Steve and the Color Purple

It’s not often that a new discovery takes place that baffles the minds of lifelong scientists. This is a story about one that seems to have gone viral over the last few days. The abbreviated version (summarized from this article, this article, and this article, and many others like it) is as follows:

A group of dedicated aurora photographers noted a particular type of aurora that was different from what we normally think of. Instead of a rapidly changing curtain of light glowing green or red, it is a single arc of light, “purple” in color, with less apparent motion than a normal aurora. It doesn’t appear to move with the Earth’s magnetic field. The picture that accompanies every article about it is this one:

Photograph credited to Dave Markel Photography

Photograph credited to Dave Markel Photography

The early guess was that it’s an example of a “proton arc” – a type of aurora caused by high energy protons rather than electrons. (Do a Google Image Search for “proton arc” and you’ll see many other examples.) However, the plot thickened when an expert on the aurora, Prof. Eric Donovan at the University of Calgary, debunked that guess based on the fact that proton arcs are not visible to the human eye. This was backed up by a graduate student at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. Not knowing what else to call it, the dedicated aurora photographers named it Steve. No joke. (It comes from the animated movie, Over the Hedge.) The name has caught on, and now the internet is full of photographic examples of “Steve”. Here’s a time lapse video.

The Aurorasaurus Project has compiled a list of things we know about Steve. Our expert aurora professor matched up a known time and location of a Steve photograph with an overpass of the European Space Agency’s Swarm satellites and found this out:

“As the satellite flew straight though Steve, data from the electric field instrument showed very clear changes. The temperature 300 kilometres (185 miles) above Earth’s surface jumped by 3,000°C (5,400 degrees Fahrenheit) and the data revealed a 25 kilometre (15.5 mile) wide ribbon of gas flowing westwards at about 6 km/s (3.7 miles per second) compared to a speed of about 10 m/s (32.8 feet per second) either side of the ribbon.”

So, while we don’t exactly know what causes “Steve”, we do know that it is relatively common. (Do that Google Image Search for “proton arc” again for proof.) And we know it’s not a proton arc. Of course, the question that is relevant to us on this blog is: Can the VIIRS Day/Night Band see Steve?

There was a significant geomagnetic storm 22-23 April 2017 that may provide the answer. One of the Alberta Aurora Chasers (our dedicated group of aurora photographers) took this picture and, in the comments, noted the location (Lake Minnewanka, Alberta) and approximate time (“maybe 12:30″ AM on the 22nd). Compare that with the nearest Day/Night Band image:

VIIRS Day/Night Band image (08:12 UTC 22 April 2017)

VIIRS Day/Night Band image (08:12 UTC 22 April 2017)

I put a gold star on there to indicate the location of Lake Minnewanka. Don’t see it? Here’s a close-up:

VIIRS Day/Night Band image above zoomed-in on Lake Minnewanka.

VIIRS Day/Night Band image above zoomed-in on Lake Minnewanka. The gold star indicates the location of the lake.

Unfortunately, Lake Minnewanka is outside the VIIRS swath. But, Aurorasaurus says Steve is often hundreds or thousands of miles long, and oriented east-west, so it should extend into the VIIRS swath. Now, this VIIRS image was taken at about 2:15 AM local time, almost two hours after the photograph was taken. Aurorasaurus also says Steve is visible on the order of minutes, “up to 20 minutes or more”. So, maybe Steve disappeared in the time between the two images. I certainly don’t see any straight or smooth arc of light near the star that resembles Steve. Although, just north of Calgary (the closest city within the VIIRS swath to Lake Minnewanka) there is faint evidence of aurora light, and it is on the equator-ward side of the aurora, which is consistent with previous observations.

The streaks of light visible near Calgary (and general streakiness across the whole aurora) are due to the way the VIIRS instrument scans the scene and the high-temporal variability of the aurora, which we’ve discussed before. But, as I mentioned, these streaks don’t extend for hundreds or thousands of miles.

Maybe, VIIRS had better luck on the next overpass (~3:55 AM local time):

VIIRS Day/Night Band image (09:53 UTC 22 April 2017)

VIIRS Day/Night Band image (09:53 UTC 22 April 2017)

Again, nothing jumps out to say, “Aha! That’s Steve!” So, was Steve there and VIIRS failed to see it? Or, was Steve not there at the time of the VIIRS overpass? The answer to that depends in part on the definition of “purple”.

Is Steve really “purple” as people describe? Or, is it violet? Wikipedia actually has a good section on this (at least, until someone edits it). There’s also the page discussing the “Line of Purples“. The problem stems from the fact that violet is a color similar to purple, but is physically very different. Violet is the name given to a specific wavelength range of light, specifically the visible portion of the spectrum less than 450 nm. Purple is a combination of blue and red wavelengths – blue being wavelengths between ~450 nm and ~495 nm and red being anything visible above ~620 nm. Violet and purple look similar to us because the cone cells in our eyes have a similar response to both colors. However, in the RGB color space of the computer you’re viewing this on, and in the color cameras used to take pictures of Steve, violet is impossible to duplicate. This is because violet is not a combination of red, green and blue – it’s its own wavelength. The red, green and blue light emitting diodes (or phosphors on a plasma screen) don’t emit violet wavelengths. Your camera stores the information it collects in RGB color space, too, and has to approximate violet the same way your computer does – by making it a bluer shade of purple. Depending on the camera, the detectors used may not even be sensitive to violet light.

So, what does this mean for VIIRS? The Day/Night Band is not sensitive to radiation at wavelengths shorter than ~500 nm, which includes blue and violet. But, it is sensitive to red and beyond – up to ~900 nm. So, if Steve really is purple, the Day/Night Band will only be sensitive to the red component of it. (It would be more faint, but VIIRS would likely be sensitive to it, given that it is sensitive to airglow, which is much more faint than the aurora.) If Steve is really violet, than the Day/Night Band won’t see it at all.

So, can the Day/Night Band detect Steve? I can’t answer that based on this information. We will have to wait for another dedicated aurora photographer to take a picture of Steve at a time and place when VIIRS is directly overhead. Feel cheated by that? Just enjoy the images of the aurora above. And, here are a few more from this event:

VIIRS Day/Night Band image (11:34 UTC 22 April 2017)

VIIRS Day/Night Band image (11:34 UTC 22 April 2017)

VIIRS Day/Night Band image (07:53 UTC 23 April 2017)

VIIRS Day/Night Band image (07:53 UTC 23 April 2017)

VIIRS Day/Night Band image (09:34 UTC 23 April 2017)

VIIRS Day/Night Band image (09:34 UTC 23 April 2017)

Don’t forget to click on them to see the full resolution!

December Fluff

By now, you probably know the drill: a little bit of discussion about a particular subject, throw in a few pop culture references, maybe a video or two, then get to the good stuff – high quality VIIRS imagery. Then, maybe add some follow-up discussion to emphasize how VIIRS can be used to detect, monitor, or improve our understanding of the subject in question. Not today.

You see, VIIRS is constantly taking high quality images of the Earth (except during orbital maneuvers or rare glitches). There isn’t enough time in a day to show them all, or go into a detailed discussion as to their relevance. And, nobody likes to read that much anyway. So, as we busily prepare for the upcoming holidays, we’re going to skip the in-depth discussion and get right to the good stuff.

Here then is a sample of interesting images taken by VIIRS over the years that weren’t featured on their own dedicated blog posts. Keep in mind that they represent the variety of topics that VIIRS can shed some light on. Many of these images represent topics that have already been discussed in great detail in previous posts on this blog. Others haven’t. It is important to keep in mind… See, I’m starting to write too much, which I said I wasn’t going to do. I’ll shut up now.

Without further ado, here’s a VIIRS Natural Color image showing a lake-effect snow event that produced a significant amount of the fluffy, white stuff back in November 2014:

VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels M-5, M-7 and M-10 (18:20 UTC 18 November 2014)

VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels M-5, M-7 and M-10 (18:20 UTC 18 November 2014)

As always, click on the image to bring up the full resolution version. Did you notice all the cloud streets? How about the fact that the most vigorous cloud streets have a cyan color, indicating that they are topped with ice crystals? The whitish clouds are topped with liquid water and… Oops. I’m starting to discuss things in too much detail, which I wasn’t going to do today. Let’s move on.

Here’s another Natural Color RGB image using the high-resolution imagery bands showing a variety of cloud streets and wave clouds over the North Island of New Zealand:

VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels I-1, I-2 and I-3 (02:55 UTC 3 September 2016)

VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels I-1, I-2 and I-3 (02:55 UTC 3 September 2016)

Here’s a Natural Color RGB image showing a total solar eclipse over Scandinavia in 2015:

VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels M-5, M-7 and M-10 (10:06 UTC 20 March 2015)

VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels M-5, M-7 and M-10 (10:06 UTC 20 March 2015)

Here’s a VIIRS True Color image and split-window difference (M-15 – M-16) image showing volcanic ash from the eruption of the volcano Sangeang Api in Indonesia in May 2014:

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (06:20 UTC 31 May 2014)

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (06:20 UTC 31 May 2014)

VIIRS split-window difference (M-15 - M-16) image (06:20 UTC 31 May 2014)

VIIRS split-window difference (M-15 – M-16) image (06:20 UTC 31 May 2014)

Here’s a VIIRS True Color image showing algae and blowing dust over the northern end of the Caspian Sea (plus an almost-bone-dry Aral Sea):

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (09:00 UTC 18 May 2014)

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (09:00 UTC 18 May 2014)

Here is a high-resolution infrared (I-5) image showing a very strong temperature gradient in the Pacific Ocean, off the coast of Hokkaido (Japan):

VIIRS I-5 (11.45 um) image (03:45 UTC 12 December 2016)

VIIRS I-5 (11.45 um) image (03:45 UTC 12 December 2016)

The green-to-red transition just southeast of Hokkaido represents a sea surface temperature change of about 10 K (18 °F) over a distance of 3-5 pixels (1-2 km). This is in a location that the high-resolution Natural Color RGB shows to be ice- and cloud-free:

VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels I-1, I-2 and I-3 (03:45 UTC 12 December 2016)

VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels I-1, I-2 and I-3 (03:45 UTC 12 December 2016)

Here’s a high-resolution infrared (I-5) image showing hurricanes Madeline and Lester headed toward Hawaii from earlier this year:

VIIRS I-5 (11.45 um) image (22:55 UTC 30 August 2016)

VIIRS I-5 (11.45 um) image (22:55 UTC 30 August 2016)

Here are the Fire Temperature RGB (daytime) and Day/Night Band (nighttime) images of a massive collection of wildfires over central Siberia in September 2016:

VIIRS Fire Temperature RGB composite of channels M-10, M-11 and M-12 (05:20 UTC 18 September 2016)

VIIRS Fire Temperature RGB composite of channels M-10, M-11 and M-12 (05:20 UTC 18 September 2016)

VIIRS Day/Night Band image (19:11 UTC 18 September 2016)

VIIRS Day/Night Band image (19:11 UTC 18 September 2016)

Here is a 5-orbit composite of VIIRS Day/Night Band images showing the aurora borealis over Canada (August 2016):

Day/Night Band image composite of 5 consecutive VIIRS orbits (30 August 2016)

Day/Night Band image composite of 5 consecutive VIIRS orbits (30 August 2016)

Here is a view of central Europe at night from the Day/Night Band:

VIIRS Day/Night Band image (01:20 UTC 21 September 2016)

VIIRS Day/Night Band image (01:20 UTC 21 September 2016)

And, finally, for no reason at all, here’s is a picture of Spain wearing a Santa hat (or sleeping cap) made out of clouds:

VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels M-5, M-7 and M-10 (13:05 UTC 18 March 2014)

VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels M-5, M-7 and M-10 (13:05 UTC 18 March 2014)

There you have it. A baker’s ten examples showing a small sample of what VIIRS can do. No doubt it will be taking more interesting images over the next two weeks, since it doesn’t stop working over the holidays – even if you and I do.

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.

Sea-effect Snow

Take a look at this image:

Photo credit: İskender Şengör via Severe Weather Europe on Facebook

Photo credit: İskender Şengör via Severe Weather Europe on Facebook

Is this picture from A) the Keweenaw Peninsula of Michigan in 1978? B) Orchard Park, New York in November 2014 (aka “Snowvember”)? or C) İnebolu, Turkey from just last week?

If you pay attention to details, you will have noticed that I credited İskender Şengör with the picture and properly surmised that the answer is C. If you don’t pay attention to details, get off my blog! The details are where all the interesting stuff happens! You’d never be able to identify small fires or calculate the speed of an aurora  or explain the unknown without paying attention to details.

If you follow the weather (or social media), you probably know about lake-effect snow. (Who can forget Snowvember?) But, have you heard of sea-effect snow?

Areas downwind of the Great Lakes get a lot more snow than areas upwind of the Lakes. I was going to explain why in great detail, but this guy saved me a lot of time and effort. (I have since been notified that much of the material in that last link was lifted from a VISIT Training Session put together by our very own Dan B. You can watch and listen to that training session here.) The physical processes that cause lake-effect snow are not limited to the Great Lakes, however. Anywhere you have a large body of relatively warm water (meaning it doesn’t freeze over) with episodes of very cold winds in the winter you get lake-effect or sea-effect snow.

When you think of the great snowbelts of the world, you probably don’t think of Turkey – but you should! Arctic air outbreaks associated with strong northerly winds blowing across the Black Sea can generate snow at the same rate as Snowvember or Snowpocalypse or Snowmageddon or any other silly name that the media can come up with that has “snow” in it (Snowbruary, Snowtergate aka Frozen-Watergate, Snowlloween, Martin Luther Snow Day, Snowco de Mayo, Snowth of July… Just remember, I coined all of these phrases if you hear them later). Plus, the Pontic Mountains provide a greater upslope enhancement than the Tug Hill Plateau in Upstate New York.

One such Arctic outbreak occurred from 7-9 January 2015, resulting in the picture above. Parts of Turkey received 2 meters (!) of snow (78 inches to Americans) in a 2-3 day period, as if you couldn’t tell from that picture or this one.

From satellites, sea-effect snow looks just like lake-effect snow. (Duh! It’s the same physical process!) Here’s a VIIRS “True Color” image of the lake-effect snow event that took place last week on the Great Lakes:

VIIRS "True Color" RGB composite, taken 19:24 UTC 7 January 2015

VIIRS “True Color” RGB composite, taken 19:24 UTC 7 January 2015.

Wait – that’s no good! We need to be able to distinguish the snow from the clouds. Let’s try that again with the “Natural Color” RGB composite:

VIIRS "Natural Color" RGB composite, taken 19:24 UTC 7 January 2015

VIIRS “Natural Color” RGB composite, taken 19:24 UTC 7 January 2015.

That’s better. Notice how the clouds are formed right over the lakes and how the clouds organize themselves into bands called “cloud streets“. The same features are visible in the sea-effect snow event over Turkey (from one day later):

VIIRS "Natural Color" RGB composite, taken 10:36 UTC 8 January 2015

VIIRS “Natural Color” RGB composite, taken 10:36 UTC 8 January 2015.

Look at how much of Turkey is covered by snow! (Most of that snow cover is from the low pressure system that passed over Turkey a couple days before the sea-effect snow machine kicked in.) And – *cough* attention to details *cough* – you can even see snow over Greece and more sea-effect snow on Crete. There’s also snow down in Syria, Lebanon and Israel (Israel is off the bottom of the image), which is bad news for Syrian refugees.The heavy snow has shut down thousands of roads, closed schools and businesses, and was even the source of a political scandal.

But, on the plus side, the Arctic outbreak in the Middle East brings a unique opportunity to see palm trees covered in snow. And, how often do you get to see the deserts of Saudi Arabia covered in snow? (EUMETSAT has provided more satellite images of this event at their Image Library.)

Take another look at that image over the Black Sea. See how the biggest snow band extends south (and curving to the southeast) from the southern tip of the Crimean Peninsula? That is an example of how topography impacts these snow events. Due to differences in friction, surface winds are slightly more backed over land than over water, therefore areas of enhanced surface convergence exist downwind of peninsulas. The snow bands are more intense in these regions of enhanced convergence. There are also bigger than normal snow bands downwind of the easternmost and westernmost tips of Crimea, and extending south from every major point along the west coast of the Black Sea. This is not a coincidence. Land-sea (or land-lake) interactions explain this. Go back and listen to the VISIT training session for more information.

Sea-effect snow affects other parts of the globe as well. It’s why the western half of Honshu (the big island of Japan) and Hokkaido are called “Snow Country“. Japan was also hit with a major sea-effect snowstorm last week and, of course, VIIRS caught it:

VIIRS "Natural Color" RGB composite, taken 03:48 UTC 8 January 2015

VIIRS “Natural Color” RGB composite, taken 03:48 UTC 8 January 2015.

See the clear skies over Korea and the cloud streets that formed over the Sea of Japan? Classic sea-effect clouds. You can even see snow all along the west coast of Honshu in between the breaks in the clouds. Topographic impacts are once again visible. Notice the intense snow band extending southeast from the southern tip of Hokkaido/northern tip of Honshu similar to the super-strength snow band off of Crimea. And there’s another one downwind of the straits between Kyushu and Shikoku. Another detail in this image you should have noticed is the impact that Jeju Island has on the winds and clouds. Those are classic von Kármán vortices which we have discussed before.

Fortunately, 8 January 2015 was near a full moon, so the Day/Night Band was able to capture a great image of these von Kármán vortices:

VIIRS Day/Night Band image, taken 18:09 UTC 7 January 2015

VIIRS Day/Night Band image, taken 18:09 UTC 7 January 2015.

So, to the people of the Great Lakes: Remember you’re not alone. There are people in Turkey and Japan who know what you go through every winter.

 

UPDATE #1: While I was aware (and now you are aware) that sea-effect snow can impact Cape Cod, it was brought to my attention that there is a sea-effect snow event going on there today (13 January 2015). Here’s what VIIRS saw:

VIIRS "Natural Color" RGB composite, taken 17:29 UTC 13 January 2015

VIIRS “Natural Color” RGB composite, taken 17:29 UTC 13 January 2015.

According to sources at the National Weather Service, some places have received 2-3 cm (~ 1 inch) of snow in a four-hour period. It’s not the same as shoveling off your roof in snow up to your neck, but it’s something!

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.