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.

UHF/VHF

Take a second to think about what would happen if Florida was hit by four hurricanes in one month.

Would the news media get talking heads from both sides to argue whether or not global warming is real by yelling at each other until they have to cut to a commercial? Would Jim Cantore lose his mind and say “I don’t need to keep standing out here in this stuff- I quit!”? Would we all lose our minds? Would our economy collapse? (1: yes. 2: every man has his breaking point. 3: maybe not “all”. 4: everybody panic! AHHH!)

It doesn’t have to just be Florida. It could be four tropical cyclones making landfall anywhere in the CONUS (and, maybe, Hawaii) in a 1-month period. The impact would be massive. But, what about Alaska?

Of course, Alaska doesn’t get “tropical cyclones” – it’s too far from the tropics. But, Alaska does get monster storms that are just as strong that may be the remnants of tropical cyclones that undergo “extratropical transition“. Or, they may be mid-latitude cyclones or “Polar lows” that undergo rapid cyclogenesis. When they are as strong as a hurricane, forecasters call them “hurricance force” (HF) lows. And guess what? Alaska has been hit by four HF lows in a 1-month period (12 December 2015 – 6 January 2016).

With very-many HF lows, some of which were ultra-strong, we might call them VHF or UHF lows. (Although, we must be careful not to confuse them with the old VHF and UHF TV channels, or the Weird Al movie.) In that case, let’s just refer to them as HF, shall we?

The first of these HF storms was a doozy – tying the record for lowest pressure ever in the North Pacific along with the remnants of Typhoon Nuri. Peak winds with system reached 122 mph (106 kt; 196 k hr-1; 54 m s-1) in Adak, which is equivalent to a Category 2 hurricane!

Since Alaska is far enough north, polar orbiting satellites like Suomi-NPP provide more than 2 overpasses per day. Here’s an animation from the VIIRS Day/Night Band, one of the instruments on Suomi-NPP:

Animation of VIIRS Day/Night Band images of the Aleutian Islands (12-14 December 2015)

Animation of VIIRS Day/Night Band images of the Aleutian Islands (12-14 December 2015).

It’s almost like a geostationary satellite! (Not quite, as I’ll show later.) This is the view you get with just 4 images per day. (The further north you go, the more passes you get. The Interior of Alaska gets 6-8 passes, while the North Pole itself gets all 15.) Seeing the system wrap up into a symmetric circulation would be a thing of beauty, if it weren’t so destructive. Keep in mind that places like Adak are remote enough as it is. When a storm like this comes along, they are completely isolated from the rest of Alaska!

Here’s the same animation for the high-resolution longwave infrared (IR) band (I-5, 11.5 µm):

Animation of VIIRS I-5 images of the Aleutian Islands (12-14 December 2015)

Animation of VIIRS I-5 images of the Aleutian Islands (12-14 December 2015).

I’ve mentioned Himawari before on this blog. Well, Himawari’s field of view includes the Aleutian Islands. Would you like to see how this storm evolved with 10 minute temporal resolution? Of course you would.

Here is CIRA’s Himawari Geocolor product for this storm:

Here is a loop of the full disk RGB Airmass product applied to Himawari. Look for the storm moving northeast from Japan and then rapidly wrapping up near the edge of the Earth. This is an example of something you can’t do with VIIRS, because VIIRS does not have any detectors sensitive to the 6-7 µm water vapor absorption band, which is one of the components of the RGB Airmass product. The RGB Airmass and Geocolor products are very popular with forecasters, but they’re too complicated to go into here. You can read up on the RGB Airmass product here, or visit my collegue D. Bikos’ blog to find out more about this storm and these products.

You might be asking how we know what the central pressure was in this storm. After all, there aren’t many weather observation sites in this part of the world. The truth is that it was estimated (in the same way the remnants of Typhoon Nuri were estimated) using the methodology outlined in this paper. I’d recommend reading that paper, since it’s how places like the Ocean Prediction Center at the National Weather Service estimate mid-latitude storm intensity when there are no surface observations. I’ll be using their terminology for the rest of this discussion.

Less than 1 week after the first HF storm hit the Aleutians, a second one hit. Unfortunately, this storm underwent rapid intensification in the ~12 hour period where there were no VIIRS passes. Here’s what Storm #2 looked like in the longwave IR according to Himawari. And here’s what it looked like at full maturity according to VIIRS:

VIIRS DNB image (23:17 UTC 18 December 2015)

VIIRS DNB image (23:17 UTC 18 December 2015).

VIIRS I-5 image (23:17 UTC 18 December 2015)

VIIRS I-5 image (23:17 UTC 18 December 2015).

Notice that this storm is much more elongated than the first one. Winds with this one were only in the 60-80 mph range, making it a weak Category 1 HF low.

Storm #3 hit southwest Alaska just before New Year’s, right at the same time the Midwest was flooding. This one brought 90 mph winds, making it a strong Category 1 HF low. This one is bit difficult to identify in the Day/Night Band. I mean, how many different swirls can you see in this image?

VIIRS DNB image (13:00 UTC 30 December 2015)

VIIRS DNB image (13:00 UTC 30 December 2015).

(NOTE: This was the only storm of the 4 to happen when there was moonlight available to the DNB, which is why the clouds appear so bright. The rest of the storms were illuminated by the sun during the short days and by airglow during the long nights.) The one to focus on is the one of the three big swirls closest to the center of the image (just above and right of center). It shows up a little better in the IR:

VIIRS I-5 image (13:00 UTC 30 December 2015)

VIIRS I-5 image (13:00 UTC 30 December 2015).

The colder (brighter/colored) cloud tops are the clue that this is the strongest storm, since all three have similar brightness (reflectivity) in the Day/Night Band. If you look close, you’ll also notice that this storm was peaking in intensity (reaching mature stage) right as it was making landfall along the southwest coast of Alaska.

Storm #4 hit the Aleutians on 6-7 January 2016 (one week later), and was another symmetric/circular circulation. This storm brought winds of 94 mph (2 mph short of Category 2!) The Ocean Prediction Center made this animation of its development as seen by the Himawari RGB Airmass product. Or, if you prefer the Geocolor view, here’s Storm #4 reaching mature stage. But, this is a VIIRS blog. So, what did VIIRS see? The same storm at higher spatial resolution and lower temporal resolution:

Animation of VIIRS DNB images of the Aleutian Islands (6-7 January 2016)

Animation of VIIRS DNB images of the Aleutian Islands (6-7 January 2016).

Animation of VIIRS I-5 images of the Aleutian Islands (6-7 January 2016)

Animation of VIIRS I-5 images of the Aleutian Islands (6-7 January 2016).

This storm elongated as it filled in and then retrograded to the west over Siberia. There aren’t many hurricanes that do that after heading northeast!

So, there you have it: 4 HF lows hitting Alaska in less than 1 month, with no reports of fatalities (that I could find) and only some structural damage. Think that would happen in Florida?

(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).

Horrendous Haboob in the Heart and Heat of History’s Homeland

We mentioned India earlier this year due to a hellish heatwave. It’s only fair that we talk about one of the other cradles of civilization (human history) and another horrible weather-related h-word.

People have been living along the Nile River in northeastern Africa and on the Arabian Peninsula for thousands of years (dating back to the Paleolithic Era). And, every once in a while, a story comes along that makes you wonder why. I’m not talking about the never-ending human conflict that has plagued the region. I’m talking about the hostile climate. (Of course, it wasn’t always hostile. There have been periods of abundant moisture. Read this. Or this.)

If you’ve watched Raiders of the Lost Ark, you are no-doubt familiar with the ancient city of Tanis, and the story about it that was the basis of the whole plot of the movie. If you haven’t seen the movie: 1) shame on you; and, 2) watch this clip.

“The city of Tanis was consumed by the desert in a sandstorm that lasted a whole year.”

I hate to be the bearer of bad news but, that part of the story is false. No year-long sandstorm hit Tanis. And, despite rumors that the actual Ark is buried in Tanis, it has never been found. (Because it’s stored in a giant government warehouse! Duh!) Plus, Indiana Jones is a fictional character in a movie. But, the movie is not entirely false. According to this article, a major archaeological find did take place at Tanis right before World War II (led by a French archaeologist, no less), and very few people know about it because of the war. Plus, there really was an Egyptian Pharaoh named Shoshenq/Shishak.

Even if Tanis was not buried by a year-long sandstorm, that doesn’t mean nasty sandstorms don’t exist. In fact, most of the Middle East is still dealing with a massive sandstorm that lasted a whole week last week. This storm put Beijing’s air pollution to shame. In fact, the dust reached the highest concentrations ever recorded in Jerusalem since Israel became it’s own country in 1948. It was responsible for several fatalities. Here are some pictures. Here’s a video from Saudi Arabia. Here’s what it looked like in Jordan and Lebanon. And, of course, what follows is what the storm looked like in VIIRS imagery.

Since this dust storm lasted a whole week, we got plenty of VIIRS imagery of the event. It started on the afternoon of 6 September 2015, and here’s the first VIIRS True Color image of it:

VIIRS True Color image of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (10:06 UTC 6 September 2015)

VIIRS True Color image of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (10:06 UTC 6 September 2015)

Can you see it? (Click on the image to see the full resolution version.) A trained eye can spot it from this image alone. An untrained eye might have difficulty distinguishing it from the rest of the desert and sand. Look for the tan blob over Syria that is obscuring the view of the Euphrates river.

If you can see that, you can track it over the rest of the week:

Animation of VIIRS True Color images (6-12 September 2015)

Animation of VIIRS True Color images (6-12 September 2015)

This animation was reduced to 33% of it’s original size to limit the bandwidth needed to display it. It contains the afternoon overpasses (1 image per day) because you need sunlight to see things in true color. And, while it suffers from the fact that animated GIFs only allow 256 colors (instead of the 16,777,216 colors possible in the original images), you should be able to see the dust “explode” over Israel, Lebanon and Jordan over the next two days. It eventually advects over northwestern Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Cyprus during the rest of the week.

The last time we looked at a major dust storm, the dust was easy to see. It was blown out over the ocean, which is a nice, dark background to provide the contrast needed to see the dust. Here, the dust is nearly the same color as the background – because it is made out of what’s in the background. Is there a better way to detect dust in situations like this?

EUMETSAT developed an RGB composite explicitly for this purpose, and they call it the “Dust RGB.” And we’ve talked about it before. And, here’s what that looks like:

Animation of EUMETSAT Dust RGB images from VIIRS (6-12 September 2015)

Animation of EUMETSAT Dust RGB images from VIIRS (6-12 September 2015)

Since this RGB composite uses only infrared (IR) channels, it works at night (although not as well) so you can get twice as many images over this time period. It also makes dust appear hot pink. The background appears more blue in the daytime images, so the dust does stand out. But, the background becomes more pink/purple at night, so the signal is harder to see at those times. Still, you can see the dust spread from Syria to Egypt over the course of the week.

My colleagues at CIRA have developed another way to identify dust: DEBRA. DEBRA is an acronym for Dynamic Enhanced Background Reduction Algorithm. As the name implies, DEBRA works by subtracting off the expected background signal, thereby reducing the background and enhancing the signal of the dust. So, instead of trying to see brown dust over a brown background (i.e. True Color RGB) or trying to see hot pink dust over a pinkish/purplish background (i.e. EUMETSAT Dust RGB) you get this:

Animation of VIIRS "DEBRA Dust" images (6-11 September 2015)

Animation of VIIRS “DEBRA Dust” images (6-11 September 2015)

DEBRA displays dust as yellow over a grayscale background. The intensity of the yellow is related to the confidence that a given pixel contains dust. It could display dust as any color of the rainbow, but yellow was chosen specifically because there are fewer people that are colorblind toward yellow than any other type of colorblindness. That makes the dust very easy to see for nearly everyone. (Sorry, tritanopes and achromats.) One of the biggest complaints about RGB composites is that the 7-12% of the population that has some form of colorblindness have difficulty trying to see what the images are designed to show. (Since I’m so fond of RGB composites, I better check my white male trichromat privilege. Especially since, according to that last link, white males are disproportionately colorblind.) The point is: we now have a dust detection algorithm that works well with (most) colorblind people, and it makes dust easier to see even for people that aren’t colorblind. DEBRA also works at night, but I’ve only shown daytime images here to save on filesize.

The last two frames of the DEBRA animation show something interesting: an even more massive dust storm in northern Sudan and southern Egypt! Fortunately, fewer people live there, but anyone who was there at the time must have a story to tell about the experience. Here are closer up views of that Sudanese sandstorm (or should I say “haboob” since this is the very definition of the word?). First the True Color:

VIIRS True Color image (10:32 UTC 10 September 2015)

VIIRS True Color image (10:32 UTC 10 September 2015)

Next, the EUMETSAT Dust RGB:

VIIRS EUMETSAT Dust RGB image (10:32 UTC 10 September 2015)

VIIRS EUMETSAT Dust RGB image (10:32 UTC 10 September 2015)

And, finally DEBRA:

MSG-3 DEBRA Dust image (10:30 UTC 10 September 2015)

MSG-3 DEBRA Dust image (10:30 UTC 10 September 2015)

If you’re wondering why the DEBRA image doesn’t seem to line up with the other two, it’s because I cheated. The DEBRA image came from the third Meteosat Second Generation satellite (MSG-3), which is a geostationary satellite. The majority of the haboob was outside our normal VIIRS processing domain for DEBRA, so I grabbed the closest available MSG-3 image. It has much lower spatial resolution, but similar channels, so DEBRA works just as well. And, you don’t necessarily need high spatial resolution to see a dust storm that is ~ 1000 km across. What MSG-3 lacks in spatial resolution, it makes up for in temporal resolution. Instead of two images per day, you get 1 image every 15 minutes. Here is a long loop of MSG-3 images over the course of the whole week, where you can see both sandstorms: (WARNING: this loop may take a long time to load because it contains ~600 large images). Keep your eye on Syria early on, then on Egypt and Sudan. Both haboobs appear to be caused by the outflow of convective storms. Also, how many other dust storms are visible over the Sahara during the week? For comparison purposes, here’s a similar loop of EUMETSAT Dust images. (MSG-3 does not have True Color capability.)

These sandstorms have certainly made their impact: they’ve broken poor air quality records, killed people, made life worse for refugees, closed ports and airports, and even affected the Syrian civil war.  Plus, the storms coincided with a heatwave. Having +100 °F (~40 °C) temperatures, high humidity and not being able to breathe because of the dust sounds awful. Correction: it is awful. And, life goes on in the Middle East.

 

UPDATE #1 (17 September 2015): Here’s a nice, zoomed-in, animated GIF of the Syrian haboob as seen by the DEBRA dust algorithm, made from MSG-3 images:

Click to view 59 MB Animated GIF

UPDATE #2 (17 September 2015): Steve M. also tipped me off to another – even more impressive – haboob that impacted Iraq at the beginning of the month (31 August – 2 September 2015). Here’s an animation of the DEBRA view of it:

Click to view 28 MB Animated GIF

This dust storm was even seen at night by the Day/Night Band, thanks to the available moonlight:

VIIRS Day/Night Band image of Iraq (22:43 UTC 31 August 2015)

VIIRS Day/Night Band image of Iraq (22:43 UTC 31 August 2015)

Look at that cute little swirl. Well, it would be cute if it weren’t so hazardous.