Fires in Paradise

Sometimes, it seems like the whole world is on fire. Siberia. The western United States (which has been burning for some time). And now, the Canary Islands. The Spanish islands have been under a drought, as has much of Spain. (As an indication of how dry it has been, one fire in mainland Spain was started by someone flicking a cigarette butt out of their car window in a traffic jam – a fire that ultimately led to two deaths.) Back in July, fires got started on Tenerife – a major resort destination – and earlier this month, fires began on La Palma and La Gomera. At least two firefighters have already died battling these fires.

For your reference, here is a VIIRS “true color” image (M-3 [0.488 µm], M-4 [0.555 µm], M-5 [0.672 µm]) of the Canary Islands, with the major islands labelled:

VIIRS true color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 14:01 UTC 5 August 2012

VIIRS true color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 14:01 UTC 5 August 2012

If you look closely at this image, from 5 August 2012, you can see smoke plumes coming off of La Palma and La Gomera. You can also see what looks like a von Kármán vortex street downwind of La Palma. That’s the west coast of Africa in the lower-right corner of the image.

As discussed previously, the true color RGB composite is better for viewing the smoke plume, but you can’t actually see the fire directly. So, here’s the M-5 (0.672 µm), M-7 (1.61 µm) and M-11 (2.25 µm) composite from the same time:

VIIRS RGB composite of channels M-5, M-7 and M-11, taken 14:01 UTC 5 August 2012

VIIRS RGB composite of channels M-5, M-7 and M-11, taken 14:01 UTC 5 August 2012

It’s easy to see where the fires are actively burning with this composite. Let’s zoom in to make it even more obvious:

VIIRS false color RGB composite of channels M-5, M-7 and M-11, taken 14:01 UTC 5 August 2012

VIIRS false color RGB composite of channels M-5, M-7 and M-11, taken 14:01 UTC 5 August 2012

All the bright red pixels indicate where the fire is actively burning. You can also see the burn scar on Tenerife (not as easily as in Siberia) where the M-5, M-7, M-11 RGB composite shows the fire was back in July:

VIIRS false color RGB composite of  channels M-5, M-7 and M-11, taken 14:38 UTC 18 July 2012

VIIRS false color RGB composite of channels M-5, M-7 and M-11, taken 14:38 UTC 18 July 2012

La Gomera has been the hardest hit island, where thousands of people had to be evacuated, and approximately 10% of Garajonay National Park has burned. Garajonay National Park is home to one of the last remaining laurisilva forests, which has been around for 11 million years. That lush vegetation burned hot, and channel I-04 (3.7 µm) reached saturation as that area went up in flames:

VIIRS channel I-04 image of fires in the Canary Islands, taken 14:01 UTC 5 August 2012

VIIRS channel I-04 image of fires in the Canary Islands, taken 14:01 UTC 5 August 2012

The two white pixels on La Gomera are where I-04 reached saturation and “fold-over” due to the heat from the fire. M-13 (4.0 µm), which is a dual-gain band designed to not saturate, reached a brightness temperature of 451 K over La Gomera, compared with a saturation brightness temperature of 367 K for channel I-04.

The fires also showed up in the Day/Night Band that night:

VIIRS Day/Night Band image of the Canary Islands, taken 02:25 UTC 6 August 2012

VIIRS Day/Night Band image of the Canary Islands, taken 02:25 UTC 6 August 2012

The red arrows point out the fires on La Palma and La Gomera. The fire on La Gomera covers a significant percentage of the island. The yellow arrow points to Lanzarote, which, for some reason, is not part of IDL’s map. On the night this image was taken, the moon was approximately 84% full, so you can see a number of clouds as well the city lights from the major resort areas of the Canary Islands. The biggest visible city in Africa is El Aaiún, the disputed capital of Western Sahara.

Finally, here’s the “pseudo-true color” composite of VIIRS channels I-01 (0.64 µm), I-02 (0.87 µm) and I-03 (1.61 µm) from 13:42 UTC 6 August 2012. This is a full granule at the native resolution of the Imagery bands with no re-mapping, showing the rich detail of VIIRS high-resolution imagery, including more interesting cloud vortices:

VIIRS false color RGB composite of channels I-01, I-02 and I-03, taken 13:42 UTC 6 August 2012

VIIRS false color RGB composite of channels I-01, I-02 and I-03, taken 13:42 UTC 6 August 2012

Make sure to click on the image, then on the “6400×1536″ link to see it in its full glory.

Fires near the “Coldest City on Earth”

Raise your hand if you’ve only ever heard of Yakutsk because of the board game “Risk”. (If you raised your hand, you might want to look around and make sure that no-one saw you raise your hand for no reason.)  Yakutsk is actually the capital city of the Sakha Republic (a.k.a. Yakutia), which, according to Wikipedia, is the largest sub-national governing body in the world (only slightly smaller than India in terms of land area). Over 260,000 people live in Yakutsk, which has been called the “Coldest City on Earth” (with 950,000 total in Yakutia) even though, according to this article, it doesn’t sound very pleasant in the winter (or summer, for that matter). In January, the average temperature is -42 °C (-45 °F), and it isn’t very far from Oymyakon, where the lowest temperature ever recorded in a permanently inhabited location was observed (-71.2 °C or -96.2 °F). In the summer, it can make it up to +35 °C (95 °F) and legends tell of reindeer dying from choking on all the insects that cloud the air.

This summer, large areas of Siberia (including Yakutia) have been on fire. Some pictures from MODIS have already been circulating around the internet (e.g. here and here). And someone beat me to posting VIIRS images already. To make it easier to judge the size of the fires that are visible in the VIIRS Day/Night Band (DNB) image in the last link, here is a close-up with latitude and longitude lines added:

VIIRS DNB image of fires in Siberia, taken 16:25 UTC 4 August 2012

VIIRS DNB image of fires in Siberia, taken 16:25 UTC 4 August 2012

At this latitude, longitude lines are ~55 km apart. The latitude lines are ~111 km apart. So, you can see that these fires cover quite a large area. Unfortunately, you can’t see Yakutsk, which is underneath the clouds (and possibly smoke) at about 62° N, 130° E.

For comparison, here is the M-13 (4.05 µm) image from the same time. The primary purpose of M-13 is to detect wildfires. Notice how all of the hot spots (black spots) line up with all of the light sources that the DNB saw:

VIIRS channel M-13 brightness temperature image taken 16:25 UTC 4 August 2012

VIIRS channel M-13 brightness temperature image taken 16:25 UTC 4 August 2012

The visible image from earlier that day showed just how much smoke was produced by all of these fires:

Visible image of fires in Siberia from VIIRS channel M-5, taken 02:38 UTC 4 August 2012

Visible image of fires in Siberia from VIIRS channel M-5, taken 02:38 UTC 4 August 2012

Except for a few clouds near the edges of the scene, that is pretty much all smoke.

A few days later, the burn areas were easily visible with many fires still active, although not producing nearly as much smoke. RGB composites can really highlight what is going on with these fires, so let’s look at a few.

You should already be familiar with the “true color” image (M-3, 0.488 µm [blue], M-4, 0.555 µm [green] and M-5, 0.672 µm [red]):

True color image from VIIRS channels M3, M4 and M5 of fires in Siberia, taken 03:22 UTC 7 August 2012

True color image from VIIRS channels M3, M4 and M5 of fires in Siberia, taken 03:22 UTC 7 August 2012

And the “pseudo-true color” image made by combining the first three I-bands (I-01, 0.64 µm [blue], I-02, 0.865 µm [green] and I-03, 1.61 µm [red]):

False color (or "pseudo-true color") image of fires in Siberia from VIIRS channels I-01, I-02 and I03, taken 03:22 UTC 7 August 2012

False color (or "pseudo-true color") image of fires in Siberia from VIIRS channels I-01, I-02 and I03, taken 03:22 UTC 7 August 2012

The “pseudo-true color” image may be referred to as “natural color” depending on who you talk to. It should be noted that these last two images were kept at the native resolution of VIIRS with no re-mapping or re-sizing the image. There is only cropping to keep the file sizes manageable.

As discussed before, the pseudo-true color composite has the advantage of easily distinguishing ice and snow from liquid clouds, and it is really sensitive to vegetation. Plus, scattering by molecules in the atmosphere is greatly reduced, so you don’t have to do any atmospheric correction to produce a nice image. There is also the advantage that it uses I-bands, which have twice the resolution of the M-bands. But, that advantage was almost always neutralized by the fact that the images would have to be compressed to create a reasonable file size so that it would fit on this blog. If you click on the images above, then on the full-resolution link below the banner, you can easily compare the true resolution between the M-band image and the I-band image.

You can see here that the burn scars (all the dark brown areas) show up really well in the pseudo-true color image. (Some of the lighter or reddish brown areas are mountain ranges.) You might also notice that the active fires are still producing smoke, which shows up a lot better in the true color image. Some of the burn scars cover an area close to 60 km across.

As luck would have it (or, more accurately, the planning ahead by the scientists and engineers who designed VIIRS), channels M-5 (0.672 µm), M-7 (0.865 µm) and M-10 (1.61 µm) are very similar to the first three I-bands, so we can easily produce an M-band “pseudo-true color” image:

"Pseudo-true color" composite of VIIRS channels M-5, M-7 and M-10 of fires in Siberia, taken 03:22 UTC 7 August 2012

"Pseudo-true color" composite of VIIRS channels M-5, M-7 and M-10 of fires in Siberia, taken 03:22 UTC 7 August 2012

For reference, the location of Yakutsk has been identified. Also, if you’re curious, the big river that curves from the left-middle of the image to the top-center is the Lena River. It is up to 10 km wide in parts, particularly north of Yakutsk. Its second largest tributary, the Aldan River, is also easily visible as it meanders through a lot of the burn areas.

If you replace M-10 with M-11 (2.25 µm) as the red channel, you get this image:

False color RGB composite of VIIRS channels M-5, M-7 and M-11, taken 03:22 UTC 7 August 2012

False color RGB composite of VIIRS channels M-5, M-7 and M-11, taken 03:22 UTC 7 August 2012

Here, the green is darker due to the lower reflectivity of the surface in M-11 compared with M-10. The advantage of this RGB composite it that, if you zoom in, you can actually see where the fires are still active, as those pixels show up bright red. (If the fire is hot enough, you’ll get red pixels in the “pseudo-true color” composite also, but M-11 is more responsive to heat from fires than M-10, so you can see lower temperature fires this way.) You can also see the faint bluish smoke plumes originating from the areas that are actively burning.

If you go in the other direction and use only the shortest wavelengths, the surface becomes difficult to see, but the smoke stands out more. Here is the RGB composite of M-1 (0.412 µm [blue]), M-2 (0.445 µm [green]) and M-3 (0.488 µm [red]):

False color RGB composite of VIIRS channels M-1, M-2 and M-3, taken 03:22 UTC 7 August 2012

False color RGB composite of VIIRS channels M-1, M-2 and M-3, taken 03:22 UTC 7 August 2012

Here, the wavelengths of these channels range from the violet to the blue portion of the visible spectrum. At these shorter wavelengths, scattering in the atmosphere becomes much more important and the solar radiation has a tough time making it all the way to the surface. All the smoke and haze increases the scattering, so it is difficult to pick out features on the surface. That same scattering, though, really highlights the smoke plumes, which are difficult to see in the other false color composites.  Since the scattering by the stuff in this image doesn’t vary much between these three channels, you get an image without much color to it.

With much of Colorado and, really, much of the western U.S. having burned already this year, it’s easy to know what the people of Siberia are going through. Fortunately, none of the fires have really threatened any towns. And, another plus: I bet those clouds of mosquitoes don’t like the dry weather that has caused all of these fires.

VIIRS and the Greenland Ice Melt

First, a preface: The purpose of this blog (and this blog post) is not to ignite some debate about global warming. This is about what one new satellite instrument has observed and the information it is providing to the scientific community.

With that out of the way, we can begin.

You may have heard on the news a story about the rapid ice melt that occurred in Greenland a couple weeks ago. Over a period of four days, the percentage of the surface of Greenland’s ice sheet that showed evidence that the ice was melting went from 40% to 97%. NASA’s Thomas Wagner does a good job explaining it in this interview. You’ll notice in the first link (from the Earth Times) that the rapid melt was first noticed by someone analyzing data from Oceansat-2. The ice melt was detected by its microwave scatterometer and was later confirmed by MODIS. Well, if MODIS can see this ice melt, surely VIIRS can see it, too. Let’s see.

First, let’s look at the false color RGB composite made from channels I-01 (0.64 µm, blue), I-02 (0.865 µm, green) and I-03 (1.61 µm, red). These images are comprised of 5 VIIRS granules stitched together and cropped slightly to get them in under the 15 MB limit for attachments to this blog. You really need to see them zoomed in to full resolution to see the kind of detail that the VIIRS bands provide. This isn’t even the full resolution of the satellite – these two images have been shrunk by a factor of 2 to get in under the file size limit, so it’s actually more like the resolution of the M-bands. (Click on the image, then click on the “2350 x 3372″ link below the banner to see the full resolution image.)

Here’s what VIIRS saw on 8 July 2012, at 14:35 UTC:

False color RGB composite of VIIRS channels I-01, I-02 and I-03, taken 14:35 UTC 8 July 2012

False color RGB composite of VIIRS channels I-01, I-02 and I-03, taken 14:35 UTC 8 July 2012

And here’s what VIIRS saw five days later (14:42 UTC, 13 July 2012):

False color RGB composite of VIIRS channels I-01, I-02 and I-03, taken 14:42 UTC, 13 July 2012

False color RGB composite of VIIRS channels I-01, I-02 and I-03, taken 14:42 UTC, 13 July 2012

First thing to notice is that the low liquid clouds over Greenland really stand out in this composite above the ice sheet. As discussed before, this is one of the advantages of this kind of RGB composite. The second thing to notice, which is easier to see in the 13 July image, is that Iceland is the island that’s green, and Greenland is the island that is almost entirely ice. (Those silly Vikings and their misnomers!)

What is relevant here, though, is more subtle. The ice sheet appears to be a significantly darker blue over much of Greenland on 13 July than it does on 8 July. Notice also in these composites that large bodies of liquid water appear black. Now, there’s a lot going on here.

Small, liquid droplets (which are nearly spherical) that make up many of the clouds in the scene are very good at reflecting the solar radiation at all three wavelengths (0.64 µm, 0.865 µm, and 1.61 µm). When you combine high (and nearly equal) levels of red, green and blue on a computer monitor, you get something close to white. This is why the liquid clouds appear whitish.

The small ice particles (found in some of the clouds in these two images) are very good at reflecting radiation at 0.64 µm and 0.865 µm, but not as good at reflecting radiation at 1.61 µm. That means, for this RGB composite, we have high levels of blue and green, but low levels of red. This gives the pale bluish color known as cyan. Snow and ice on the ground are even worse at reflecting radiation at 1.61 µm (they absorb it), so you have a more pure color of cyan. (Although, snow and ice do reflect more than water at this wavelength.)

Liquid water (not in tiny spherical droplets) is not a good reflector at any of these wavelengths. Therefore, the low (and nearly equal) levels of red, green and blue give you black. As snow and ice melt, the reflectivity changes at each of these wavelengths (as the ice becomes more water-like), so the cyan color becomes darker.

It should be said that the primary purpose of the 1.61 µm channel is to aid in snow and ice detection. VIIRS actually has two of these channels: I-03 and M-10. In fact, you can see the effect of the melting ice a bit easier when looking at this channel alone. Here are the M-10 images of Greenland from 8 July and 13 July 2012:

VIIRS channel M-10 reflectance image of Greenland, taken 14:35 UTC 8 July 2012

VIIRS channel M-10 reflectance image of Greenland, taken 14:35 UTC 8 July 2012

VIIRS M-10 reflectance image of Greenland, taken 14:42 UTC 13 July 2012

VIIRS M-10 reflectance image of Greenland, taken 14:42 UTC 13 July 2012

In the first image from 8 July 2012, you can see that the clouds stand out as being bright (highly reflective) and the area of still-frozen ice is visible (a medium to dark gray, meaning somewhat reflective) over the most of the center of Greenland. On 13 July 2012, Greenland shows up as black – just like the surrounding ocean – except for small patches of land along the coast that are not underneath the massive ice sheet (and the clouds, of course). It is particularly noticeable in south-central Greenland. This decrease in reflectivity at 1.61 µm over this period of time is due to the snow and ice becoming more water-like as it is melting. So VIIRS can say a thing or two about the ice melt event.