Remote Islands, part II: Tristan da Cunha

Are you tired of 100 °F heat? We sure are in Colorado. Denver tied an all-time record of five consecutive days of 100+ °F high temperatures this week (two of which had the all-time highest recorded temperature of 105 °F). Much of the country experienced record-breaking heat as well. What better place to escape the heat than to visit the Islands of Refreshment?

The islands were given the name by a group of four Americans who sailed there in 1810, intending to make it their own kingdom. Unfortunately, 75% of them died in a boating accident less than two years after they arrived. I suppose, if the fourth one died we never would have heard this story. To the rest of the world, the islands were and are known as Tristan da Cunha, named after Tristão da Cunha – the Portuguese explorer who first found them in 1506.

It’s hard to get more remote than Tristan da Cunha. The four main islands, Tristan da Cunha, Inaccessible Island, Nightingale Island and Gough Island are part of the British Overseas Territory of Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha. The only way to visit them is by boat from South Africa – which takes a week – and boats only come around once or twice a month. You also need to write a proposal to the Secretary of the Administrator outlining what you plan to do there in order to gain permission to visit. The permanent population of the islands is less than 300, and they’ve even developed their own version of English. Another interesting fact: they only acquired television in the last 10 years (according to Wikipedia).

So where is Tristan da Cunha? The small island territory is 2,816 km from the nearest continent (Africa) and 2,430 km from their administrative capital (St. Helena). Let’s see if you can find it in high-resolution visible (I-01, 0.64 µm) imagery from VIIRS:

Visible image (I-01) of Tristan da Cunha from VIIRS, taken 14:49 UTC 25 June 2012

Visible image (I-01) of Tristan da Cunha from VIIRS, taken 14:49 UTC 25 June 2012

Give up? I’ll make it easier and show the false color RGB composite (I-01, I-02 and I-03):

False color RGB composite of VIIRS channels I-01, I-02 and I-03 taken 14:49 UTC, 25 June 2012

False color RGB composite of VIIRS channels I-01, I-02 and I-03 taken 14:49 UTC, 25 June 2012

Three of the islands are easy to pick out now, particularly if you click to get the full size image. (Click on the image, then click on the 1512×1226 link below the banner.) The fourth island is difficult to see as it is covered by clouds and ice and snow, which look like clouds.

Here they are, labelled:

False color RGB composite of VIIRS channels I-01, I-02 and I-03 taken 14:49 UTC, 25 June 2012

False color RGB composite of VIIRS channels I-01, I-02 and I-03 taken 14:49 UTC, 25 June 2012

Nightingale Island, at 3.2 km2, is only about 5×4 pixels in size! The volcano that makes up the main island, Queen Mary’s Peak, rises 6,765 ft. above sea level and is casting a “cloud shadow” (i.e. no clouds are seen immediately downwind, or northeast, of the island). There may even be a von Kármán vortex behind it. Gough Island is also casting a “cloud shadow”, although it is much smaller.

If you really zoom in, you can almost convince yourself that VIIRS can identify two much smaller islands off the northern tip of Nightingale Island, Middle Island and Stoltenhoff Island:

False color RGB composite of VIIRS channels I-01, I-02 and I-03 taken 14:49 UTC, 25 June 2012

False color RGB composite of VIIRS channels I-01, I-02 and I-03 taken 14:49 UTC, 25 June 2012

Look for the two greenish pixels above Nightingale Island. These islands are both about 25 acres in size (0.1 km2).

While the only town, Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, is on Tristan da Cunha, there is also a year-round research facility on Gough Island. There are three meteorologist positions on the island, as it is an important weather station for South Africa and the United Kingdom. As a bonus, the record high temperature has never come close to 100 °F. So, if you’re really looking to get away from the heat (and everything else), Gough Island might be the place for you!

Wild Week of Wildfires, Part II

Last time on “Wild Week of Wildfires“, we looked at the Little Bear Fire and High Park Fire, two lightning-ignited fires burning out west that were so hot they caused saturation in the two 3.7 µm channels on VIIRS (I-04 and M-12). There was mention of the Duck Lake Fire, a lightning-ignited fire in northern Michigan, which VIIRS also saw, and I couldn’t resist showing some more images.

On 9 June 2012, the same day the High Park Fire exploded (figuratively speaking), the Duck Lake Fire finally reached 100% containment after burning over 21,000 acres. The next day (10 June 2012), Suomi NPP passed over the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and it was actually a clear day. (This joke comes courtesy of 20+ years experience of living in Michigan.) Even with 100% containment, the hot spot of the fire was still clearly visible in VIIRS channel I-04 (3.7 µm) that afternoon:

Channel I-04 image of the Duck Lake Fire from VIIRS, taken 18:18 UTC 10 June 2012

Channel I-04 image of the Duck Lake Fire from VIIRS, taken 18:18 UTC 10 June 2012

The highest brightness temperature in the burn area in this channel at this time was    ~331 K. As we saw before with the Lower North Fork Fire, the high resolution false color composite of channels I-01, I-02 and I-03 is useful in highlighting the burn area:

False color RGB composite of VIIRS channels I-01 (blue), I-02 (green) and I-03 (red), taken 18:18 UTC 10 June 2012

False color RGB composite of VIIRS channels I-01 (blue), I-02 (green) and I-03 (red), taken 18:18 UTC 10 June 2012

Notice the large, brown area that coincides with the hot spot in the I-04 image. The combination of wavelengths used in this composite (0.64 µm [blue], 0.865 µm [green] and 1.61 µm [red]) is quite sensitive to the amount (and health) of the vegetation.

You might have also noticed several other interesting features in the image that show up better when you zoom in:

False color composite of VIIRS channels I-01, I-02, and I-03 from 18:18 UTC 10 June 2012

False color composite of VIIRS channels I-01, I-02, and I-03 from 18:18 UTC 10 June 2012

The Upper Peninsula of Michigan was based on mining for most of its history, and several large mines and quarries still exist, which VIIRS can easily see.

If you didn’t know any better, you might confuse the iron mine southwest of Marquette, Michigan with a frozen lake, or miraculously un-melted snow leftover from winter, since that is just what snow and ice look like in this kind of RGB composite. Compare that with the true color view of the same area:

True color RGB composite of VIIRS channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 18:18 UTC 10 June 2012

True color RGB composite of VIIRS channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 18:18 UTC 10 June 2012

In this case, the iron mine stands out as a bright red. Why?

The true color composite uses wavelengths at 0.48 µm (blue), 0.55 µm (green) and 0.67 µm (red). The red channel in the true color composite is actually in the red portion of the visible spectrum. The blue channel in the false color composite (0.64 µm) is also in the red portion of the visible spectrum.

This example shows that the iron oxide (rust) produced at the iron mine is highly reflective in the red portion of the visible spectrum. That’s what gives it the characteristic rust color. Iron oxide is not nearly as reflective at shorter or longer wavelengths, so it shows up blue when red wavelengths are used as the blue channel (as in the false color composite) and red when they are used as the red channel (as in the true color composite).

Let this be a lesson to anyone who uses the false color composite as part of a snow and ice detection algorithm. Snow and ice are not the only things to show up that color. You may be looking at a really large iron mine.

A Wild Week of Wildfires

The last few weeks have been filled with lightning-ignited wildfires across the United States. The County Line Fire, along the Florida-Georgia border was caused by lightning on 5 April 2012 and burned ~35,000 acres. The Whitewater-Baldy Complex (began 16 May 2012) – the largest wildfire in New Mexico history – started as two different fires (both caused by lightning) that merged together. It’s over 280,000 acres (that’s not a typo) and continues to burn (as of 13 June 2012). The Duck Lake Fire (began 24 May 2012) burned 21,000 acres of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and was caused by lightning. The Little Bear Fire (began 4 June 2012), also in New Mexico, was caused by lightning and has burned ~37,000 acres.  Much closer to home, the High Park Fire (began 9 June 2012) is already the largest wildfire in Larimer County history and the third largest fire in Colorado history. It has burned ~46,000 acres and I bet you can guess what caused it.

It’s not clear who is to blame here – there is a long list of suspects – but I bet it was Thor. Even though the U.S. is generally the domain of the Thunderbird, Thor has a mountain-crushing hammer called Mjöllnir, which makes him as good a suspect as any. He may have been in cahoots with Indra or Marduk who are the bringers of rain, and have been holding back on us. Look at how dry it has been across the majority of the country.

With all of these fires, it’s hard to know where to begin. We’re going to ignore the County Line Fire as it was put out over a month ago. We’re also going to ignore the Whitewater-Baldy Complex, as it is so big, it can be seen by GOES. (Kidding! We kid because we love.) Plus, it’s been done before. The VIIRS view of the High Park Fire has also been looked at by CIMSS, with an interesting comparison between VIIRS and MODIS.

What we are going to do is show off interesting features of some of these fires that haven’t been shown or discussed before (as far as we know). We begin with “saturation”. Both the High Park Fire and Little Bear Fire saturated the VIIRS 3.7 µm channels (I-04 and M-12):

Channel I-04 image of the Little Bear Fire from VIIRS taken 20:16 UTC 9 June 2012

Channel I-04 (3.7 µm) image of the Little Bear Fire from VIIRS taken 20:16 UTC 9 June 2012

Channel M-12 image of the Little Bear Fire from VIIRS taken 20:16 UTC 9 June 2012

Channel M-12 (3.7 µm) image of the Little Bear Fire from VIIRS taken 20:16 UTC 9 June 2012

Channel I-04 image of the High Park Fire from VIIRS taken 19:59 UTC 10 June 2012

Channel I-04 (3.7 µm) image of the High Park Fire from VIIRS taken 19:59 UTC 10 June 2012

Channel M-12 image of the High Park Fire from VIIRS taken 19:59 UTC 10 June 2012

Channel M-12 (3.7 µm) image of the High Park Fire from VIIRS taken 19:59 UTC 10 June 2012

The top two images are of the Little Bear Fire, which formed near the border of Lincoln and Otero counties in New Mexico. The bottom two images are of the High Park Fire in Larimer County, Colorado. For each fire, the high resolution 3.7 µm channel (I-04) is compared with the moderate resolution 3.7 µm channel (M-12). The colors range from white (cold) to black (hot). But, wait a minute! If white is cold, why are there white pixels mixed in with the black ones that indicate the hot spots? That’s because these channels are saturating and experiencing “fold-over”. The peak brightness temperatures these channels can measure is ~ 367 – 368 K. Anything warmer than that won’t be detected, so the channel is said to be saturated. When it really gets above that limit you can have “fold-over”, where not only are you not observing the higher, correct temperature, the detectors actually report a lower temperature or radiance. In these fires, the fold-over is resulting in brightness temperatures down to 203 K for M-12 and 208 K for I-04, which is about 90-100 K colder than even the area surrounding the fires!

Luckily, VIIRS has a 4.0 µm channel (M-13) that was designed to not saturate at the temperature of typical wildfires. Compare the hottest pixels in the M-13 images below with the fold-over pixels from M-12 and I-04 above:

Channel M-13 image of the Little Bear Fire from VIIRS taken 20:16 UTC 9 June 2012

Channel M-13 (4.0 µm) image of the Little Bear Fire from VIIRS taken 20:16 UTC 9 June 2012

Channel M-13 image of the High Park Fire from VIIRS taken 19:59 UTC 10 June 2012

Channel M-13 (4.0 µm) image of the High Park Fire from VIIRS taken 19:59 UTC 10 June 2012

The hottest pixel in M-13 reached a temperature of 588 K for the Little Bear Fire and 570 K for the High Park Fire – over 200 K warmer than the saturation points of M-12 and I-04!

These fires were so hot, they appeared in channels that don’t usually show a fire signal. Limiting our attention to the High Park Fire (which was almost literally in our back yard), here’s the I-05 (11.5 µm) image from 10 June 2012:

Channel I-05 image of the High Park Fire from VIIRS taken 19:59 UTC 10 June 2012

Channel I-05 (11.5 µm) image of the High Park Fire from VIIRS taken 19:59 UTC 10 June 2012

The highest temperature observed in I-05 was 380 K. Longer wavelength channels, such as in I-05 are less sensitive to sub-pixel hot spots than channels in the 3.7 – 4.0 µm range, so fires don’t often show up. For pixels to have a 380 K brightness temperature in I-05, it means that the average temperature over the entire pixel had to be above +100 °C – hot enough to boil water!

Fires don’t often show up at shorter wavelengths, either, because the amount of solar radiation usually dwarfs any signal from the Earth’s surface. But, the High Park Fire did reach saturation at 2.25 µm (M-11):

Channel M-11 image of the High Park Fire from VIIRS taken 19:59 UTC 10 June 2012

Channel M-11 (2.25 µm) image of the High Park Fire from VIIRS taken 19:59 UTC 10 June 2012

The color scale has been reversed so that it is more inline with visible imagery. The white pixels represent saturation in M-11 at a radiance of 38 W m-2 µm-1 sr-1. The reflectance of these pixels saturated at a value of 1.6, which means that the amount of radiation detected in this channel was more than 1.6 times the amount you would expect to see if the surface was a perfect mirror reflecting all the solar radiation back to the satellite. Thus, the fire’s contribution to the total radiance was significant in this channel.

The contribution from the surface (i.e., the fire) was also visible in the 1.6 µm channel (M-10), but it isn’t exciting enough to show. One channel shorter down on VIIRS (M-9, 1.38 µm) and the signal disappears against the high reflectivity of the smoke plume.

It’s impossible to leave out the Day/Night Band, which shows just how large and how close the High Park Fire got to Fort Collins:

Day/Night Band image of the High Park Fire from VIIRS taken 09:58 UTC 11 June 2012

Day/Night Band image of the High Park Fire from VIIRS taken 09:58 UTC 11 June 2012. Image courtesy Dan Lindsey.

The smoke plume, while not exactly visible, is affecting the view of the east side of the fire and Fort Collins, making them appear more blurry than they would if the sky were completely clear. You can also see that, overnight on 11 June 2012, the fire covered an area larger than any of the cities visible in the image (except for Denver, which is mostly cropped off the bottom of the image).

Hopefully, Marduk will start doing his job and bring us some rain and these will be the last fires for a while.

Cape Verde Waves and Plumes

Cape Verde is an island nation off the west coast of Africa, located in the North Atlantic. The islands are a popular initiation point for tropical storms. The original capital of the 10-island archipelago was sacked twice by Sir Francis Drake, the same one who, in his later years, would fail to sack the villages along Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela due to Catatumbo lightning. That guy really got around, and I mean that literally: he circumnavigated the globe between 1577 and 1580, sacking nearly every village and boat he came across. But, this isn’t about Francis Drake – it’s about the Cape Verde islands and the amazing view of them captured by VIIRS.

False color RGB composite of VIIRS channels I-1, I-2 and I-3 taken 14:41 UTC 6 June 2012

False color RGB composite of VIIRS channels I-1, I-2 and I-3 taken 14:41 UTC 5 June 2012

Can you see the 10 major islands? One of them (Santa Luzia) is almost obscured by clouds. If you click on the image, you’ll see each of the major islands identified. Go ahead and click on it. It will help for later.

The image above was made from the RGB composite of VIIRS high-resolution imagery channels I-01, I-02 and I-03. While it technically is a false color image (uses reflectance at 0.64 µm [blue],  0.865 µm [green] and 1.61 µm [red]), it looks realistic in many situations, so that we refer to it as “pseudo-true color”. Snow and ice show up as an unrealistic blue, however, which is the main difference between it and a “true color” image. You might also notice a few more differences between the “pseudo-true color” image above and the “true color” image below.

True color RGB composite of VIIRS channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 taken 14:41 UTC 6 June 2012

True color RGB composite of VIIRS channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 taken 14:41 UTC 5 June 2012

The true color image uses moderate resolution channels M-3 (0.48 µm, blue), M-4 (0.55 µm, green) and M-5 (0.67 µm, red), which actually observe radiation in the blue, green and red portions of the visible spectrum. Apart from differences in resolution, the vegetation on the islands shows up a bit better in the “pseudo-true color” image. The islands just look brown in the true color image.

What is particularly interesting about these images are the visible effect that the islands have on the local atmosphere. Downwind (southwest, or to the lower left) of Sal, Boa Vista, and Maio, you can see singular cloud streets, much like the flow of water around a rock. In the photograph in that link, you can see how the water dips downward on both sides of the center line downstream of the rock, and upward in the middle (along the center line). The islands are acting like rocks in the atmosphere, causing upward motion behind them, and this lift was enough to form cloud streets. On either side of these cloud streets there is downward motion and, as a result, clear skies.

Downwind of São Nicolau, São Vicente and Santo Antão, the cloud streets highlight von Kármán vortices and vortex shedding, which you can see in more-controlled lab conditions here and here.

Many of the islands appear to be producing their own aerosol plumes (i.e. dust), and if you zoom in on the area between Boa Vista and Santiago, you can see gravity waves present in some of the plumes (highlighted by the arrows in the image below).

False color RGB composite of VIIRS channels I-1, I-2 and I-3 taken 14:41 UTC 5 June 2012

False color RGB composite of VIIRS channels I-1, I-2 and I-3 taken 14:41 UTC 5 June 2012

A common way to detect dust is the “split-window difference”: the difference in brightness temperature between the 11 µm channel and the 12 µm channel. On VIIRS, this means subtracting M-16 from M-15 which, when you do that, gives you this image:

Split-window difference from VIIRS (M15 minus M16) from 14:41 UTC 5 June 2012

Split-window difference from VIIRS (M15 minus M16) from 14:41 UTC 5 June 2012

The color scale goes from -0.16 K (black) to +4.0 K (white). For some reason, the dust or aerosol plumes don’t produce a strong signal here. It may be that the dust is too low in the atmosphere and the lack of temperature contrast with the surface prevents a strong signal. Maybe water vapor absorption effects in M16 are washing out the signal. Or, there could be some other explanation waiting to be discovered.

The plumes are highly reflective in the 3.7 µm channel (M-12), as are the clouds, which show up as warm spots in the image below (not as warm as the islands, however):

Moderate resolution 3.7 µm image (M-12) from VIIRS, taken 14:14 UTC 5 June 2012

Moderate resolution 3.7 µm image (M-12) from VIIRS, taken 14:41 UTC 5 June 2012

Here, just to throw you off, the color scale has been reversed so that dark colors mean higher values. The scale ranges from 295 K (white) to 330 K (black). When you take the difference of this image and the 10.6 µm brightness temperature (M-15), the clouds and aerosol plumes really show up, along with the gravity waves and vortices:

Brightness temperature difference between VIIRS channels M-12 and M-15 from 14:14 UTC 5 June 2012

Brightness temperature difference between VIIRS channels M-12 and M-15 from 14:41 UTC 5 June 2012

In this case, the M-12 brightness temperatures are always greater than the M-15 brightness temperatures (due to the combination of Earth’s emission and solar reflection in M-12 as opposed to just surface emission in M-15), so the scale varies from +5 K (black) to +30 K (white). Higher (brighter) values on this scale show off where the most solar reflection occurs at 3.7 µm – the liquid clouds and aerosol plumes.

There are much more sophisticated ways of identifying dust and aerosol plumes. To find out more, check out this article written by one of our resident experts, Steve Miller, who is currently working on applying dust detection algorithms to VIIRS.

If you are more interested in the von Kármán vortices, NASA has put together a great page that you can visit here. If you take the original image in this post, zoom out and rotate it a little bit, you can get a sense of just how far the vortices extend from their parent islands:

False color RGB composite of VIIRS channels I-1, I-2 and I-3 taken 14:41 UTC 5 June 2012

False color RGB composite of VIIRS channels I-1, I-2 and I-3 taken 14:41 UTC 5 June 2012. This image has been rotated from the previous images to highlight the length of the vortex streets.

Coincidentally, this image has been cropped to a size that makes it suitable for use as a desktop wallpaper, should you happen to have a 16:9-ratio monitor and a desire to stare at this image all day. (You have to click on the image, then click on the “1920 x 1080″ link below the header to get the full resolution image.)