The Case of the 100-year-old Ash Cloud

Lost in all the commotion caused by Hurricane Sandy, a curious event occurred on the other side of the country on 30 October 2012. A cloud of ash obscured the skies of Kodiak Island, Alaska, diverting flights in the region and forcing the people of Kodiak to stay inside or wear masks. Alaska has quite a few volcanoes, so this may not be a big thing to them except, this was no ordinary volcanic eruption: it was the leftovers of a volcanic eruption from 100 years ago!

The volcano that came to be known as Novarupta erupted on 6 June 1912. It was one of the largest volcanic eruptions of recorded history. It was 10 times more powerful than Mt. St. Helens with 100 times more ash. The explosion was heard more than 1100 km (700 miles) away in Juneau. The force of the eruption caused nearby Mt. Katmai to collapse on itself (10 km away). It formed the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes and, most importantly for us, covered the surrounding land with 150 m (500 ft) of ash.

This pile of ash – still there today – can be lifted by a stiff breeze (or, more appropriately, “strong breeze” or higher on the Beaufort wind scale), and blown pretty high off the ground (4000 ft according to the news report). This isn’t the first time this has happened. MODIS observed the same thing back in 2003.

So, what did VIIRS see? Here’s the “true color” image, the RGB composite of channels M-03 (0.488 µm, blue), M-04 (0.555 µm, green) and M-05 (0.672 µm, red):

VIIRS "true color" RGB composite of channels M-03, M-04 and M-05, taken 22:23 UTC 30 October 2012

VIIRS "true color" RGB composite of channels M-03, M-04 and M-05, taken 22:23 UTC 30 October 2012

Be sure (as with all the images) to click on the image, then on the link below the banner to see it at full resolution. (The link contains the dimensions of the full size image.)

The ash cloud (blowing right over the center of Kodiak Island) is not as obvious in this image as it was in the MODIS image in the link above, although it is visible. To be fair, the plume was much more optically thick in 2003, and there were fewer clouds and less snow to confuse it with.

Here is the false color (“pseudo-true color” or “natural color”) image, the RGB composite of channels M-05 (0.672 µm, blue), M-07 (0.865 µm, green) and M-10 (1.61 µm, red):

VIIRS false color RGB composite of channels M05, M-07 and M-10, taken 22:23 UTC 30 October 2012

VIIRS false color RGB composite of channels M05, M-07 and M-10, taken 22:23 UTC 30 October 2012

Hmmm. Once again, the ash plume is visible but not particularly noticeable. Is there a way to highlight the ash plume to make it easier to see?

EUMETSAT (the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites) has defined an RGB composite for detecting dust. Their product, which was developed primarily to detect dust storms over the Saharan desert, uses channels that are present (or similar to ones that are present) on VIIRS. This means we can apply the dust product for VIIRS as the difference between M-16 and M-15 (red), the difference between M-15 and M-14 (green) and M-15 by itself (blue), all in units of brightness temperature. If you do that, and use the same color scaling they use, you get this image:

The EUMETSAT Dust RGB composite applied to VIIRS for 22:23 UTC 30 October 2012

The EUMETSAT Dust RGB composite applied to VIIRS for 22:23 UTC 30 October 2012

The arrow points to the source region of the ash plume. In this RGB composite, dust shows up as hot pink (magenta), but it’s barely visible here. The reason is that this dust product is primarily useful where there is a large temperature contrast between the dust plume and the background surface, which we don’t have here.

A more common way to detect volcanic ash is to use the “split-window difference”. The “split-window difference” is the difference in brightness temperature between a 10.7-11.0 µm channel and a 12.0 µm channel. This difference is useful because volcanic ash has a difference of opposite sign to most everything else. Here’s what the split window difference (M-15 – M-16) looks like for this case:

VIIRS "Split-window difference" image from 22:23 UTC 30 October 2012

VIIRS "Split-window difference" image from 22:23 UTC 30 October 2012

This image has been scaled so that the colors range from -1 K (black) to +7 K (white). The ash plume stands out a bit more here by being much darker than the background. The only problem is, it isn’t perfect. Large amounts of water vapor, optically thick clouds, desert surfaces and boundary layer temperature inversions can all produce a negative difference (just like volcanic ash does).

These problems can be overcome to a certain extent by combining the “split-window difference” with a Principal Component Image (PCI) analysis technique. (This technique is too complicated to describe here but, if you have access to AMS journals, check out these journal papers.) Now, the ash plume is the only thing that’s black:

VIIRS PCI analysis image from 22:23 UTC 30 October 2012

VIIRS PCI split window analysis image from 22:23 UTC 30 October 2012. Image courtesy Don Hillger. Upside-down text courtesy McIDAS-X.

Notice the smaller plume identified by the orange arrow. This plume is not easy to identify in any of the previous images. The PCI technique works well. But, we’re not going to stop there.

Remember the dust plumes off the Cape Verde islands? They produced a strong signal in the difference between M-12 (3.7 µm) and M-15 (10.7 µm) due to solar reflection. Does a 100-year-old ash plume produce a similarly strong signal? See for yourself:

VIIRS channel difference image between M-12 and M-15 from 22:23 UTC 30 October 2012

VIIRS channel difference image between M-12 and M-15 from 22:23 UTC 30 October 2012

It does produce a signal, but it’s not as bright as the surrounding clouds. The color scale here ranges from -2 K (black) to +90 K (white).

M-06 (0.746 µm) is highly sensitive to anything that reflects solar radiation in the atmosphere or on the surface, which we learned from Hurricane Isaac. Here’s what the M-06 image looks like:

VIIRS channel M-06 image, taken 22:23 UTC 30 October 2012

VIIRS channel M-06 image, taken 22:23 UTC 30 October 2012

“Big deal,” you say. “None of those are better than the PCI analysis.” That may be true, but watch what happens when we combine M-06, the M-12 – M-15 image and the split-window difference image in a single RGB composite:

VIIRS RGB composite of M06 (blue), M12 - M15 (green) and M15 - M16 (red), taken 22:23 UTC 30 October 2012

VIIRS RGB composite of M06 (blue), M12 - M15 (green) and M15 - M16 (red), taken 22:23 UTC 30 October 2012

In this composite, blue values represent the M-06 reflectance scaled from 0 to 1.6, green values represent the brightness temperature difference between M-12 and M-15 scaled from -2 K to +90 K, and red values represent the brightness temperature difference between M-15 and M-16 scaled from -1 K to +7 K.

From a theoretical perspective, this RGB composite does exactly what you want: make the thing you’re trying to detect the only thing that is a certain color. For example, the ash plumes are the only things in this image that are green. From a practical perspective, however, this RGB composite doesn’t work so well. It only works because the ash plume is over water (otherwise M-06 wouldn’t be very useful). It only works during the day, where M-06 is available and the difference between M-12 and M-15 is significant (no solar component to M-12 at night).

Plus, the rainbow of colors is difficult to make sense of: green ash; clouds ranging from light blue to purple to orange (a function of optical thickness, particle size, and phase); bright purple snow; dark purple vegetation; maroon water. It’s not exactly pleasing to the eye. In contrast, the PCI analysis technique that uses the split-window difference works day and night, over ocean and over land. And it isn’t confusing to look at. Maybe we should have stopped when we got to the PCI technique. But then, we wouldn’t have learned anything new.

Remote Islands, part III: Îles Kerguelen and Heard Island

 

At 10 o’clock the Captain was walking on deck and saw what he supposed to be an immense iceberg. … the atmosphere was hazy, and then a heavy snow squall came up which shut it out entirely from our view. Not long after the sun shone again, and I went up again and with the glass, tried to get an outline of it to sketch its form. The sun seemed so dazzling on the water, and the tops of the apparent icebergs covered with snow; the outline was very indistinct. We were all the time nearing the object and on looking again the Captain pronounced it to be land. The Island is not laid down on the chart, neither is it in the Epitome, so we are perhaps the discoverers, … I think it must be a twin to Desolation Island, it is certainly a frigid looking place.

VIIRS false color composite of channels I-01, I-02 and I-03, taken 09:16 UTC 27 October 2012

VIIRS false color composite of channels I-01, I-02 and I-03, taken 09:16 UTC 27 October 2012

The text above was the journal entry of Isabel Heard, wife of the American Captain John Heard, on 25 November 1853. The couple was en route from Boston, Massachusetts to Melbourne, Australia (a long time to spend in a boat) and the land they spotted became known as Heard Island. It should be noted that “Desolation Island” refers to Îles Kerguelen, which has its own unique story of discovery.

Kerguelen Island was discovered in 1772 by Yves-Joseph de Kerguelen de Trémarec, a French navigator commissioned by King Louis XV to discover the unknown continent in the Southern Hemisphere that he believed to be necessary to balance the globe. (Look at a globe or map of the world and notice that most of the land area is in the Northern Hemisphere.) Kerguelen himself never set foot on the island, but he told his king the island was inhabited and full of forests, fruits and untold riches. He called it “La France Australe” (Southern France). Captain Cook actually did land on the island a few years later and named it Desolation Island because it had none of that stuff, and King Louis XV imprisoned Kerguelen after his lie was discovered. Oops.

Îles Kerguelen, made up of the main island (Kerguelen to us, La Grande Terre to the French) and the many small surrounding islands are part of the French Southern and Antarctic Lands (Terres Australes et Antarctiques Françaises or TAAF). Heard Island is part of the Australian territory of Heard Island and McDonald Islands (HIMI).

These islands are in the “Roaring Forties” and “Furious Fifties”, the region of the Southern Ocean (southern Indian Ocean in this case) between 40 °S and 60 °S latitude. Get out your globe or world map once again and notice that there is very little land in this latitude range. This region is where strong, persistent westerly winds circle the globe. With no land in the way, there isn’t much to disturb this flow. The high winds almost always from the same direction create huge waves of 10 m (33 ft) or more. (Now imagine being John or Isabel Heard. Well, actually, if you suffer from sea-sickness you probably shouldn’t imagine it.) The cold winds flow over the relatively warmer waters of the ocean, forming persistent cloudiness. If you zoom in on the image above (click on the image, then on the “1893×1452″ link below the banner for full resolution) you can see quite a bit of structure in the resulting “cloud streets“.

The persistent cloudiness makes Kerguelen and Heard Island a rare sight from any satellite. We can see them here because the flow is stable and the islands are producing the equivalent of a “rain shadow” on the clouds. (It’s tempting to call it a “cloud shadow” but, since clouds actually do cast shadows, it would just confuse people.) If we zoom in on Kerguelen, this shows up more clearly:

VIIRS false-color RGB composite of channels I-01, I-02 and I-03 taken 09:16 UTC 27 October 2012

VIIRS false-color RGB composite of channels I-01, I-02 and I-03 taken 09:16 UTC 27 October 2012

Notice how all the clouds are piling up on the west (windward) side of Kerguelen, where the highest mountains, are located. (These mountains are covered with snow and glaciers, as the cyan color indicates.) Could that be the equivalent of a bow shock near 68 °E longitude where there is an apparent crack in the clouds? On the leeward side of the island, downwind of the mountains, the air is descending, which prevents clouds from forming. Kerguelen created a hole in the clouds by disrupting the flow.

Now, let’s zoom in on Heard Island:

VIIRS false-color RGB composite of channels I-01, I-02 and I-03 taken 09:16 UTC 27 October 2012

VIIRS false-color RGB composite of channels I-01, I-02 and I-03 taken 09:16 UTC 27 October 2012

In addition to creating a hole in the clouds, Heard Island is creating all sorts of waves in the atmosphere. The ones you probably noticed first look like the wake created by a boat (and have the same basic cause). But, why do they start well out ahead of the island where the yellow arrow is pointing? Because those first waves are actually caused by the McDonald Islands (discovered by Capt. William McDonald in 1854). Even though the highest point on McDonald Island is only 186 m above mean sea level (610 ft), it’s enough to disrupt the flow.

The highest point on Heard Island is Mawson Peak at 2745 m (9006 ft), which is actually the highest elevation in Australia. It is part of Big Ben, an active volcano that last erupted in 2008. This peak is creating a series of lenticular clouds in the above image. A patch of cirrus clouds also exists downwind of Heard Island (the more cyan colored clouds), although it is not clear if these clouds were formed by the waves caused by Heard Island.

If you’re interested in visiting either of these islands, here are some other interesting facts: Kerguelen has a year-round population of ~100, almost all scientists. It has a permanent weather station and office maintained by Météo-France (France’s version of the National Weather Service), and the French version of NASA (CNES) has a station for launching rockets and monitoring satellites. Heard Island has no permanent residents. Every few years a scientific expedition sets out for the island to study the geology, biology, weather and climate of the island. The next one is planned for 2014 and is being called an “open source expedition”. There may still be time to join in if you’re looking for an adventure!