A Morning Glory is a lot of things: a flower, a town in Kentucky, a popular choice for song and album titles, and – what is most relevant for us – it’s a rare atmospheric phenomenon that is both beautiful and potentially deadly.
For glider pilots, it’s the atmospheric equivalent to catching a 40-wave off the North Shore of Oahu. Like surfing the North Shore, the thrill is in catching a powerful wave and going for a ride, which only happens if you position yourself in the right spot. And, just like surfing a monster wave, one misstep can result in being crushed downward into a pile of jagged rocks and swept out to sea. The difference is, a North Shore wave is 10-12 m high and only travels a 100 m or so until it hits land and stops. A Morning Glory wave is 500-1000 m high and can travel hundreds of kilometers over a period of several hours. Here’s a picture of one:
Simply put, a Morning Glory is a solitary wave, or “soliton“. We talked about mesospheric bores before, which are another kind of soliton. In this case, however, the soliton propagates through (or along the top of) the atmosphere’s boundary layer. Sometimes, it produces a cloud or series of clouds that came to be known as a “Morning Glory” because these clouds commonly occur near sunrise in the one place on Earth where this event isn’t rare.
Enough talk. The Day/Night Band (DNB) on VIIRS just saw a one. Let’s see if you can see it:
This really is like “Where’s Waldo?” because the image covers a much larger area than the Morning Glory. Even I didn’t see it at first. But, zoom in to the corner of the image over the Gulf of Carpentaria. (You can click on any of these images to see the full resolution version.) Now do you see it?
Once more on the zoom, and it’s obvious:
But, this happened at ~1:30 AM local time – depending on where in that image you are looking – so maybe it’s a Middle-of-the-Night Glory instead of a Morning Glory. (Fun fact: Northern Territory and South Australia are on a half-hour time zone, GMT+9:30. Queensland and the rest of eastern Australia are at GMT+10:00. But, the southern states have Daylight Saving Time while the north and west do not. That means almost every state has it’s own time zone.)
The Gulf of Carpentaria is where Morning Glory clouds are most likely to form. And, this is the peak season for them. (The season runs from late August to mid-November.) What is rare is seeing them so clearly at night.
Since this image was taken one night before a full moon, there was plenty of moonlight available to the DNB to see the “roll clouds” that are indicative of the Morning Glory. You can even see ripples that extend beyond the endpoints of the clouds, which might be some kind of aerosol plume affected by the waves.
There is another way to see this Morning Glory, and it’s what we call the “low cloud/fog product”. The low cloud/fog product is simply the difference in brightness temperature between the longwave infrared (IR) (10.7 µm) and the mid-wave IR (3.9 µm). For low clouds, this difference is positive at night and negative during the day. Here is an example of the low cloud/fog product applied to a new geostationary satellite, Himawari-8:
The Advanced Himawari Imager (AHI) on Himawari-8 is similar to VIIRS, except it has water vapor channels in the IR and it doesn’t have the Day/Night Band. It also stays in the same place relative to the Earth and takes images of the “full disk” every 10 minutes. That’s what allows you to see – in impressive detail – the evolution of this Morning Glory. The low, liquid clouds switch from white to black after sunrise because, as I said, the signal switches from positive (white) to negative (black) at sunrise. Ice clouds (e.g. cirrus) always look black in this product.
Here’s a zoomed in version of the above animation:
Of course, once the sun rises, the standard visible imagery from AHI captures the tail end of the Morning Glory:
And, once again, zoomed in:
At this point, it really is a Morning Glory, since it appeared at sunrise. Of course, at night, only the VIIRS Day/Night Band under full moonlight can show it in “all of its glory”. (Pun definitely intended.)
Pilots take note: the waves can still exist even when the clouds evaporate, and they are a source of severe turbulence.
If you want to know more about the phenomenon, watch this video with a lot of information or this video with a lot of pretty pictures. And, while a lot of people believe the cause of the Morning Glory is still a mystery, one scientist in Germany thinks the cause is now known. You can read all about his and other’s research into the science behind these solitary waves at this webpage.