The Aurora Seen Around The World

Think back to St. Patrick’s Day. Do you remember what you were doing? Hopefully you were wearing something green. And, hopefully, you didn’t leave anything green in the gutter behind the bar (e.g. undigested lunch or beverages or a mixture of the two). If you did, we don’t want to hear about it. It’s unpleasant enough that you had to read that and have that image in your mind. Apologies if you are eating.

If your mind was lucid enough that night, or the following night, did you remember to look up to the northern sky? Or, right above you, if you live far enough north? (Swap “north” for “south” if you live in the Southern Hemisphere. Everything is backwards there.) Was it a clear night?

If you answered “no” to the first two questions and “yes” to the third question, you missed out on an opportunity to see something green in the sky – one of the great atmospheric wonders of the world: the aurora. If you answered “yes” then “no”, tough luck. The lower atmosphere does not always cooperate with the upper atmosphere. If you answered “yes” on everything and still didn’t see the aurora, then you need to move closer to your nearest magnetic pole. Or, away from light pollution. (Although, truth be told, it is possible to live too far north or south to see the aurora. But, not many people live there. Those who do rarely have to worry about light pollution.)

If you forgot to look up at the night sky on 17-18 March 2015, you have no excuse. The media was hyping the heck out of it. That link is just one example of media predictions of the aurora being visible as far south as Dallas and Atlanta. While I couldn’t find any photographic evidence that that actually happened, there were people as far south as Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey that saw the aurora. In the other hemisphere – the backwards, upside-down one – the aurora was seen as far north as Australia and New Zealand, which is a relatively rare occurrence for them. And there are no shortage of pictures and videos if you want proof: pictures, more pictures, even more pictures, video and pictures, video, and a couple more short videos here, here and here.

Now, we already know that VIIRS can see the aurora. We’ve covered both the aurora borealis and aurora australis before. This time, we’ll take a look at both at the same time – not literally, of course! – since the Day/Night Band viewed the aurora (borealis and australis) on every orbit for an entire 24 hour period, during which time it covered every part of the Earth. So, follow along as VIIRS circled the globe in every sense of the word during this event.

First, we start with the aurora australis over the South Pacific, south of Pitcairn Island, at 10:15 UTC on 17 March 2015. We then proceed westward, ending over the South Pacific, south of Easter Island at 08:16 UTC on 18 March 2015. Click on each image in the gallery to see the medium resolution version. Above each of those images is a link containing the dimensions of the high resolution version. Click on that to see the full resolution.

Notice how much variability there is in the spatial extent and shape of the aurora from one orbit to the next. Everything is represented, from diffuse splotches to well-defined ribbons (which are technical terms, of course, wink, wink). You can see just how close the aurora was to being directly over Australia and New Zealand. And, if you looked at the high resolution versions of all the images (which are very large), you might have seen this:

VIIRS DNB image of the aurora australis, 18:39 UTC 17 March 2015

VIIRS DNB image of the aurora australis, 18:39 UTC 17 March 2015.

Just below center, the aurora is illuminating gravity waves forced by Heard Island. The aurora is also directly overhead of it’s “twin”, “Desolation Island” (aka Îles Kerguelen, upper-right corner right at the edge of the swath), although it looks too cloudy for the scientists and penguins living there to see it. (How many more Remote Islands can I mention that I’ve featured before?)

Now, I’m a sucker for animations, so I thought I’d combine all of these images into one and here it is (you can click on it to see the full-resolution version):

Animation of VIIRS DNB images of the aurora australis, 17-18 March 2015

Animation of VIIRS DNB images of the aurora australis, 17-18 March 2015.

Here, it is easier to notice that the aurora is much further north (away from the South Pole) near Australia and New Zealand and further south (closer to the pole) near South America. This is proof that the geomagnetic pole does not coincide with the geographic pole. This also puts the southern tips of Chile and Argentina at a disadvantage when it comes to seeing the aurora, compared to Australia and New Zealand.

Now, repeat everything for the aurora borealis – beginning over central Canada (07:57 UTC 17 March 2015) and ending there ~24 hours later (07:40 UTC 18 March 2015):

Basically, if you were anywhere in Siberia where there were no clouds, you could have seen the aurora. (For those who are not impressed, Siberia is a big area.) Did you see the aurora directly over North Dakota? (I showed a video of that above.) Did you notice it was mostly south of Anchorage, Alaska? (Typically, it’s over Fairbanks.) It was pretty close to Moscow and Scotland, also. But, what about the sightings in Ohio, New Jersey, and Germany? It doesn’t look like the aurora was close to those places…

For one, the aurora doesn’t have to be overhead to see it. Depending on the circumstances (e.g. auroral activity, atmospheric visibility, light pollution, etc.), you can be 5 degrees or more of latitude away and it will be visible. Second, these are single snapshots of an aurora that is constantly moving. (We already know the aurora can move pretty fast.) It may have been closer to these places when VIIRS wasn’t there to see it.

Lastly, here’s an animation of the above images, moving in the proper clockwise direction, unlike in that backwards, upside-down hemisphere:

Animation of VIIRS DNB images of the aurora borealis, 17-18 March 2015

Animation of VIIRS DNB images of the aurora borealis, 17-18 March 2015.

If you want to know more about what causes the aurora, watch this video. If you want to know why auroras appear in different colors, read this. If you want to know why aboriginal Australians viewed the aurora as an omen of fire, blood, death and punishment, and why various Native American tribes viewed the aurora as dancing spirits that were happy, well, you have a lot more reading to do: link, link and link.

Germany’s Magic Sparkle

You may or may not have heard that a small town in Italy received 100 inches (250 cm; 2.5 m; 8⅓ feet; 8 x 10-17 parsecs) of snow in 18 hours just last week (5 March 2015). That’s a lot of snow! It’s more than what fell on İnebolu, Turkey back in the beginning of January. But, something else happened that week that is much more interesting.

All you skiers are asking, “What could be more interesting than 100 inches of fresh powder?” And all you weather-weenies are asking, “What could be more interesting than being buried under a monster snowstorm? I mean, that makes Buffalo look like the Atacama Desert!” The answer: well, you’ll have to read the rest of this post. Besides, VIIRS is incapable of measuring snow depth. (Visible and infrared wavelengths just don’t give you that kind of information.) So, looking at VIIRS imagery of that event isn’t that informative.

This is (or was, until I looked into it in more detail) another mystery. Not a spooky, middle-of-the-night mystery, but one out in broad daylight. (We can thus automatically rule out vampires.)

It started with a comparison between “True Color” and “Natural Color” images over Germany from 9 March 2015:

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 11:54 UTC 9 March 2015

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 11:54 UTC 9 March 2015.

VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels M-5, M-7 and M-10, taken 11:54 UTC 9 March 2015

VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels M-5, M-7 and M-10, taken 11:54 UTC 9 March 2015.

The point was to show, once again, how the Natural Color RGB composite can be used to differentiate snow from low clouds. That’s when I noticed it. Bright pixels (some white, some orange, some yellow, some peach-colored) in the Natural Color image, mostly over Bavaria. (Remember, you can click on the images, then click again, to see them in full resolution.) Thinking they might be fires, I plotted up our very own Fire Temperature RGB:

VIIRS Fire Temperature RGB composite of channels M-10, M-11 and M-12 from 11:54 UTC 9 March 2015

VIIRS Fire Temperature RGB composite of channels M-10, M-11 and M-12 from 11:54 UTC 9 March 2015.

I’ve gone ahead and drawn a white box around the area of interest. Let’s zoom in on that area for these (and future) images.

VIIRS True Color RGB (11:54 UTC 9 March 2015)

VIIRS True Color RGB (11:54 UTC 9 March 2015). Zoomed in and cropped to highlight the area of interest.

VIIRS Natural Color RGB (11:54 UTC 9 March 2015)

VIIRS Natural Color RGB (11:54 UTC 9 March 2015). Zoomed in and cropped to highlight the area of interest.

VIIRS Fire Temperature RGB (11:54 UTC 9 March 2015)

VIIRS Fire Temperature RGB (11:54 UTC 9 March 2015). Zoomed in and cropped to highlight the area of interest.

Now, these spots really show up. But, they’re not fires! Fires show up red, orange, yellow or white in the Fire Temperature composite (which is one of the benefits of it). They don’t appear pink or pastel blue. What the heck is going on?

Now, wait! Go back to the True Color image and look at it at full resolution. There are white spots right where the pastel pixels show up in the Fire Temperature image. (I didn’t notice initially, because white spots could be cloud, or snow, or sunglint.) This is another piece of evidence that suggests we’re not looking at fires.

For a fire to show up in True Color images, it would have to be about as hot as the surface of the sun and cover a significant portion of a 750-m pixel. Terrestrial fires don’t typically get that big or hot on the scale needed for VIIRS to see them at visible wavelengths. Now, fires don’t have to be that hot to show up in Natural Color images, but even then they appear red. Not white or peach-colored. If a fire was big enough and hot enough to show up in a True Color image, it would certainly show up in the high-resolution infrared (IR) channel (I-05, 11.45 µm), but it doesn’t:

VIIRS high-resolution IR (I-05) image (11:54 UTC 9 March 2015)

VIIRS high-resolution IR (I-05) image (11:54 UTC 9 March 2015).

You might be fooled, however, if you looked at the mid-wave IR (I-04, 3.7 µm) where these do look like hot spots:

VIIRS high-resolution midwave-IR (I-04) image (11:54 UTC 9 March 2015)

VIIRS high-resolution midwave-IR (I-04) image (11:54 UTC 9 March 2015).

What’s more amazing is I was able to see these bright spots all the way down to channel M-1 (0.412 µm), the shortest wavelength channel on VIIRS:

VIIRS "deep blue" visible (M-1) image (11:54 UTC 9 March 2015)

VIIRS “deep blue” visible (M-1) image (11:54 UTC 9 March 2015).

So, what do we know? Bright spots appear in all the bands where solar reflection contributes to the total radiance (except M-6 and M-9). I checked. (They don’t show up in M-6 [0.75 µm], because that channel is designed to saturate under any solar reflection so everything over land looks bright. They don’t show up in M-9 [1.38 µm] because solar radiation in that band is absorbed by water vapor and never makes it to the surface.) Hot spots do not coincide with these bright spots in the longer wavelength IR channels (above 4 µm).

What reflects a lot of radiation in the visible and near-IR but does not emit a lot in the longwave IR? Solar panels. That’s the answer to the mystery. VIIRS was able to see solar radiation reflecting off of a whole bunch of solar panels. That is the source of Germany’s “magic sparkle”.

Don’t believe me? First off, Germany is a world leader when it comes to producing electricity from solar panels. Solar farms (or “solar parks” auf Deutsch) are common – particularly in Bavaria, which produces the most solar power per capita of any German state.

Second: I was able to link specific solar parks with the bright spots in the above images using this website. (Not all of those solar parks show up in VIIRS, though. I’ll get to that.) And these solar parks can get quite big. Let’s take a look at a couple of average-sized solar parks on Google Maps: here and here. The brightest spot in the VIIRS Fire Temperature image (near 49° N, 11° E) matches up with this solar park, which is almost perfectly aligned with the VIIRS scans and perpendicular to the satellite track.

Third: it’s not just solar parks. A lot of people and businesses have solar panels on their roofs. Zoom in on Pfeffenhausen, and try to count the number of solar panels you see on buildings.

One more thing: if you think solar panels don’t reflect a lot of sunlight, you’re wrong. Solar power plants have been known reflect so much light they instantly incinerate birds.

Another important detail is that all of the bright spots visible in the VIIRS images are a few degrees (in terms of satellite viewing angle) to the west of nadir. Given where the sun is in the sky this time of year (early March) and this time of day (noon) at this latitude (48° to 50° N), a lot of these solar panels are in the perfect position to reflect sunlight up to the satellite. But, not all of them. Some solar panels track the sun and move throughout the day. Other panels are fixed in place and don’t move. Only the solar panels in the right orientation relative to the satellite and the sun will be visible to VIIRS.

At these latitudes during the day, the sun is always to south and slightly to the west of the satellite. For the most part, solar panels to the east of the satellite will reflect light away from the satellite, which is why you don’t see any of those. If the panel is pointed too close to the horizon, or too close to zenith (or the sun is too high or too low in the sky), the sunlight will be reflected behind or ahead of the satellite and won’t be seen. You could say that this “sparkle” is actually another form of glint, like sun glint or moon glint – only this is “solar panel glint”.

Here’s a Natural Color image from the very next day (10 March 2015), when the satellite was a little bit further east and overhead a little bit earlier in the day:

VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels M-5, M-7 and M-10 from 11:35 UTC 10 March 2015

VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels M-5, M-7 and M-10 from 11:35 UTC 10 March 2015.

Notice the half-dozen-or-so bright spots over the Czech Republic. These are just west of the satellite track and in the same position relative to satellite and sun. (The bright spot near the borders of Austria and Slovakia matches up with this solar farm.) The bright spots over Germany are gone because they no longer line up with the sun and satellite geometry.

As for the pastel colors in the Natural Color and Fire Temperature RGBs, those are related to the proportional surface area of the solar panels relative to the size of each pixel as well as the background reflectivity of the ground surrounding the solar panels. The bright spots do generally appear more white in the high-resolution version of the Natural Color RGB from 9 March:

VIIRS high-resolution Natural Color (I-01, I-02, I-03) RGB image (11:54 UTC 9 March 2015)

VIIRS high-resolution Natural Color (I-01, I-02, I-03) RGB image (11:54 UTC 9 March 2015).

See, we learned something today. Germany sparkles with green electricity and VIIRS can see it!

UPDATES (17 March 2015): Thanks to feedback from Renate B., who grew up in Bavaria and currently owns solar panels, we have this additional information: there is a push to add solar panels onto church roofs throughout Bavaria, since they tend to be the tallest buildings in town (not shaded by anything) and are typically positioned facing east, so the south-facing roof slopes are ideal for collecting sunlight. The hurdle is that churches are protected historical buildings that people don’t want to be damaged. Also, it’s not a coincidence that many solar parks have their solar panels facing southeast (and align with the VIIRS scan direction). They are more efficient at producing electricity in the morning, when the temperatures are lower, than they are in the afternoon when the panels are warmer. They face southeast to better capture the morning sun.

Also, to clarify (as pointed out by Ed S.): the solar power plant that incinerates birds generates electricity from a different mechanism than the photovoltaic (PV) arrays seen in these images from Germany. PV arrays (aka solar parks) convert direct sunlight to electricity. The “bird incinerator” uses a large array of mirrors to focus sunlight on a tower filled with water. The focused sunlight heats the water until it boils, generating steam that powers a turbine. Solar parks and solar panels on houses and churches do not cause birds to burst into flames.

Remote Islands IV: Where’s Waldo (Pitcairn)? Edition

Take a look at this VIIRS “Natural Color” image and see if you can find Pitcairn Island. It’s in there somewhere:

VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels I-1, I-2 and I-3, taken 22:25 UTC 10 April 2014

VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels I-1, I-2 and I-3, taken 22:25 UTC 10 April 2014

You’re definitely going to want to click through to the full resolution version. (Click on the image, then click again.) You won’t be able to see it otherwise. Take your time. Note: this is actually pretty similar to searching for fires.

Did you see it?

If you answered “no”: Good! That’s just what the early settlers of Pitcairn Island wanted: an island that no one could find! If you answered “yes”: I think you’re mistaken. You probably saw Henderson Island, which is bigger and easier to see.

Pitcairn is only 3.6 km across. That’s just 7 pixels in this composite of high-resolution (375 m at nadir; I-band) channels. It’s total land area is 4.6 km2. Henderson Island is 37.3 km2. There’s even a third island visible in this picture, but you need the eyes of an eagle to see it – Oeno at 0.65 km2. Look again and see if you see any green pixels.

If you give up, here’s the answer:

VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels I-1, I-2 and I-3, taken at 22:25 UTC 10 April 2014

VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels I-1, I-2 and I-3, taken at 22:25 UTC 10 April 2014. The visible islands are labelled.

Now, you may have just clicked to the full-resolution version and are now wondering if I’m right about Oeno Island. Is there really anything there? Yes. Just look at that part of the image zoomed in by 800%:

VIIRS Natural Color image (10 April 2014) zoomed in on Oeno Island

VIIRS Natural Color image (10 April 2014) zoomed in on Oeno Island

See those three green pixels (not counting the latitude line drawn on there) that are surrounded by lighter blue pixels? That’s Oeno. It is one of the smallest islands you can say that VIIRS “saw”. Here’s what it looks like from a really high-resolution satellite. The light blue pixels surrounding it are the surrounding reef and lagoon of the atoll.

So, why all the interest in a couple of tiny islands in a remote part of the Pacific Ocean? First of all, there are winter storms battering both coasts of the United States, so it’s nice to enjoy a little bit of escapism. Now you can fantasize about being on a tropical island instead of facing the reality of shoveling another 2 feet of snow. Second, it’s fun to look for little islands that can’t be seen with current geostationary satellites (although it will be interesting to see if the high-resolution [0.5 km] visible channel on Himawari will be able to see it; it might be too far east, though). Plus, it’s been over two years since I last looked at remote islands – there may a whole new generation of viewers interested in this stuff who never knew this was part of the blog. Third, I don’t have to write as much and you don’t have to read as much as I fill my blog post quota for the month.

However, to barely keep things on the topic of atmospheric science and satellite meteorology, I will note that, in the images above, you can see a string of clouds streaming to the northwest from both Pitcairn and Henderson Islands. This is the visible manifestation of fluid dynamics which we have discussed before.

If you’ve heard of Pitcairn Island prior to this, it’s probably because you heard of the Mutiny on the Bounty. A group of mutineers who didn’t want to be hanged for their crime settled on Pitcairn Island and burned their ships so they could never leave and, hopefully, never be found. That is the very definition of “getting away from it all”. (Pitcairn is also known to stamp collectors who seek the very rare stamps from the far corners of the world. Selling stamps to tourists is actually a significant part of their economy.)

Today, the island is home to ~50 people – all but two of which are direct descendents of the mutineers. Oeno and Henderson Islands are uninhabited. Henderson Island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that has been largely untouched by mankind. Oeno Island is a favorite “get-away” spot for Pitcairn Islanders for whom an island of 50 people is just too crowded!

If you want to know more about Pitcairn or you have an hour of free time to use up, check out this documentary on the island, its history, and the people who make it their mission to visit one of the world’s most remote islands:

Sea-effect Snow

Take a look at this image:

Photo credit: İskender Şengör via Severe Weather Europe on Facebook

Photo credit: İskender Şengör via Severe Weather Europe on Facebook

Is this picture from A) the Keweenaw Peninsula of Michigan in 1978? B) Orchard Park, New York in November 2014 (aka “Snowvember”)? or C) İnebolu, Turkey from just last week?

If you pay attention to details, you will have noticed that I credited İskender Şengör with the picture and properly surmised that the answer is C. If you don’t pay attention to details, get off my blog! The details are where all the interesting stuff happens! You’d never be able to identify small fires or calculate the speed of an aurora  or explain the unknown without paying attention to details.

If you follow the weather (or social media), you probably know about lake-effect snow. (Who can forget Snowvember?) But, have you heard of sea-effect snow?

Areas downwind of the Great Lakes get a lot more snow than areas upwind of the Lakes. I was going to explain why in great detail, but this guy saved me a lot of time and effort. (I have since been notified that much of the material in that last link was lifted from a VISIT Training Session put together by our very own Dan B. You can watch and listen to that training session here.) The physical processes that cause lake-effect snow are not limited to the Great Lakes, however. Anywhere you have a large body of relatively warm water (meaning it doesn’t freeze over) with episodes of very cold winds in the winter you get lake-effect or sea-effect snow.

When you think of the great snowbelts of the world, you probably don’t think of Turkey – but you should! Arctic air outbreaks associated with strong northerly winds blowing across the Black Sea can generate snow at the same rate as Snowvember or Snowpocalypse or Snowmageddon or any other silly name that the media can come up with that has “snow” in it (Snowbruary, Snowtergate aka Frozen-Watergate, Snowlloween, Martin Luther Snow Day, Snowco de Mayo, Snowth of July… Just remember, I coined all of these phrases if you hear them later). Plus, the Pontic Mountains provide a greater upslope enhancement than the Tug Hill Plateau in Upstate New York.

One such Arctic outbreak occurred from 7-9 January 2015, resulting in the picture above. Parts of Turkey received 2 meters (!) of snow (78 inches to Americans) in a 2-3 day period, as if you couldn’t tell from that picture or this one.

From satellites, sea-effect snow looks just like lake-effect snow. (Duh! It’s the same physical process!) Here’s a VIIRS “True Color” image of the lake-effect snow event that took place last week on the Great Lakes:

VIIRS "True Color" RGB composite, taken 19:24 UTC 7 January 2015

VIIRS “True Color” RGB composite, taken 19:24 UTC 7 January 2015.

Wait – that’s no good! We need to be able to distinguish the snow from the clouds. Let’s try that again with the “Natural Color” RGB composite:

VIIRS "Natural Color" RGB composite, taken 19:24 UTC 7 January 2015

VIIRS “Natural Color” RGB composite, taken 19:24 UTC 7 January 2015.

That’s better. Notice how the clouds are formed right over the lakes and how the clouds organize themselves into bands called “cloud streets“. The same features are visible in the sea-effect snow event over Turkey (from one day later):

VIIRS "Natural Color" RGB composite, taken 10:36 UTC 8 January 2015

VIIRS “Natural Color” RGB composite, taken 10:36 UTC 8 January 2015.

Look at how much of Turkey is covered by snow! (Most of that snow cover is from the low pressure system that passed over Turkey a couple days before the sea-effect snow machine kicked in.) And – *cough* attention to details *cough* – you can even see snow over Greece and more sea-effect snow on Crete. There’s also snow down in Syria, Lebanon and Israel (Israel is off the bottom of the image), which is bad news for Syrian refugees.The heavy snow has shut down thousands of roads, closed schools and businesses, and was even the source of a political scandal.

But, on the plus side, the Arctic outbreak in the Middle East brings a unique opportunity to see palm trees covered in snow. And, how often do you get to see the deserts of Saudi Arabia covered in snow? (EUMETSAT has provided more satellite images of this event at their Image Library.)

Take another look at that image over the Black Sea. See how the biggest snow band extends south (and curving to the southeast) from the southern tip of the Crimean Peninsula? That is an example of how topography impacts these snow events. Due to differences in friction, surface winds are slightly more backed over land than over water, therefore areas of enhanced surface convergence exist downwind of peninsulas. The snow bands are more intense in these regions of enhanced convergence. There are also bigger than normal snow bands downwind of the easternmost and westernmost tips of Crimea, and extending south from every major point along the west coast of the Black Sea. This is not a coincidence. Land-sea (or land-lake) interactions explain this. Go back and listen to the VISIT training session for more information.

Sea-effect snow affects other parts of the globe as well. It’s why the western half of Honshu (the big island of Japan) and Hokkaido are called “Snow Country“. Japan was also hit with a major sea-effect snowstorm last week and, of course, VIIRS caught it:

VIIRS "Natural Color" RGB composite, taken 03:48 UTC 8 January 2015

VIIRS “Natural Color” RGB composite, taken 03:48 UTC 8 January 2015.

See the clear skies over Korea and the cloud streets that formed over the Sea of Japan? Classic sea-effect clouds. You can even see snow all along the west coast of Honshu in between the breaks in the clouds. Topographic impacts are once again visible. Notice the intense snow band extending southeast from the southern tip of Hokkaido/northern tip of Honshu similar to the super-strength snow band off of Crimea. And there’s another one downwind of the straits between Kyushu and Shikoku. Another detail in this image you should have noticed is the impact that Jeju Island has on the winds and clouds. Those are classic von Kármán vortices which we have discussed before.

Fortunately, 8 January 2015 was near a full moon, so the Day/Night Band was able to capture a great image of these von Kármán vortices:

VIIRS Day/Night Band image, taken 18:09 UTC 7 January 2015

VIIRS Day/Night Band image, taken 18:09 UTC 7 January 2015.

So, to the people of the Great Lakes: Remember you’re not alone. There are people in Turkey and Japan who know what you go through every winter.

 

UPDATE #1: While I was aware (and now you are aware) that sea-effect snow can impact Cape Cod, it was brought to my attention that there is a sea-effect snow event going on there today (13 January 2015). Here’s what VIIRS saw:

VIIRS "Natural Color" RGB composite, taken 17:29 UTC 13 January 2015

VIIRS “Natural Color” RGB composite, taken 17:29 UTC 13 January 2015.

According to sources at the National Weather Service, some places have received 2-3 cm (~ 1 inch) of snow in a four-hour period. It’s not the same as shoveling off your roof in snow up to your neck, but it’s something!

Bárðarbunga, the Toxic Tourist Trap

Quick: what was the name of that Icelandic volcano that caused such a stir a few years ago? Oh, that’s right. You don’t remember. No one remembers. (Unless you live outside the U.S. in a place where you might have actually heard someone say the name correctly.) To Americans, it will forever be known as “That Icelandic Volcano” or “The Volcano That Nobody Can Pronounce” – even though it is possible to pronounce the name. Say it with me: Eye-a-Fiat-la-yo-could (Eyjafjallajökull).

Well, back at the end of August 2014 another volcano erupted in Iceland, and there is no excuse for not being able to pronounce this name correctly: Bárðarbunga. (OK, you have one excuse: use of the letter ð is uncommon outside of Iceland. In linguistics, ð is a “voiced dental fricative” which, in English, is a voiced “th”. “The” has a voiced “th”. “Theme” has an un-voiced “th” or, rather,  “voiceless dental non-sibilant fricative“.) Look, you don’t want to offend any Icelanders, so say it right:

“Bowr-thar-Bunga.” See, it’s easy to say. (You may see people who are afraid of the letter ð refer to the recent eruption as Holuhraun [pronounced "Ho-lu-roin"], because Bárðarbunga is part of the Holuhraun lava field. So be aware of that.)

I know what you’re going to ask: “What is so special about this volcano? I haven’t heard anything about it up to this point, so why should I care?” You haven’t heard anything about it because you don’t live in Iceland or in Europe, which is downwind of Iceland. And, why should you care? Let me count the ways in the rest of this blog post.

You probably have heard of Kīlauea (and have no trouble pronouncing that name) and the lava flow that inched its way towards the town of Pahoa. Kīlauea has been continuously erupting since 1983. Bárðarbunga erupted on 29 August 2014 and has been spewing lava ever since, which at this point, is over 100 days of non-stop erupting. It’s Iceland’s version of Kīlauea. (Hopefully, it won’t continue to erupt for another 30 years.)

Just like Kīlauea, Bárðarbunga is attracting tourists from all over the world. It seems every wannabe photographer and videographer has gone (or wants to go) to Iceland to try to come up with the next viral video showing the breathtaking lava flows. Seriously, do a search for Bardarbunga or Holuhraun on YouTube or vimeo and see how many results show up. Here’s a pretty typical example (filmed by someone from Iceland):

Want to join in the fun? Just grab your camera, head to Iceland, hire an airplane or helicopter pilot, and find the most dramatic music you can think of to go along with your footage. Watch out, though – the airspace around the volcano can be rather crowded. As this video shows, it can be hard to film the volcano without other aircraft getting in the way.

If photography is more your thing, here are the latest images of the eruption on Twitter. (Look for the pictures of Beyonce and Jay-Z. If Twitter is correct, they flew over the volcano for his birthday. Viewing the eruption has gone mainstream! You’re too late, hipsters! Good luck getting to the next volcanic eruption before it becomes cool.)

Back to the matter at hand: why you should care about Bárðarbunga. After its first 100 days of erupting, it has created a field of new lava (76 km2) that is larger than the island of Manhattan (59 km2). The volcano has been creating a toxic plume of SO2 for the last 100 days that is making it difficult to breathe. (Here are some of the known health effects of breathing SO2.) SO2 can ultimately be converted into sulfuric acid (acid rain), depending on the chemistry in the air around the volcano. And while it may not be producing as much ash as Eyjafjallajökull did, VIIRS imagery shows it is producing ash, which is a threat to aircraft.

If you follow this blog, you know the best RGB composite for detecting ash is the True Color composite. This is because the visible wavelength channels that make the composite are sensitive to the scattering of light by small particles, like dust, smoke and ash. Iceland is pretty cloudy place, so it’s not always easy to spot the ash plume, so here it is at its most visible:

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 12:57 UTC 11 September 2014

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 12:57 UTC 11 September 2014. The red arrow points to the location of Bárðarbunga.

Click on the image (or any other image) to see the full resolution version. The red arrow shows the location of Bárðarbunga. In case you’re wondering, the borders drawn inside the island are IDL’s knowledge of the boundaries of lakes and glaciers (jökull in Icelandic). The big one just south of the red arrow is Vatnajökull – the largest glacier in Europe and one of three national parks in Iceland. (If you want to go there, be aware of closures due to volcanic activity.)

See the ash plume extending from the red arrow to the east-northeast out over the Atlantic Ocean? Now, try to find the ash plume in this animation of True Color images from 29 August to 14 October 2014:

Animation of VIIRS True Color images of Iceland 29 August - 14 October 2014

Animation of VIIRS True Color images of Iceland 29 August – 14 October 2014

As with most of my animations, I have selectively removed images where it was too cloudy to see anything. Sometimes, the steam from the volcano mixes with the ash to make its own clouds, much like a pyrocumulus. Watch for the ash to get blown to the northwest and then southwest in early October. In case you can’t see it, here’s a static example:

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 12:15 UTC 10 October 2014

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 12:15 UTC 10 October 2014. The red arrow shows the location of Reykjavik.

This time, the red arrow shows Reykjavik, the nation’s capitol and likely only city in Iceland you’ve heard of. The ash plume is pretty much right over Reykjavik!

Over the coarse of the first 100 days, no place in Iceland has been kept safe from the ash plume. But, that’s not the only threat from Bárðarbunga: I also mentioned SO2. If you recall from our look at Copahue (Co-pa-hway – say it right!) the EUMETSAT Dust algorithm is sensitive to SO2. So, can we detect the toxic sulfur dioxide plume from Bárðarbunga? Of course! But, it does depend on cloudiness and just how much (and how high) SO2 is being pumped into the atmosphere.

If you read my post on Copahue, you should have no trouble picking out the sulfur dioxide plume in this image of Bárðarbunga:

EUMETSAT Dust RGB composite applied to VIIRS, 12:57 UTC 11 September 2014

EUMETSAT Dust RGB composite applied to VIIRS, 12:57 UTC 11 September 2014

This image is from the same time as the first True Color image above, when the plume was very easy to see. Also note the large quantity of contrails (aka “chemtrails” to the easily misled). Those are the linear black streaks west of Iceland. If you’re confident in your ability to see the sulfur dioxide, see how often you can pick it out in this animation:

Animation of EUMETSAT Dust RGB images from VIIRS (29 August - 10 October 2014)

Animation of EUMETSAT Dust RGB images from VIIRS (29 August – 10 October 2014)

Some detail is lost because an RGB composite may contain as many as 16 million colors, while the .gif image standard only allows 256. But, you can still see the pastel-colored SO2 plume, which almost looks greenish under certain conditions due to interactions with clouds. Also note the volcano itself appears cyan – the hottest part of the image has a cool color! Unusual in a composite that makes almost everything appear red or pink.

If you want to see the volcano look more like a hot spot, here are animations of the shortwave IR (M-13, 4.0 µm) and the Fire Temperature RGB composite (which I promote whenever I can). I should preface these animations by saying I have not removed excessively cloudy images but, at least 80% of the days have two VIIRS afternoon overpasses and, to reduce filesizes, I have kept only one image per day:

Animation of VIIRS M-13 images of Iceland (29 August - 15 October 2014)

Animation of VIIRS M-13 images of Iceland (29 August – 15 October 2014)

The Fire Temperature RGB is made up of M-10 (1.6 µm; blue), M-11 (2.25 µm; green) and M-12 (3.7 µm; red):

Animation of VIIRS Fire Temperature RGB images of Iceland (29 August - 15 October 2014)

Animation of VIIRS Fire Temperature RGB images of Iceland (29 August – 15 October 2014)

No surprise, molten rock is quite hot! That area of lava has saturated my color table for M-13 and it saturated the Fire Temperature RGB. As I’ve said before, only the hottest fires show up white in the Fire Temperature RGB and lava is among the hottest things you’ll see with VIIRS. Sometimes, you can see the heat from the volcano through clouds (and certainly through the ash plume)! It’s also neat to watch the river of lava extend out to the northeast and then cool.

To quantify it a bit more, the first day VIIRS was able to see the hot spot of Bárðarbunga (31 August 2014), the M-13 brightness temperature was the highest I’ve seen yet: 631.99 K. The other midwave-IR channels (M-12 and I-4; 3.7 and 3.74 µm, respectively) saturate at 368 K. The Little Bear Fire (2012) peaked at 588 K and that fire was hot enough to show up in M-10 (1.6 µm) during the day, so it’s no wonder that we’ve saturated the Fire Temperature RGB.

There’s one more interesting way to look at Bárðarbunga using a new RGB composite. When I was first tipped to this event, I saw this image from NASA, which you can read more about here. That image was taken by the Operational Land Imager (OLI) from Landsat-8 and is a combination of “green, near-infrared and shortwave infrared” channels. Applying this to VIIRS, that combination becomes M-4 (0.55 µm), M-7 (0.87 µm) and M-11 (2.25 µm), which is similar to the Natural Color composite (M-5, 0.64 µm; M-7, 0.87 µm; M-10, 1.61 µm) except for a few notable differences. M-4 is more sensitive to smoke and ash and vegetation than M-5. And M-11 is more sensitive to fires and other hotspots than M-10.

The differences are subtle, but you can see them in this direct comparison:

Comparison between VIIRS "Natural Color" and "False Color with Shortwave IR" RGB composites (12:38 UTC 14 October 2014)

Comparison between VIIRS “Natural Color” and “False Color with Shortwave IR” RGB composites (12:38 UTC 14 October 2014)

NASA calls this RGB composite “False Color with Shortwave Infrared,” although I’m sure there has to be a better name. Any suggestions?

Most of my images and loops have come from the first 45 days after eruption. This was a very active period for the volcano, and is where most of the previously mentioned videos came from. (And trust me, you and your browser couldn’t handle the massive animations that would have resulted from using all 100+ days of images.) To prove Bárðarbunga has gone on beyond that, here’s one of the new RGB composites from 17 November 2014:

VIIRS false color RGB composite of channels M-4, M-7 and M-11, taken 13:42 UTC 17 November 2014

VIIRS false color RGB composite of channels M-4, M-7 and M-11, taken 13:42 UTC 17 November 2014

This image really makes Iceland look like a land of fire and ice, which is exactly what it is!