.

The Sirocco and the Giant Bowl of Dust

As mentioned before on this blog, there are typhoons, hurricanes, and cyclones, and they’re all basically the same thing. They’re just given a different name depending on where they occur in the world. Similarly, there are many different names for winds (not counting the classification of wind speeds developed by a guy named Beaufort). There’s the Chinook, the Santa Ana, the bora, the föhn (or foehn), the mistral, the zonda, the zephyr and the brickfielder. (A more complete list is here.) Some of these winds are different names for the same phenomenon occurring in different parts of the world, like the föhn, the chinook, the zonda and the Santa Ana. Others are definitely different phenomena, with different characteristics (compare the mistral with the brickfielder), but they all have the same basic cause: the atmosphere is constantly trying to equalize its pressure.

The Mediterranean is home to wide variety of named winds, one of which is the sirocco (or scirocco). (Europe is home to wide variety of languages, so this wind is also known as “ghibli,” “jugo” [pronounced "you-go"], “la calima” and “xlokk” [your guess is as good as mine].) Sirocco is the name given to the strong, southerly or southeasterly wind originating over northern Africa that typically brings hot, dry air and, if it’s strong enough, Saharan dust to Europe. Of course, after picking up moisture from the Mediterranean, the wind becomes humid, making life unpleasant for people along the north shore. Hot, humid and full of dust. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the sirocco is believed to be a cause of insomnia and headaches.

Now, I don’t know how hot it was, but an intense low pressure system passed through the Mediterranean around Leap Day and, out ahead of it, strong, southerly winds carried quite a bit of dust from northern Africa into Italy.  Here’s what it looked like in Algeria. And here’s what it looked like in Salento. See if you can see that dust in these True Color VIIRS images:

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (12:09 UTC 28 February 2016)

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (12:09 UTC 28 February 2016).

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (11:48 UTC 29 February 2016)

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (11:48 UTC 29 February 2016)

No problem, right? With True Color imagery, the dust is usually easy to identify and distinguish from clouds and the ocean because it looks like dust. It’s the same color as the sky over Salento, Italy in that video I linked to. The top image shows multiple source regions of dust (mostly Libya, with a little coming from Tunisia) being blown out over the sea. The second image shows one concentrated plume being pulled into the clouds over the Adriatic Sea, headed for Albania and Greece.

By the way, this storm system brought up to 2 meters (6.5 feet) of snow to northern Italy, and even brought measurable snow to Algeria! Africa and Europe made a trade: you take some of my dust, and I’ll take some of your snow.

But, this wasn’t the worst dust event to hit Europe recently. Here’s what the VIIRS True Color showed over Spain and Portugal on 21 February 2016:

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (12:40 UTC 21 February 2016)

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (12:40 UTC 21 February 2016).

And VIIRS wasn’t the only one to see this dust. Here’s a picture taken by Tim Peake, an astronaut on the International Space Station. Again, it’s easy to pick out the dust because it almost completely obscures the view of the background surface. But, what if the background surface is dust colored?

We switch now to the other side of the world and the Takla Makan desert in China, where the dust has been blowing for the better part of a week:

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (07:11 UTC 4 March 2016)

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (07:11 UTC 4 March 2016).

Can you tell what is dust and what is the desert floor? Can you see the Indian Super Smog on the south side of the Himalayas? Here is the same scene on a clear (no dust) day:

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (07:49 UTC 2 March 2016)

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (07:49 UTC 2 March 2016).

There is a subtle difference there, but you need good eyesight to see it. It might be easier to see if you loop the images:

Animation of VIIRS True Color images (1-7 March 2016)

Animation of VIIRS True Color images of the Takla Makan desert (1-7 March 2016).

You’ll have to click on the image to see it animate.

Did you notice the dark brown areas surrounding the Takla Makan? Those are areas that have green vegetation during the summer. Notice how they become completely obscured by the dust as the animation progresses. That’s one one way to tell that there’s dust there. But, as we have seen before, there are other ways to see the dust.

There’s EUMETSAT’s Dust RGB composite applied to VIIRS:

Animation of VIIRS EUMETSAT Dust RGB images (1-7 March 2016)

Animation of VIIRS EUMETSAT Dust RGB images of the Takla Makan desert (1-7 March 2016).

That’s another animation, by the way, so you’ll have to click on it to see it animate. The same is true for the Dynamic Enhanced Background Reduction Algorithm (DEBRA), which we also talked about before:

Animation of VIIRS DEBRA Dust Product images (1-7 March 2016)

Animation of VIIRS DEBRA Dust Product images of the Takla Makan desert (1-7 March 2016)

But, there’s one more dust detection technique we have not discussed before: the “blue light absorption” technique:

Animation of VIIRS Blue Light Dust images (1-7 March 2016)

Animation of VIIRS Blue Light Dust images of the Takla Makan desert (1-7 March 2016).

The Blue Light Dust detection algorithm keys in on the fact that many different kinds of dust absorb blue wavelengths of light more than the longer visible wavelengths. It uses this information to create an RGB composite where dust appears pastel pink, clouds and snow appear blueish and bare ground appears green. Of course, other features can absorb blue light as well, like the lakes near the northeast corner of the animation that show up as pastel pink. But, depending on your visual preferences and ability to distinguish color, the Blue Light Dust product gives another alternative to the hot pink of the EUMETSAT Dust RGB, the yellow of DEBRA, and the slightly paler tan of the True Color RGB.

One question you might ask is, “How come DEBRA shows a more vivid signal than the other methods?” In the True Color RGB, dust is slightly more pale than the background sand, because it’s made up of (generally) smaller sand particles (which are more easily lofted by the wind) that scatter light more effectively, making it appear lighter in color. In the EUMETSAT Dust RGB, dust appears hot pink because the “split window difference” (12 µm – 10.7 µm) is positive, while the difference in brightness temperatures between 10.7 µm and 8.5 µm is near zero and the background land surface is warm. In DEBRA, the intensity of the yellow is related to the confidence that dust is present in the scene based on a series of spectral tests. DEBRA is confident of the presence of dust even when the signals may be difficult to pick out in the other products, either because it’s a superior product, or because its confidence is misguided. (Hopefully, it’s the former and not the latter.)

By the way, the Takla Makan got its name from the native Uyghurs that live there. Takla Makan means “you can get in, but you can’t get out.” It has also been called the “Sea of Death.” I prefer to call it “China’s Big Bowl of Dust.” It’s a large area of sand dunes (bigger than New Mexico, but smaller than Montana) surrounded on most of its circumference by mountains between 5000 and 7000 m (~15,000-21,000+ feet!). The average annual rainfall is less than 1.5 inches (38 mm). That means when the wind blows it easily picks up the dusty surface, but that dust can’t go anywhere because it’s blocked by mountains (unless it blows to the northeast). The dust is trapped in its bowl.

The Takla Makan is also important historically, because travelers on the original Silk Road had to get around it. Notice on this map, there were two routes: one that skirted the northern edge of the Takla Makan and one that went around the southern edge. This part of Asia was the original meeting point between East and West.

CIRA produces all four imagery products over the Takla Makan desert in near-real time, which you can find here. And, in case you’re curious, you can check out how well DEBRA and the EUMETSAT Dust products compare for the dust-laden siroccos over southern Europe and northern Africa by clicking here and here (for the first event over Spain and Portugal) or here and here (for the second one over Italy and the Adriatic Sea).

UHF/VHF

Take a second to think about what would happen if Florida was hit by four hurricanes in one month.

Would the news media get talking heads from both sides to argue whether or not global warming is real by yelling at each other until they have to cut to a commercial? Would Jim Cantore lose his mind and say “I don’t need to keep standing out here in this stuff- I quit!”? Would we all lose our minds? Would our economy collapse? (1: yes. 2: every man has his breaking point. 3: maybe not “all”. 4: everybody panic! AHHH!)

It doesn’t have to just be Florida. It could be four tropical cyclones making landfall anywhere in the CONUS (and, maybe, Hawaii) in a 1-month period. The impact would be massive. But, what about Alaska?

Of course, Alaska doesn’t get “tropical cyclones” – it’s too far from the tropics. But, Alaska does get monster storms that are just as strong that may be the remnants of tropical cyclones that undergo “extratropical transition“. Or, they may be mid-latitude cyclones or “Polar lows” that undergo rapid cyclogenesis. When they are as strong as a hurricane, forecasters call them “hurricance force” (HF) lows. And guess what? Alaska has been hit by four HF lows in a 1-month period (12 December 2015 – 6 January 2016).

With very-many HF lows, some of which were ultra-strong, we might call them VHF or UHF lows. (Although, we must be careful not to confuse them with the old VHF and UHF TV channels, or the Weird Al movie.) In that case, let’s just refer to them as HF, shall we?

The first of these HF storms was a doozy – tying the record for lowest pressure ever in the North Pacific along with the remnants of Typhoon Nuri. Peak winds with system reached 122 mph (106 kt; 196 k hr-1; 54 m s-1) in Adak, which is equivalent to a Category 2 hurricane!

Since Alaska is far enough north, polar orbiting satellites like Suomi-NPP provide more than 2 overpasses per day. Here’s an animation from the VIIRS Day/Night Band, one of the instruments on Suomi-NPP:

Animation of VIIRS Day/Night Band images of the Aleutian Islands (12-14 December 2015)

Animation of VIIRS Day/Night Band images of the Aleutian Islands (12-14 December 2015).

It’s almost like a geostationary satellite! (Not quite, as I’ll show later.) This is the view you get with just 4 images per day. (The further north you go, the more passes you get. The Interior of Alaska gets 6-8 passes, while the North Pole itself gets all 15.) Seeing the system wrap up into a symmetric circulation would be a thing of beauty, if it weren’t so destructive. Keep in mind that places like Adak are remote enough as it is. When a storm like this comes along, they are completely isolated from the rest of Alaska!

Here’s the same animation for the high-resolution longwave infrared (IR) band (I-5, 11.5 µm):

Animation of VIIRS I-5 images of the Aleutian Islands (12-14 December 2015)

Animation of VIIRS I-5 images of the Aleutian Islands (12-14 December 2015).

I’ve mentioned Himawari before on this blog. Well, Himawari’s field of view includes the Aleutian Islands. Would you like to see how this storm evolved with 10 minute temporal resolution? Of course you would.

Here is CIRA’s Himawari Geocolor product for this storm:

Here is a loop of the full disk RGB Airmass product applied to Himawari. Look for the storm moving northeast from Japan and then rapidly wrapping up near the edge of the Earth. This is an example of something you can’t do with VIIRS, because VIIRS does not have any detectors sensitive to the 6-7 µm water vapor absorption band, which is one of the components of the RGB Airmass product. The RGB Airmass and Geocolor products are very popular with forecasters, but they’re too complicated to go into here. You can read up on the RGB Airmass product here, or visit my collegue D. Bikos’ blog to find out more about this storm and these products.

You might be asking how we know what the central pressure was in this storm. After all, there aren’t many weather observation sites in this part of the world. The truth is that it was estimated (in the same way the remnants of Typhoon Nuri were estimated) using the methodology outlined in this paper. I’d recommend reading that paper, since it’s how places like the Ocean Prediction Center at the National Weather Service estimate mid-latitude storm intensity when there are no surface observations. I’ll be using their terminology for the rest of this discussion.

Less than 1 week after the first HF storm hit the Aleutians, a second one hit. Unfortunately, this storm underwent rapid intensification in the ~12 hour period where there were no VIIRS passes. Here’s what Storm #2 looked like in the longwave IR according to Himawari. And here’s what it looked like at full maturity according to VIIRS:

VIIRS DNB image (23:17 UTC 18 December 2015)

VIIRS DNB image (23:17 UTC 18 December 2015).

VIIRS I-5 image (23:17 UTC 18 December 2015)

VIIRS I-5 image (23:17 UTC 18 December 2015).

Notice that this storm is much more elongated than the first one. Winds with this one were only in the 60-80 mph range, making it a weak Category 1 HF low.

Storm #3 hit southwest Alaska just before New Year’s, right at the same time the Midwest was flooding. This one brought 90 mph winds, making it a strong Category 1 HF low. This one is bit difficult to identify in the Day/Night Band. I mean, how many different swirls can you see in this image?

VIIRS DNB image (13:00 UTC 30 December 2015)

VIIRS DNB image (13:00 UTC 30 December 2015).

(NOTE: This was the only storm of the 4 to happen when there was moonlight available to the DNB, which is why the clouds appear so bright. The rest of the storms were illuminated by the sun during the short days and by airglow during the long nights.) The one to focus on is the one of the three big swirls closest to the center of the image (just above and right of center). It shows up a little better in the IR:

VIIRS I-5 image (13:00 UTC 30 December 2015)

VIIRS I-5 image (13:00 UTC 30 December 2015).

The colder (brighter/colored) cloud tops are the clue that this is the strongest storm, since all three have similar brightness (reflectivity) in the Day/Night Band. If you look close, you’ll also notice that this storm was peaking in intensity (reaching mature stage) right as it was making landfall along the southwest coast of Alaska.

Storm #4 hit the Aleutians on 6-7 January 2016 (one week later), and was another symmetric/circular circulation. This storm brought winds of 94 mph (2 mph short of Category 2!) The Ocean Prediction Center made this animation of its development as seen by the Himawari RGB Airmass product. Or, if you prefer the Geocolor view, here’s Storm #4 reaching mature stage. But, this is a VIIRS blog. So, what did VIIRS see? The same storm at higher spatial resolution and lower temporal resolution:

Animation of VIIRS DNB images of the Aleutian Islands (6-7 January 2016)

Animation of VIIRS DNB images of the Aleutian Islands (6-7 January 2016).

Animation of VIIRS I-5 images of the Aleutian Islands (6-7 January 2016)

Animation of VIIRS I-5 images of the Aleutian Islands (6-7 January 2016).

This storm elongated as it filled in and then retrograded to the west over Siberia. There aren’t many hurricanes that do that after heading northeast!

So, there you have it: 4 HF lows hitting Alaska in less than 1 month, with no reports of fatalities (that I could find) and only some structural damage. Think that would happen in Florida?