Remote Islands V: St. Helena and Ascension

You may have missed it in the news, but history was made last week:

A plane landed! Wow!

But, that’s not any old plane – that’s the first commercial airliner to land on St. Helena Island, which just completed the construction of their very first airport. That means there may be no more commercial sailing to this tiny island.

People prone to seasickness may be cheering the news. People afraid of flying might not. Did you notice it took three attempts to land that plane in the video above? The first pass was getting everything all lined up with no intention of landing. The landing gear wasn’t even down. The second – which looked like a roller coaster – was waived off due to the heavy crosswinds. The third time was the charm. However, it was such a shaky first landing, they’ve postponed the official opening of the airport.

So, where is St. Helena (pronounced Ha-LEEN-a), anyway? And why should I care?

Well, to answer the first question, it’s somewhere in this image:

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (12:45 UTC 26 April 2016)

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (12:45 UTC 26 April 2016).

Did you find it? To help you with your bearings, Africa is just outside this VIIRS swath on the right side of the image. Two hints: click on the image to bring up the full resolution version. St. Helena is just northwest of the center of the image. It’s the only island in the image not covered by clouds. Fun fact: every island within this VIIRS swath is part of the British Overseas Territory of St. Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha. We already looked more closely at Tristan da Cunha, so let’s take a look at the other two.

We can get a higher resolution look if we use the I-band Natural Color RGB composite:

VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels I-01, I-02 and I-03 (12:45 UTC 26 April 2016)

VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels I-01, I-02 and I-03 (12:45 UTC 26 April 2016).

Notice the island appears green in the center, surrounded by a ring of brown – just the way it looks on a really high resolution satellite image. VIIRS has the resolution to pick this out!

As for why you should care, I don’t know if I can answer that. If your first thought is to ask that question, you probably don’t care. But, there are a few interesting things to note about St. Helena (besides its new airport):

– It was once an important stopping point for ships sailing from Europe to India in search of spices. At least, until the Suez Canal opened.

– It later became a prison, housing those who fought against the British government and lost, including Napoleon Bonaparte, Dinuzulu, King of the Zulu Nation, and POWs from the Boer War.

– Along with Ascension Island, St. Helena helped inspire the modern environmental movement. And it was here that the first large scale experiments in weather modification took place. (Not counting rain dances, of course.)

After witnessing the effect of deforestation on the island in the late-1700s and early-1800s, it was believed that re-foresting would help keep moisture on the island, which would lead to more clouds and more rainfall. Ascension Island, which was essentially a barren wasteland when first discovered, was also planted with trees, creating it’s Green Mountain, which is clearly visible on very high resolution satellites.

Speaking of Ascension Island – where is that located? In the first image above, showing most of the Southern Atlantic, Ascension is near the upper left corner. It’s hard to see because it is covered by clouds. Just follow the 8 °S latitude line in from the left edge of the image.

Here it is at high resolution during a clear day:

VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels I-01, I-02, and I-03 (14:03 UTC 20 April 2016)

VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels I-01, I-02, and I-03 (14:03 UTC 20 April 2016).

If you look closely, you’ll see that there is a small cloud or two right over Green Mountain, so maybe the efforts of the early environmentalists paid off!

For completeness, Tristan da Cunha is in the lower left of the True Color image I posted at the top. While it is covered by clouds, you can tell it’s there because it is creating its own waves. Here it is on the next orbit, where it is closer to satellite nadir:

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (15:24 UTC 26 April 2016)

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (15:24 UTC 26 April 2016).

If I’ve inspired you to visit these islands, ask the government to give me a commission. But, seriously, don’t forget to say “Hi!” to Jonathan. Or see the many other plants and animals that are found nowhere else on Earth.

UPDATE (16 October 2017): Reuters has reported that the airport is now officially open to commercial flights (only a year and half after I wrote the original blog post)!

Abafado Bruma Seca

Hopefully, Google Translate didn’t steer me wrong on the meaning of “abafado”. “Bruma seca” is a term used by Portuguese and Spanish speakers that literally translates to “dry mist”. It is typically used to refer to thick haze or the brownish air caused by dust and, more specifically, to the Saharan Air Layer (scroll down a bit on this Weather Underground blog post for nice description of what that is).

We’re speaking Portuguese today because we are re-visiting Cape Verde, an island nation where people speak Portuguese. (Actually, many people speak a creole version called Kriolu kabuverdianu that has Western African elements added to the Portuguese.) Last time we visited Cape Verde, the islands were creating interesting waves and plumes in the atmosphere. This time, Cape Verde is buried under a plume – a plume of Saharan air that is so thick, you can barely see the islands:

VIIRS "True Color" RGB composite of channels M-03, M-04 and M-05, taken 15:07 UTC 30 July 2013

VIIRS "True Color" RGB composite of channels M-03, M-04 and M-05, taken 15:07 UTC 30 July 2013

I had to plot the map boundaries on the image just to see where the islands are. Otherwise, they would be lost in a sea of brown dust. Also, without the map, it’s difficult to find the shoreline of western Africa because the dust looks just like the Sahara Desert where it came from.

This image is (and the images to follow are) a “True Color” RGB composite. (As always, click on the picture, then on the “2442×1920” link below the banner to see the full resolution image.) Unlike many previous true color images shown on this blog, these have been “Rayleigh corrected.” This means the impact of Rayleigh scattering by the molecules in the atmosphere has been removed. The reason for doing this is that it makes the surface easier to see and it better represents what people normally see when looking out of the window on an airplane. Dust particles, on the other hand, are Mie scatterers at visible wavelengths (refer back to that last link) so they still show up. In fact, this is one of the strengths of the True Color composite: it is quite sensitive to particulate matter in the atmosphere like smoke, smog, haze and dust.

The image above was taken on 30 July 2013, one day after the dust really started to be pushed off the African coast. It is not clear if the people of Cape Verde were forced indoors by this dust since I wasn’t able to find any news reports on it. The western edge of the dust plume (between 28° and 29° W longitude) almost looks like it is casting a shadow, which would indicate the dust is lofted pretty high in the troposphere in this image.

This dust plume pushed across the Atlantic Ocean over the following days. VIIRS passed over Cape Verde on 31 July 2013 (14:48 UTC) and captured this image:

VIIRS "True Color" RGB composite of channels M-03, M-04 and M-05, taken 14:48 UTC 31 July 2013

VIIRS "True Color" RGB composite of channels M-03, M-04 and M-05, taken 14:48 UTC 31 July 2013

Here, the dust plume extends from one side of the swath to the other – over 3000 km. On the very next orbit (16:29 UTC 31 July 2013), the plume can be seen on four consecutive data granules, extending almost to the middle of the swath. (The satellite covers a distance of over 2000 km over four granules.)

VIIRS "True Color" RGB composite of channels M-03, M-04 and M-05, taken 16:29 UTC 31 July 2013

VIIRS "True Color" RGB composite of channels M-03, M-04 and M-05, taken 16:29 UTC 31 July 2013

Hold on. What’s that strip of white-colored stuff extending north-northwest from 50° W longitude label? Some kind of white dust? That happens to be in a straight line? Nope. It’s what is called “sun glint” and it’s the same basic phenomenon as the glare you see looking out over a body of water without polarized sunglasses.  The dust is all the brown stuff on the right side of the image. That’s South America and the Lesser Antilles on the left side of the image.

If you click to the full resolution version of the image above, you may find that the image doesn’t seem very big considering it is made of four granules. (Its pixel size is 1600×1536. In contrast, the image above that is only two granules, yet is 3200×1536 in size.) That’s because I had to reduce the resolution of the data in order to plot it all without running out of memory on my computer. VIIRS has twice the resolution of what is shown in the latter image. (And this high resolution requires a lot of computing power to display!)

On 1 August 2013, the plume pushed even closer to the Lesser Antilles (although they are off the left side of this image).

VIIRS "True Color" composite of channels M-03, M-4 and M-05, taken 16:10 UTC 1 August 2013

VIIRS "True Color" composite of channels M-03, M-4 and M-05, taken 16:10 UTC 1 August 2013

Again, the resolution has been degraded by a factor of two. It is interesting to note that one granule covers an area of the Earth about 3040 x 570 km in size (1.7 million sq km, or 669,000 sq mi), so four granules is about 6.9 million km2. That’s 2.6 million square miles. In comparison, the size of the lower 48 states is about 3.1 million square miles (3.7 million square miles if you add on Alaska and Hawaii).  Now notice that the dust covers most of the last image. If you add on the area of the dust plume that stretches all the way back to Africa, you are talking about an area well over the size of the United States! By the time it arrives in the Caribbean, that dust better learn to speak Antillean Creole. It is a long way from Cape Verde.

So, what does all of this mean? It is often claimed that the presence of Saharan dust layers is bad for hurricane formation. Evidence for that claim is provided here and here. However, there are also scientists who refute that claim, which you can read about here. Scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) have found that Saharan dust may be harmful to people and to coral reefs. According to this article in Nature, the dust is beneficial for the Amazon rainforest.

This event was also discussed on the Weather Channel. Compare his visible images to mine, which use only one color of the visible spectrum to my three color images. So, whether Saharan dust is good or bad, I think we can all agree that VIIRS is good!

UPDATE (5 August 2013): Remember the “split window difference”? It was mentioned the last time we visited Cape Verde. Here’s is a split window difference product produced at CIMSS that highlights the plume as it traveled across the Atlantic. This loop starts on 29 July and ends on 2 August 2013 and is made of data collected by the geostationary satellite MSG-3.

UPDATE (19 August 2013): Here’s another animation of the dust plume, made using observations from the Ozone Mapping and Profiler Suite (OMPS), one of the new instruments aboard Suomi NPP alongside VIIRS. (Actually, it’s on the opposite end of the satellite from VIIRS, so it’s not literally alongside VIIRS, but you get the idea.)