Greenland Eddies and Swirls

Last time we visited Greenland, it was because VIIRS saw evidence of the rapid ice melt event in July 2012. We return to Greenland because of this visible image VIIRS captured on 18 October 2012:

VIIRS channel I-01 image taken 12:43 UTC 18 October 2012

VIIRS channel I-01 image taken 12:43 UTC 18 October 2012

This image was taken by the high-resolution visible channel, I-01 (0.64 µm), and was cropped down to reduce the file size. Greenland is in the upper-left corner of the image. The northwest corner of Iceland is visible in the lower-left corner of the image.

So, what’s with all the swirls off the coast of Greenland? Are they clouds swirled around by winds? Or some kind of sea serpent – perhaps a leviathan or a kraken? (Based on the descriptions, they would be big enough for VIIRS to see them.)

Sadly, for all you science fiction and fantasy fanatics, those swirls are just icebergs breaking up as they enter warmer water, the chunks of ice caught up in eddies in the East Greenland Current. This is easier to see when you look at the “true color” image below:

VIIRS "true color" RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 12:43 UTC 18 October 2012

VIIRS "true color" RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 12:43 UTC 18 October 2012

Make sure to click on the image, then on the “3200×1536″ link below the banner to see the image at full resolution. Since the true color RGB composite is made from moderate resolution channels M-03 (0.488 µm, blue), M-04 (0.555 µm, green) and M-05 (0.672 µm, red), we can include more of the swath before we get into file size issues. That allows us to see the extent of the ice break-up along the Greenland coast.

There is a lot to notice in the true color image. The large icebergs at the top of the image breakup into smaller and smaller icebergs as they float down the east coast of Greenland, until they finally melt. These visible “swirls” (or “eddies” in oceanography terms) extend from 75 °N latitude down to 68 °N latitude where the ice disappears (melts).

The upper-right corner with missing data is on the night side of the “terminator” (the line separating night from day), where we lose the amount of visible radiation needed for these channels to detect stuff. (The Day/Night Band would still collect data, however, as it is much more sensitive to the low levels of visible radiation observed at night.)  See how the ice and the high clouds appear to get a bit more pink as you move from west (left) to east (right)? It’s the same reason cirrus clouds often look pink at sunset. The sun is setting on the North Atlantic and more of the blue radiation from the sun is scattered by the atmosphere than red radiation. The red radiation that’s left is then reflected off the clouds (and ice and snow) toward the satellite.

Just to prove that the swirls are indeed ice and not clouds, here’s the “pseudo-true color” (a.k.a. “natural color”) RGB composite made from channels M-05 (0.672 µm, blue), M-07 (0.865 µm, green) and M-10 (1.61 µm, red):

VIIRS natural color image of channels M-05, M-07 and M-10, taken 12:43 UTC 18 October 2012

VIIRS natural color image of channels M-05, M-07 and M-10, taken 12:43 UTC 18 October 2012

The deep blue color of the swirls in this RGB composite is indicative of ice, not clouds. These channels are not impacted by atmospheric scattering at any sun angle, though, so there is no change in the color of the clouds as you approach the terminator.

You may have also noticed the cloud streets downwind of the icebergs off the coast of Greenland. These clouds are formed in the same way as lake-effect clouds are in the Great Lakes. Cold, arctic air flowing south over the icebergs meets the relatively warm water of the open ocean. The moisture evaporating from the warmer waters condenses in the cold air and forms clouds.

How much warmer is that water? Here’s the high-resolution infrared (IR) image (I-05, 11.45 µm):

VIIRS channel I-05 image, taken 12:43 UTC 18 October 2012

VIIRS channel I-05 image, taken 12:43 UTC 18 October 2012

At ~375 m resolution at nadir, this is the highest resolution available in the IR on a non-classified satellite today. Look at all the structure in the cloud-free areas of the ocean! Lots of little eddies show up in the IR that are invisible in the visible and near-IR channels shown previously. The only eddies visible in the true color and natural color images are the ones that had ice floating in them. Here we see they extend much further south than the ice.

The ice-free water that is not obscured by clouds is 10-15 K warmer than where the icebergs are found. The eddies are caused by the clash between the southward flowing, cold Eastern Greenland Current and the northbound, warm North Atlantic Drift (the tail end of the Gulf Stream), which are important in the global transport of energy. They are not ship-sinking whirlpools caused by any krakens in the area – at least VIIRS didn’t observe any.

 

UPDATE (February 2013): Below is another image of the eddies and swirls off the eastern coast of Greenland. This “natural color” image was taken 13:34 UTC 15 February 2013:

VIIRS false color RGB composite of channels M-05, M-07 and M-10, taken 13:34 UTC 15 February 2013

VIIRS false color RGB composite of channels M-05, M-07 and M-10, taken 13:34 UTC 15 February 2013. Image courtesy Don Hillger.

Since it is winter, the ice extends further south along the coast before it melts. Once again, there is a lot of structure visible in the edge of the ice, where the East Greenland Current and North Atlantic Drift interact. Another thing to notice is the shadows. At the top of the image just right of center is Scoresby Sound, which is completely frozen over. Given that the sun is pretty low in the sky over Greenland in the winter (if it rises at all, since most of Greenland is north of the Arctic Circle), the mountains south of the Sound cast some pretty long shadows on the ice. It’s possible to use the length of the shadows with the solar zenith angle to estimate the height of those mountains (although there are more accurate ways to determine a mountain’s elevation from satellite). VIIRS provides impressive detail, even from the moderate resolution bands.

Aurora Australis from the Day-Night Band

How fast does an aurora move? I “googled” it, and got answers ranging from “fast” to “very fast”. Not very scientific. It also doesn’t help that the majority of aurora videos on the Internet are time-lapse footage, and there’s no way to know how fast the footage has been sped up. Although, I did find this video that claims to be real-time footage:

When the camera is still, you could try to calculate the speed of some of the aurora elements if you knew where the cameraman was, what stars were in the view (and how far apart they are), and how high up (or how far away) the aurora was at that time. All information that I don’t have.

What if I said we could estimate the speed of the aurora by examining VIIRS Day/Night Band (DNB) images?

Here’s a DNB image of the aurora australis (a.k.a. Southern Lights) over Antarctica, taken on 1 October 2012:

VIIRS DNB image of the aurora australis, taken 00:22 UTC 1 October 2012

VIIRS DNB image of the aurora australis, taken 00:22 UTC 1 October 2012

Compare this image with the images of the aurora borealis shown back in March 2012. Something doesn’t look right. Far from looking like smooth curtains of light, the aurora (particularly the brightest one) has a jagged appearance, like a set of steps. (This is easier to notice if you click on the image to see it in higher resolution.) This is because the aurora wouldn’t stay still, and we can use this information to estimate the speed it was moving.

The stripes that you see in the image are a caused by the 16 detectors that comprise the DNB which, for various reasons, don’t have exactly the same sensitivity to light. (This condition is given a super-scientific name: “striping”.) The DNB senses light from the Earth by having a constantly rotating mirror reflect light onto these detectors. One rotation of the mirror (particularly the part that occurs within the field of view of the sensor) comprises one scan. Each detector comprises one row of pixels in each scan, each with 742 m x 742 m resolution at nadir. There are 48 scans in one “granule” (the amount of data transmitted in one data file), and it takes ~84 seconds to collect the data that make up one granule. That means it takes ~1.75 seconds per scan.

If you watch that video again, you’ll notice that the aurora can move quite a bit in 2 seconds. Now, let’s zoom in much more closely on one of the aurora elements:

Zoomed-in VIIRS DNB image of an aurora, taken 00:22 UTC 1 October 2012

Zoomed-in VIIRS DNB image of an aurora, taken 00:22 UTC 1 October 2012

This image has been rotated relative to the original image, in case you were wondering why it doesn’t seem to match up with the first image. The brightest pixels are where the brightest aurora elements were located. The “steps” (or “shifts” as they are typically called) occur every 16 pixels, which mark out the end of one scan and the beginning of the next.  If you count the number of pixels that the brightest aurora elements shifted from one scan to the next, it varies from about 6 to 10 pixels. Assuming a constant resolution of 742 m per pixel along the scan (which isn’t exactly true, the resolution degrades a little bit as you get closer to the edge of the scan but not by much), that means this particular aurora element moved somewhere between ~4.5 and ~7.5 km in ~1.75 seconds from one scan to the next. Doing the math (don’t forget to carry the 1), that comes out to somewhere between 9000 and 15,000 km h-1 (rounded to account for possible sources of error), which I guess counts as “very fast”. But, it’s not as fast as the coronal mass ejections that create auroras. They have an average speed of 489 km s-1 (1,760,000 km h-1)!

So, what looks like an oddity in the VIIRS image, actually contains some interesting scientific information about the speed of an “active aurora“.

But, we’re not done yet. Let’s get back to the striping. Along with “stray light”, it’s one of the few remaining issues in VIIRS imagery. Stray light, which you can see evidence of in the lower right corner of first aurora image, is a particular problem in the DNB. It occurs when sunlight is reflected onto the detectors when the satellite is on the nighttime side of the Earth, but close to the edge of the day/night “terminator“. Our colleagues at Northrup Grumman have been working on a correction to stray light that also reduces the striping. This correction allows for much better viewing of auroras, which have a tendency to occur right where stray light is an issue.

Here is an image of another aurora over Antarctica, taken on 15 September 2012, corrected for stray light and striping:

VIIRS DNB image of the aurora australis over Antarctica, taken 18:56 UTC 15 September 2012

VIIRS DNB image of the aurora australis over Antarctica, taken 18:56 UTC 15 September 2012. The data used in this image was corrected for stray light and striping by Stephanie Weiss (Northrup Grumman).

This was the night of a new moon, so the only light in the scene (once the stray light is taken out) is the aurora. (OK, there may be some “air glow” and starlight. But, it doesn’t show up on this brightness scale.)

This aurora was a lot less “active” so it looks more like smooth curtains of light. Although, when you zoom in on the brightest swirl in the upper right corner, you can see it did move 3-5 pixels between scans:

VIIRS DNB image of the aurora australis, taken 18:56 UTC 15 September 2012

VIIRS DNB image of the aurora australis over Antarctica, taken 18:56 UTC 15 September 2012. This image has been zoomed in and rotated relative to the previous image of the same aurora. The data used in this image was corrected for stray light and striping by Stephanie Weiss (Northrup Grumman).

This translates to 4000 to 8000 km h-1, which still counts as “fast” even if it doesn’t count as “very fast”. See, Google was right! Auroras do move anywhere from “fast” to “very fast”. But, now we at least have an estimate to quantify that speed.

And, in case you were wondering, these estimates of the speed of auroras are consistent with earlier observations. According to the book Aurora and Airglow by B. McCormac (1967), the typical speed of auroras is between 0 and 3 km s-1  (up to 10,800 km h-1). So, it appears that VIIRS does give a reasonable estimate about the speed of an aurora. We just happened to catch one “typical” aurora and one “faster than typical” aurora.