When Canada Looks Like China

No, I’m not talking about Chinatown in Vancouver. Or Chinatown in Toronto. Or any other Chinatown in Canada. I’m talking about this. Or, more exactly, this. Poor air quality is making it difficult to breathe in Canada and elsewhere.

Unlike the situation in China, you can’t really blame the Canadians for their poor air quality. (Unless, of course, some serial arsonist is wreaking havoc unfettered.) You see, it has been an active fire season in western Canada, to put it mildly. Here’s a not-so-mild way to put it. That article, from 3 July 2014, put the number of fires in the Northwest Territories alone at 123, with most of them caused by lightning. But, after a check of the Northwest Territories’ Live Fire Map on 30 July 2014 it looks like there are more than that:

"Live Fire Map" from NWTFire, acquired 17:00 UTC 30 July 2014

"Live Fire Map" from NWTFire, acquired 17:00 UTC 30 July 2014. This is a static image, not an interative map.

I estimated 160-170 fires in that image (assuming I didn’t double count or miss any). How many fires can you count?

At one point earlier in July, it was estimated that battling the fires was costing $1 million per day! The fires have been impacting power plants, causing power outages, impacting cellular and Internet service, closing the few roads that exist that far north, and doubling the number of respiratory illnesses reported in Yellowknife, the territory’s capital.

It’s no secret that this area is sparsely populated. At last count, the territory had roughly 41,000 residents in 1.3 million km2. (Fun fact: the Northwest Territories used to make up 75% of the land area of Canada. It has since been split up among 5 provinces and into two other territories. With the formation of Nunavut in 1999, it was reduced to being only twice the size of Texas.) If so few people live there, why should we care if they have a few fires?

If you are so heartless as to ask that question, you are also short-sighted and selfish. For one, I already explained the damage that the fires are doing. For two, fires like these impact more than just the immediate area and more than just Canada. Let me explain that but, first, let me show you the fires themselves – as seen by VIIRS – over the course of the last month.

Animation of VIIRS Fire Temperature RGB images 24 June - 25 July 2014

Animation of VIIRS Fire Temperature RGB images 24 June - 25 July 2014

You will have to click on the above image, then on the “933×700″ link below the banner to see the animation at full resolution. It is 15 MB, so it may take a while to load if you have limited bandwidth. What you are looking at is the Fire Temperature RGB in the area of Great Slave Lake, the area hardest hit by this fire season. There are a lot of fires visible over the course of the month!

See how the larger fires spread out? They look like the large scale version of an individual flame spreading out on a piece of paper. (Don’t try to replicate it at home. I don’t want you catching your house on fire!) Of course, the spread of the fires is dependent on the winds, humidity, moisture content in the vegetation, and the firefighters – if they’re doing their job.

Now, these weren’t the only fires in Canada during this time. Check out this Fire Temperature RGB image from 15 July 2014 and see how many (rather large) fires there are in British Columbia and Saskatchewan:

VIIRS Fire Temperature RGB composite of channels M-10, M-11 and M-12, taken 21:08 UTC 15 July 2014

VIIRS Fire Temperature RGB composite of channels M-10, M-11 and M-12, taken 21:08 UTC 15 July 2014

Make sure to click through to the full resolution version. I counted 9 large fires in British Columbia, 1 in Alberta (partially obscured by clouds) and 6 in Saskatchewan. If you look closely, you might also spot 3 small fires in Washington plus more small fires in Oregon. (“Small” here is compared to the fires in Canada.)

Now, all these fires means there must be smoke and, because VIIRS has channels in the blue and green portions of the visible spectrum, we can see the smoke clearly. This is one of the benefits of the True Color RGB (in addition to what we discussed last time). If I tried to create another animation, like I did above, showing the extent of the smoke plumes it would be so large it might crash the Internet. Instead, here are some of the highlights (or low-lights, depending on your point of view) from the last month.

On 6 July 2014, the smoke is largely confined to the area around Great Slave Lake:

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 20:35 UTC 6 July 2014

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 20:35 UTC 6 July 2014

The very next day (7 July 2014) the smoke is blown down into Alberta and Saskatchewan (almost as far south as Calgary and Saskatoon):

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 20:16 UTC 7 July 2014

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 20:16 UTC 7 July 2014

One day later (8 July 2014) smoke is visible down into Montana, North Dakota and beyond the edge of the image in South Dakota (a distance of over 2000 km [1200 miles] from the source!):

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 19:57 UTC 8 July 2014

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 19:57 UTC 8 July 2014

 

On the 12th of July, you could see a single smoke plume stretching from Great Slave Lake all the way into southwestern Manitoba (plus smoke over British Columbia from their fires):

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 20:23 UTC 12 July 2014

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 20:23 UTC 12 July 2014

When the fires really get going in British Columbia a few days later, the smoke covers most of western Canada. On 15 July 2014, smoke is visible from the state of Washington to the southern reaches of Nunavut and Hudson Bay:

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 19:27 UTC 15 July 2014

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 19:27 UTC 15 July 2014

One day later (16 July 2014), and it appears that smoke covers 2/3 of Alberta, nearly all of Saskatchewan, all of western Manitoba, southern Nunavut, southeastern Northwest Territories, and most of Montana and North Dakota. There is also smoke over Washington, Oregon and northern Idaho:

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 20:48 UTC 16 July 2014

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 20:48 UTC 16 July 2014

A quick estimate puts the area of smoke in the above image at 2.5 million km2, which is roughly a third the size of the contiguous 48 states!

With renewed activity in the fires in the Northwest Territories last week, the smoke was still going strong over Canada, impacting Churchill, Manitoba (home of polar bears and beluga whales):

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-4, M-4 and M-5, taken 20:17 UTC 23 July 2014

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-4, M-4 and M-5, taken 20:17 UTC 23 July 2014

I guess if the melting polar ice caps don’t kill off the polar bears, they can still get cancer from all this smoke. Maybe the “world’s saddest polar bear” will want to stay in Argentina.

I should add that some of my colleagues at CIRA and I have sensitive noses and were able to smell smoke right here in town (Fort Collins, Colorado) earlier this month. Plus, there were a few smoky/hazy sunsets. (Although it should be clarified that we don’t know if it was from the fires in Canada or the fires in Washington and Oregon. There weren’t any fires in Colorado at the time.) Nevertheless, the areal coverage and extent of the smoke from fires like these is immense, and can have impacts thousands of miles away from the source. And, it’s all carbon entering our atmosphere.

 

UPDATE (8/1/2014): Colleagues at CIMSS put together this image combining two orbits of data over North America from yesterday (31 July 2014), where you can see smoke stretching from Nunavut all the way down to Indiana, Ohio and West Virginia. There may even be some smoke over Kentucky and Tennessee. Witnesses at CIMSS reported very hazy skies across southern Wisconsin as a result.

The Rise of the Paraguay Brings Down Paraguay

When was the last time you heard anything about Paraguay? Nope – they weren’t in the World Cup, that was Uruguay. (Paraguay actually finished last out of all South American teams when it came to World Cup qualifying. Sorry to remind you, Paraguayans.) A quick perusal of the web indicates that the country has a history of isolationism, so it may not come as a surprise that news out of Paraguay is few and far between.

For you non-Paraguayans in the audience: How many of you knew that Paraguay was the richest nation in South America in the mid-1800’s? Paraguay held that title right up to the point that they tried to keep Brazilian influence out of a civil war in Uruguay. That kick-started the War of the Triple Alliance, which ultimately killed more than half the population of Paraguay, strengthened Argentina as a nation, and is credited with bringing about the end of slavery in Brazil. Paraguay has never been the same since. It became the poorest country in the region – a title it has held, pretty much, through today. This has caused one reporter to say (in one of the links above) that, to Paraguayans, success is a prelude to danger.

When the national football team scores, “it makes us nervous and we panic.”

But, this isn’t a metaphor for the title of this post. The title refers to Paraguay: the River (Rio Paraguay), which has brought the worst flooding in decades to Paraguay: the Country, and displaced more than 200,000 Paraguayans. Flooding has also occurred on the Rio Paraná – the second longest river in South America – and has impacted hundreds of thousands of people in Brazil and Argentina. (You won’t get me to say that it has impacted a Brazilian people – because that is an awful, overused joke. Oh, wait. Ignore what I said I wasn’t going to say.)

Just look at what the flooding did to Iguazú Falls – one of the wonders of the world you never heard about – on the border between Argentina and Brazil:

There are more pictures of the flooding at the falls here. Iguazú Falls is located at the head of a narrow canyon called the Devil’s Throat, where water levels were reported to be 16 meters (52 feet) above normal! It is said that this is the worst flooding since 1982-1983. (That flood event killed 170 people.)

As shown before, VIIRS is capable of viewing widespread flooding. So, what does VIIRS tell us about this flood? As it turns out, both the “Natural Color” RGB composite and the “True Color” RGB composite provide unique information, so let’s take a closer look.

If you simply want to see where the water is, look no further than the “Natural Color” RGB composite. The “Natural Color” composite uses the high-resolution bands I-01 [0.64 µm; blue], I-02 [0.87 µm; green] and I-03 [1.61 µm; red]. At these wavelengths, water is not very reflective (it absorbs more than it reflects). So, with low reflectivity in all three channels, water appears nearly black. That allows one to identify water easily. Here’s a Natural Color image from a clear day before the worst of the flooding began (2 June 2014):

VIIRS "Natural Color" image, taken 17:28 UTC 2 June 2014

VIIRS "Natural Color" image, taken 17:28 UTC 2 June 2014

That’s Paraguay in the center of the image. Rio Paraguay is the north-south river that cuts Paraguay in half (OK, maybe 60-40). Rio Paraná is the big river that marks the eastern border between Paraguay and Argentina, and turns south after acquiring Rio Paraguay’s water. (Look for the big reservoir in the upper-right, and follow that river down to the bottom of the image, left of center.) Make sure you click on the image, then on the “3298 x 2345″ link below the banner to see the full resolution version. Compare that with a similar image from the only clear day at the end of the month (30 June 2014):

VIIRS "Natural Color" image, taken 17:03 UTC 30 June 2014

VIIRS "Natural Color" image, taken 17:03 UTC 30 June 2014

At first glance, the most obvious flooding occurred along the Paraná in Argentina. But flooding is noticeable along the Rio Paraguay if we zoom in for a closer look. Here’s a “before” (2 June) and “after” (30 June) overlay for the area around Paraguay’s capital city, Asunción:

Drag the vertical bar over the images from left to right to compare the two. (If this “before/after” trick doesn’t work for you, try refreshing the page. It may not work at all if you’re using Google Chrome.) The flooding you see here near Asunción was associated with only a 2 m (6 ft) water rise.

Something interesting happens when we focus in on the Paraná at the Itaipú Reservoir, just upstream from Rio Iguazú:

VIIRS "Natural Color" images of Itaipu Reservoir, June 2014

VIIRS "Natural Color" images of Itaipu Reservoir, June 2014. These images have been brightened to highlight difference in reservoir color.

After the flooding, the reservoir no longer appears black. This is because the flooding washed an awful lot of dirt into the water. And it really shows up in the “True Color” RGB composite:

VIIRS "True Color" images of Itaipu Reservoir, June 2014

VIIRS "True Color" images of Itaipu Reservoir, June 2014.

The water appears more turquoise before the flood, and brown after the flood. This is because the True Color composite represents the true color of the objects in the image. It is made from channels in the blue [0.48 µm; M-3], green [0.55 µm; M-4] and red [0.67 µm; M-5] portions of the visible spectrum. Take a look again at the Iguazú Falls video above and notice how brown the water is. The True Color images capture this. The reason the water appears blue and not black in the Natural Color composite is that there is enough sediment in the water to make it reflective at 0.64 µm (the blue component of the image). The longer wavelengths in the green and red components are not sensitive to the sediment, whereas the shorter wavelengths in the True Color components are very sensitive to sediment. (This is the basis for Ocean Color retrievals.)

If we focus in on the Rio Paraná near where it meets the Rio Paraguay, we can see clearly that the Natural Color highlights where the flood waters are, and the True Color highlights the sediment in that water:

VIIRS Natural Color and True Color images of the Rio Parana, June 2014

VIIRS Natural Color and True Color images of the Rio Parana, June 2014

Unfortunately, floods on the Paraguay and Paraná rivers are not uncommon, as a resident of Asunción explains:

BONUS: The NOAA/STAR JPSS group has put together a website on the flooding in Paraguay that features my Natural Color images along with a number of other VIIRS-based products that are being developed for flood detection. A lot of people from a number of different research groups played a part in this!