Beginning of Autumn in the Great Lakes

Have you noticed it? The seasons are changing (for the mid- and high latitudes, at least). Days are getting shorter (or longer if you live in the upside-down hemisphere). This time of year, if you live in Alaska or Scandinavia or similar high latitude locations, you lose about 5-10 minutes of available daylight each day. (That’s between a half and one hour per week!) You may have noticed by the fact that your neighbor no longer mows the lawn at 11:00 PM because it’s still bright outside and hey, why not? I wasn’t going to sleep anyway.

Closer to home – in the mid-latitudes – loss of daylight is more like 1-3 minutes per day, which isn’t as noticeable. But, one day, you watch the sun set and look at the clock and realize that it’s only 6:30 PM and you think, didn’t it used to be light out later than this?

That’s not the only way to tell the seasons are changing. For one, there’s the arrival of snow. (Although parts of Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota received snow earlier this year while it was still technically summer.)  And, for two, there’s what VIIRS observed on 27 September 2014:

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 17:57 UTC 27 September 2014

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 17:57 UTC 27 September 2014

In case it’s not obvious, here’s what VIIRS saw earlier in the month (8 September 2014):

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 17:13 UTC 8 September 2014

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 17:13 UTC 8 September 2014

Notice anything different between the two images? (Remember to click on the images, then on the “1735 x 1611″ links below the banner to see the images in full resolution.)

That’s right – the loss of daylight leads to one of the benefits of autumn: fall foliage. VIIRS True Color imagery shows, quite clearly, that the leaves of New England and eastern Canada have changed color. Forests that were green in early September have turned orange, red and brown by the end of the month.

Another thing you may have noticed comparing those two images: the change from green to beige in the area around Montreal, Quebec. This is another sign of autumn: the fall harvest. This is a productive agricultural region in eastern Canada, and what you are seeing is the green vegetation (crops) being harvested, leaving behind bare dirt.

True Color imagery is useful for observing the changing foliage and the harvest because it is designed to reproduce what we humans observe on the ground. The red, green and blue components of the RGB composite are channels in the red (M-5, 0.67 µm), green (M-4, 0.55 µm) and blue (M-3, 0.48 µm) portions of the electromagnetic spectrum. When leaves change from green to red, the True Color RGB detects that.

Now, you’ve probably known since elementary school (or at least middle school) that leaves change color because of chlorophyll. And, unless you became a botanist, that is probably the limit of your knowledge on the subject. But, there’s a lot of interesting chemistry that goes on inside a leaf (and the whole tree) that determines it’s color.

Of course, leaves are green because they contain chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is necessary for plants to convert sunlight into sugar. Chlorophyll, by necessity due to it’s job, is highly absorbing of visible-wavelength radiation, although it is slightly less absorbing of green wavelengths. Green light is therefore preferentially reflected out of the leaves and into your eye, and the leaves appear green.

When the sunlight goes away and the air becomes cold, deciduous trees go into hibernation. They break down the chlorophyll in their leaves, and send the remaining nutrients down into the trunk and roots. This exposes the carotinoids that were in the leaves and these carotinoids have a yellow or orange color – they preferentially reflect yellow and/or orange wavelengths. Red colors come from a pigment called anthocyanin, which was recently discovered to be a sort of “plant sunscreen”.

Now, utilizing sunscreen when you get all your energy from the sun may sound silly but, recent studies have shown that anthocyanin protects the leaves from sun damage once the chlorophyll is gone so that the tree has time to extract all the nutrients out of the leaves before they fall off. Trees in poor soil conditions are more likely to turn red in the fall as a natural defense mechanism – they need to store all the nutrients they can from their leaves, since they aren’t getting them from the soil.

Oak and other leaves turn brown in the fall because of a buildup of tannin (link to PDF file), which is a waste product. Brown leaves are full of plant poo! Think about that the next time you go on a fall color driving tour.

Now, back to the satellite science before the biologists come after me for grossly oversimplifying leaf chemistry. I’ve often talked about the Natural Color RGB composite as being similar to the True Color RGB in many instances (except for the detection of ice and snow). So, what does that look like here?

Here’s the VIIRS Natural Color RGB from 8 September 2014:

VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels M-5, M-7 and M-10, taken 17:13 UTC 8 September 2014

VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels M-5, M-7 and M-10, taken 17:13 UTC 8 September 2014

And here’s the same RGB from 27 September 2014:

VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels M-5, M-7 and M-10, taken 17:57 UTC 27 September 2014

VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels M-5, M-7 and M-10, taken 17:57 UTC 27 September 2014

Why does the vegetation still appear green when the leaves have changed color? Because we’ve made vegetation artificially appear green. The Natural Color RGB uses the red wavelength visible channel (M-5, 0.67 µm) as the blue component. The green component is a near-infrared channel (M-7, 0.87 µm), where plants are their most reflective – leaves and other plant tissues don’t absorb radiation at this wavelength. The red component is a longer wavelength channel (M-10, 1.61 µm) where the water inside the leaves starts to absorb radiation and the reflectance goes down. Cellulose and lignin also weakly absorb at 1.61 µm. The bottom line is, plants are highly reflective at 0.87 µm regardless of how healthy the plant is, or what color the leaves are – so they will always appear green in the Natural Color images.

You might also note the one difference (apart from clouds) that shows up between the two Natural Color images is the lack of green surrounding Montreal in the 27 September image. This is another sign of the fall harvest: the highly reflective plants have been removed and all that’s left is dirt, which is not as reflective. That’s why those areas appear more brown in the later image.

If we look a bit further west in the True Color imagery from 27 September 2014, the fall color really stands out:

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 17:57 UTC 27 September 2014

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 17:57 UTC 27 September 2014

Fall colors are visible from the Adirondacks of Upstate New York and Quebec to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The most vivid fall color is in Ontario – both in the area of Sault Ste. Marie and in the area of Algonquin Provincial Park, the oldest provincial park in Canada. Every autumn, the Friends of Algonquin Park post pictures of the fall colors, including this shot from 27 September 2014 showing just what VIIRS was seeing. Amazing colors!

We have sunny days, cool nights and plant survival techniques to thank for that.

 

BONUS:

Here’s a desktop wallpaper that’s zoomed in on the above image and cropped to the most popular screen resolution (1366×768):

VIIRS True Color RGB Composite Desktop Wallpaper (17:57 UTC 27 September 2014)

VIIRS True Color RGB Composite Desktop Wallpaper (17:57 UTC 27 September 2014). This image fits monitors with a 16:9 ratio and is optimized for 1366×768 screen resolutions.

Make sure you click on the image, then on the “1366 x 768″ link below the banner to get the full resolution image. Then you can right-click on the image and choose “Set as desktop background” to save it as your new desktop wallpaper.