(What’s the Story) Middle-of-the-Night Glory?

A Morning Glory is a lot of things: a flower, a town in Kentucky, a popular choice for song and album titles, and – what is most relevant for us – it’s a rare atmospheric phenomenon that is both beautiful and potentially deadly.

For glider pilots, it’s the atmospheric equivalent to catching a 40-wave off the North Shore of Oahu. Like surfing the North Shore, the thrill is in catching a powerful wave and going for a ride, which only happens if you position yourself in the right spot. And, just like surfing a monster wave, one misstep can result in being crushed downward into a pile of jagged rocks and swept out to sea. The difference is, a North Shore wave is 10-12 m high and only travels a 100 m or so until it hits land and stops. A Morning Glory wave is 500-1000 m high and can travel hundreds of kilometers over a period of several hours. Here’s a picture of one:

MorningGloryCloudBurketownFromPlane

“MorningGloryCloudBurketownFromPlane” by Mick Petroff – Mick Petroff. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MorningGloryCloudBurketownFromPlane.jpg#/media/File:MorningGloryCloudBurketownFromPlane.jpg

Simply put, a Morning Glory is a solitary wave, or “soliton“. We talked about mesospheric bores before, which are another kind of soliton. In this case, however, the soliton propagates through (or along the top of) the atmosphere’s boundary layer. Sometimes, it produces a cloud or series of clouds that came to be known as a “Morning Glory” because these clouds commonly occur near sunrise in the one place on Earth where this event isn’t rare.

Enough talk. The Day/Night Band (DNB) on VIIRS just saw a one. Let’s see if you can see it:

VIIRS DNB image of Australia (15:24 UTC 26 October 2015)

VIIRS DNB image of Australia (15:24 UTC 26 October 2015)

This really is like “Where’s Waldo?” because the image covers a much larger area than the Morning Glory. Even I didn’t see it at first. But, zoom in to the corner of the image over the Gulf of Carpentaria. (You can click on any of these images to see the full resolution version.) Now do you see it?

VIIRS DNB image of the Gulf of Carpentaria (15:24 UTC 26 October 2015)

VIIRS DNB image of the Gulf of Carpentaria (15:24 UTC 26 October 2015)

Once more on the zoom, and it’s obvious:

Same as above, but zoomed in on the Morning Glory.

Same as above, but zoomed in on the Morning Glory.

But, this happened at ~1:30 AM local time – depending on where in that image you are looking – so maybe it’s a Middle-of-the-Night Glory instead of a Morning Glory. (Fun fact: Northern Territory and South Australia are on a half-hour time zone, GMT+9:30. Queensland and the rest of eastern Australia are at GMT+10:00. But, the southern states have Daylight Saving Time while the north and west do not. That means almost every state has it’s own time zone.)

The Gulf of Carpentaria is where Morning Glory clouds are most likely to form. And, this is the peak season for them. (The season runs from late August to mid-November.) What is rare is seeing them so clearly at night.

Since this image was taken one night before a full moon, there was plenty of moonlight available to the DNB to see the “roll clouds” that are indicative of the Morning Glory. You can even see ripples that extend beyond the endpoints of the clouds, which might be some kind of aerosol plume affected by the waves.

There is another way to see this Morning Glory, and it’s what we call the “low cloud/fog product”. The low cloud/fog product is simply the difference in brightness temperature between the longwave infrared (IR) (10.7 µm) and the mid-wave IR (3.9 µm). For low clouds, this difference is positive at night and negative during the day. Here is an example of the low cloud/fog product applied to a new geostationary satellite, Himawari-8:

Animation of AHI Low Cloud/Fog product images (10:00 - 22:50 UTC 26 October 2015)

Animation of AHI Low Cloud/Fog product images (10:00 – 22:50 UTC 26 October 2015)

The Advanced Himawari Imager (AHI) on Himawari-8 is similar to VIIRS, except it has water vapor channels in the IR and it doesn’t have the Day/Night Band. It also stays in the same place relative to the Earth and takes images of the “full disk” every 10 minutes. That’s what allows you to see – in impressive detail – the evolution of this Morning Glory. The low, liquid clouds switch from white to black after sunrise because, as I said, the signal switches from positive (white) to negative (black) at sunrise. Ice clouds (e.g. cirrus) always look black in this product.

Here’s a zoomed in version of the above animation:

As above, except zoomed in to highlight the Morning Glory

As above, except zoomed in to highlight the Morning Glory

Of course, once the sun rises, the standard visible imagery from AHI captures the tail end of the Morning Glory:

Animation of AHI Band 3 images (20:00 - 23:30 UTC 26 October 2015)

Animation of AHI Band 3 images (20:00 – 23:30 UTC 26 October 2015)

And, once again, zoomed in:

As above, except zoomed in to highlight the Morning Glory

As above, except zoomed in to highlight the Morning Glory

At this point, it really is a Morning Glory, since it appeared at sunrise. Of course, at night, only the VIIRS Day/Night Band under full moonlight can show it in “all of its glory”. (Pun definitely intended.)

Pilots take note: the waves can still exist even when the clouds evaporate, and they are a source of severe turbulence.

If you want to know more about the phenomenon, watch this video with a lot of information or this video with a lot of pretty pictures. And, while a lot of people believe the cause of the Morning Glory is still a mystery, one scientist in Germany thinks the cause is now known. You can read all about his and other’s research into the science behind these solitary waves at this webpage.

UPDATE (12/16/2016): We’ve seen more examples of Morning Glory waves and clouds with Himawari-8. The formation of two Morning Glory waves may be seen on our Himawari Loop-of-the-Day webpage here and here. Plus, there is an extended loop covering a two day period shown in this very large animated GIF (83 MB).

The Aurora Seen Around The World

Think back to St. Patrick’s Day. Do you remember what you were doing? Hopefully you were wearing something green. And, hopefully, you didn’t leave anything green in the gutter behind the bar (e.g. undigested lunch or beverages or a mixture of the two). If you did, we don’t want to hear about it. It’s unpleasant enough that you had to read that and have that image in your mind. Apologies if you are eating.

If your mind was lucid enough that night, or the following night, did you remember to look up to the northern sky? Or, right above you, if you live far enough north? (Swap “north” for “south” if you live in the Southern Hemisphere. Everything is backwards there.) Was it a clear night?

If you answered “no” to the first two questions and “yes” to the third question, you missed out on an opportunity to see something green in the sky – one of the great atmospheric wonders of the world: the aurora. If you answered “yes” then “no”, tough luck. The lower atmosphere does not always cooperate with the upper atmosphere. If you answered “yes” on everything and still didn’t see the aurora, then you need to move closer to your nearest magnetic pole. Or, away from light pollution. (Although, truth be told, it is possible to live too far north or south to see the aurora. But, not many people live there. Those who do rarely have to worry about light pollution.)

If you forgot to look up at the night sky on 17-18 March 2015, you have no excuse. The media was hyping the heck out of it. That link is just one example of media predictions of the aurora being visible as far south as Dallas and Atlanta. While I couldn’t find any photographic evidence that that actually happened, there were people as far south as Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey that saw the aurora. In the other hemisphere – the backwards, upside-down one – the aurora was seen as far north as Australia and New Zealand, which is a relatively rare occurrence for them. And there are no shortage of pictures and videos if you want proof: pictures, more pictures, even more pictures, video and pictures, video, and a couple more short videos here, here and here.

Now, we already know that VIIRS can see the aurora. We’ve covered both the aurora borealis and aurora australis before. This time, we’ll take a look at both at the same time – not literally, of course! – since the Day/Night Band viewed the aurora (borealis and australis) on every orbit for an entire 24 hour period, during which time it covered every part of the Earth. So, follow along as VIIRS circled the globe in every sense of the word during this event.

First, we start with the aurora australis over the South Pacific, south of Pitcairn Island, at 10:15 UTC on 17 March 2015. We then proceed westward, ending over the South Pacific, south of Easter Island at 08:16 UTC on 18 March 2015. Click on each image in the gallery to see the medium resolution version. Above each of those images is a link containing the dimensions of the high resolution version. Click on that to see the full resolution.

Notice how much variability there is in the spatial extent and shape of the aurora from one orbit to the next. Everything is represented, from diffuse splotches to well-defined ribbons (which are technical terms, of course, wink, wink). You can see just how close the aurora was to being directly over Australia and New Zealand. And, if you looked at the high resolution versions of all the images (which are very large), you might have seen this:

VIIRS DNB image of the aurora australis, 18:39 UTC 17 March 2015

VIIRS DNB image of the aurora australis, 18:39 UTC 17 March 2015.

Just below center, the aurora is illuminating gravity waves forced by Heard Island. The aurora is also directly overhead of it’s “twin”, “Desolation Island” (aka Îles Kerguelen, upper-right corner right at the edge of the swath), although it looks too cloudy for the scientists and penguins living there to see it. (How many more Remote Islands can I mention that I’ve featured before?)

Now, I’m a sucker for animations, so I thought I’d combine all of these images into one and here it is (you can click on it to see the full-resolution version):

Animation of VIIRS DNB images of the aurora australis, 17-18 March 2015

Animation of VIIRS DNB images of the aurora australis, 17-18 March 2015.

Here, it is easier to notice that the aurora is much further north (away from the South Pole) near Australia and New Zealand and further south (closer to the pole) near South America. This is proof that the geomagnetic pole does not coincide with the geographic pole. This also puts the southern tips of Chile and Argentina at a disadvantage when it comes to seeing the aurora, compared to Australia and New Zealand.

Now, repeat everything for the aurora borealis – beginning over central Canada (07:57 UTC 17 March 2015) and ending there ~24 hours later (07:40 UTC 18 March 2015):

Basically, if you were anywhere in Siberia where there were no clouds, you could have seen the aurora. (For those who are not impressed, Siberia is a big area.) Did you see the aurora directly over North Dakota? (I showed a video of that above.) Did you notice it was mostly south of Anchorage, Alaska? (Typically, it’s over Fairbanks.) It was pretty close to Moscow and Scotland, also. But, what about the sightings in Ohio, New Jersey, and Germany? It doesn’t look like the aurora was close to those places…

For one, the aurora doesn’t have to be overhead to see it. Depending on the circumstances (e.g. auroral activity, atmospheric visibility, light pollution, etc.), you can be 5 degrees or more of latitude away and it will be visible. Second, these are single snapshots of an aurora that is constantly moving. (We already know the aurora can move pretty fast.) It may have been closer to these places when VIIRS wasn’t there to see it.

Lastly, here’s an animation of the above images, moving in the proper clockwise direction, unlike in that backwards, upside-down hemisphere:

Animation of VIIRS DNB images of the aurora borealis, 17-18 March 2015

Animation of VIIRS DNB images of the aurora borealis, 17-18 March 2015.

If you want to know more about what causes the aurora, watch this video. If you want to know why auroras appear in different colors, read this. If you want to know why aboriginal Australians viewed the aurora as an omen of fire, blood, death and punishment, and why various Native American tribes viewed the aurora as dancing spirits that were happy, well, you have a lot more reading to do: link, link and link.

The Outback on Fire

I’m not talking about a Subaru. I’m talking about the vast expanse of sparsely-populated Australia. We’ve already seen fires in the United States, Russia and the Canary Islands. Well, they have been happening down under, too. (Is there any part of this planet not currently experiencing a drought?)

Despite the risk of getting fire fatigue (“Another post about fires?” *yawn*), we’re going to look at these fires for two reasons. First, it gives me a chance to show off the “fire tornado” video clip that has been making the rounds on the Internet:

Second, VIIRS saw the fire that produced the “fire tornado” (and a whole bunch of other fires) and it gives me a chance to show off the newly christened “Fire Temperature RGB”.

First, let’s look at the boring (yet still valuable) way of detecting fires: identifying hot spots in a 3.9 µm image. Here’s what VIIRS channel M-13 (4.0 µm) saw over Australia on 19 September 2012:

VIIRS channel M-13 image of central Australia, taken 04:34 UTC 19 September 2012

VIIRS channel M-13 image of central Australia, taken 04:34 UTC 19 September 2012

Pixels hotter than 350 K show up as black in this image. Given this information, how many fires can you see? (Hint: click on the image, then on the “3200×1536” link below the banner to see the image at full resolution. And, no, wise guy – you don’t count all the black pixels outside the boundaries of the data.)

Here’s the “pseudo-true color” RGB composite (this time made of M-05 [0.67 µm, blue], M-07 [0.87 µm, green], and M-10 [1.61 µm, red]):

False-color RGB composite of VIIRS channels M-05, M-07 and M-10, taken 04:34 UTC 19 September 2012

False-color RGB composite of VIIRS channels M-05, M-07 and M-10, taken 04:34 UTC 19 September 2012

With this RGB composite, really hot fires show up as bright red pixels. More hot spots are visible in the M-13 image than the “pseudo-true color” image because M-13 is much more sensitive to the heat from fires than M-05, M-07 and M-10 are. M-10 only picks up the signal from the hottest (or biggest) fires. M-05 and M-07 don’t pick up the heat signal at all, because the radiation from the sun, reflected off the Earth’s surface, drowns it out (which is precisely why the hot spots look red). M-13 is also better at detecting fires because it works at night, unlike these three channels.

You can make the hot spots from the smaller/less hot (lower brightness temperature) fires more visible by replacing M-10 with M-11 (2.25 µm) as the red channel in the RGB composite. M-11 is more sensitive to hot spots than M-10. If you do that, you get this image:

False-color RGB composite of VIIRS channels M-05, M-07 and M-11, taken 04:34 UTC 19 September 2012

False-color RGB composite of VIIRS channels M-05, M-07 and M-11, taken 04:34 UTC 19 September 2012

Since the previous RGB composite is often referred to as “natural color”, maybe this one should be called the “natural fire color” RGB composite. Now, most of the hot spots (not just the hottest ones) show up as red.

It should be noted that the fire complex in the grid box bounded by the 24 °S and 26 °S latitude and 128 °E and 132 °E longitude lines is where the video of the fire tornado came from. That fire is currently burning close to Uluru (a.k.a. Ayers Rock), the site where the creator beings live, according to local legend. According to an Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park newsletter from back in July, prescribed burns were taking place in and around the park, although it’s not clear if the fires seen by VIIRS now (in September) are part of the prescribed burns.

EUMETSAT recently held a workshop on RGB satellite products, where a new RGB composite was proposed for VIIRS: the “Fire Temperature RGB”, made from M-10 (1.61 µm, blue), M-11 (2.25 µm, green) and M-12 (3.70 µm, red). Here’s what that looks like:

False-color RGB composite of VIIRS channels M-10, M-11 and M-12, taken 04:34 UTC 19 September 2012

False-color RGB composite of VIIRS channels M-10, M-11 and M-12, taken 04:34 UTC 19 September 2012

In this composite, hot spots from fires show up as yellow, orange, bright red or white, depending on how hot they are. Liquid clouds show up as light blue. Ice clouds, which are missing from this scene, typically show up as dark green. The background surface shows up as a shade of purple. Burn scars, which show up as dark brown in the “natural color” and “natural fire color” composites, show up as more of a maroon color in the “fire temperature” composite. Coincidently, maroon is the “official color” of Queensland, although it looks like most of the maroon burn scars show up in the Northern Territory.

To easily compare the different views of the fires (and make it obvious to everyone what the fires look like), here’s an animation, zoomed in on the lower left corner of each of the images above:

Animated loop of images of the fires in Australia as seen by VIIRS, 04:34 UTC 19 September 2012

Animated loop of images of the fires in Australia as seen by VIIRS, 04:34 UTC 19 September 2012

The yellow highlighted areas are where the active fires are.

Now that you’ve seen several different ways of displaying fire hot spots with VIIRS, which one do you like best?