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.

Greenland Eddies and Swirls

Last time we visited Greenland, it was because VIIRS saw evidence of the rapid ice melt event in July 2012. We return to Greenland because of this visible image VIIRS captured on 18 October 2012:

VIIRS channel I-01 image taken 12:43 UTC 18 October 2012

VIIRS channel I-01 image taken 12:43 UTC 18 October 2012

This image was taken by the high-resolution visible channel, I-01 (0.64 µm), and was cropped down to reduce the file size. Greenland is in the upper-left corner of the image. The northwest corner of Iceland is visible in the lower-left corner of the image.

So, what’s with all the swirls off the coast of Greenland? Are they clouds swirled around by winds? Or some kind of sea serpent – perhaps a leviathan or a kraken? (Based on the descriptions, they would be big enough for VIIRS to see them.)

Sadly, for all you science fiction and fantasy fanatics, those swirls are just icebergs breaking up as they enter warmer water, the chunks of ice caught up in eddies in the East Greenland Current. This is easier to see when you look at the “true color” image below:

VIIRS "true color" RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 12:43 UTC 18 October 2012

VIIRS "true color" RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 12:43 UTC 18 October 2012

Make sure to click on the image, then on the “3200×1536” link below the banner to see the image at full resolution. Since the true color RGB composite is made from moderate resolution channels M-03 (0.488 µm, blue), M-04 (0.555 µm, green) and M-05 (0.672 µm, red), we can include more of the swath before we get into file size issues. That allows us to see the extent of the ice break-up along the Greenland coast.

There is a lot to notice in the true color image. The large icebergs at the top of the image breakup into smaller and smaller icebergs as they float down the east coast of Greenland, until they finally melt. These visible “swirls” (or “eddies” in oceanography terms) extend from 75 °N latitude down to 68 °N latitude where the ice disappears (melts).

The upper-right corner with missing data is on the night side of the “terminator” (the line separating night from day), where we lose the amount of visible radiation needed for these channels to detect stuff. (The Day/Night Band would still collect data, however, as it is much more sensitive to the low levels of visible radiation observed at night.)  See how the ice and the high clouds appear to get a bit more pink as you move from west (left) to east (right)? It’s the same reason cirrus clouds often look pink at sunset. The sun is setting on the North Atlantic and more of the blue radiation from the sun is scattered by the atmosphere than red radiation. The red radiation that’s left is then reflected off the clouds (and ice and snow) toward the satellite.

Just to prove that the swirls are indeed ice and not clouds, here’s the “pseudo-true color” (a.k.a. “natural color”) RGB composite made from channels M-05 (0.672 µm, blue), M-07 (0.865 µm, green) and M-10 (1.61 µm, red):

VIIRS natural color image of channels M-05, M-07 and M-10, taken 12:43 UTC 18 October 2012

VIIRS natural color image of channels M-05, M-07 and M-10, taken 12:43 UTC 18 October 2012

The deep blue color of the swirls in this RGB composite is indicative of ice, not clouds. These channels are not impacted by atmospheric scattering at any sun angle, though, so there is no change in the color of the clouds as you approach the terminator.

You may have also noticed the cloud streets downwind of the icebergs off the coast of Greenland. These clouds are formed in the same way as lake-effect clouds are in the Great Lakes. Cold, arctic air flowing south over the icebergs meets the relatively warm water of the open ocean. The moisture evaporating from the warmer waters condenses in the cold air and forms clouds.

How much warmer is that water? Here’s the high-resolution infrared (IR) image (I-05, 11.45 µm):

VIIRS channel I-05 image, taken 12:43 UTC 18 October 2012

VIIRS channel I-05 image, taken 12:43 UTC 18 October 2012

At ~375 m resolution at nadir, this is the highest resolution available in the IR on a non-classified satellite today. Look at all the structure in the cloud-free areas of the ocean! Lots of little eddies show up in the IR that are invisible in the visible and near-IR channels shown previously. The only eddies visible in the true color and natural color images are the ones that had ice floating in them. Here we see they extend much further south than the ice.

The ice-free water that is not obscured by clouds is 10-15 K warmer than where the icebergs are found. The eddies are caused by the clash between the southward flowing, cold Eastern Greenland Current and the northbound, warm North Atlantic Drift (the tail end of the Gulf Stream), which are important in the global transport of energy. They are not ship-sinking whirlpools caused by any krakens in the area – at least VIIRS didn’t observe any.

 

UPDATE (February 2013): Below is another image of the eddies and swirls off the eastern coast of Greenland. This “natural color” image was taken 13:34 UTC 15 February 2013:

VIIRS false color RGB composite of channels M-05, M-07 and M-10, taken 13:34 UTC 15 February 2013

VIIRS false color RGB composite of channels M-05, M-07 and M-10, taken 13:34 UTC 15 February 2013. Image courtesy Don Hillger.

Since it is winter, the ice extends further south along the coast before it melts. Once again, there is a lot of structure visible in the edge of the ice, where the East Greenland Current and North Atlantic Drift interact. Another thing to notice is the shadows. At the top of the image just right of center is Scoresby Sound, which is completely frozen over. Given that the sun is pretty low in the sky over Greenland in the winter (if it rises at all, since most of Greenland is north of the Arctic Circle), the mountains south of the Sound cast some pretty long shadows on the ice. It’s possible to use the length of the shadows with the solar zenith angle to estimate the height of those mountains (although there are more accurate ways to determine a mountain’s elevation from satellite). VIIRS provides impressive detail, even from the moderate resolution bands.

VIIRS and the Greenland Ice Melt

First, a preface: The purpose of this blog (and this blog post) is not to ignite some debate about global warming. This is about what one new satellite instrument has observed and the information it is providing to the scientific community.

With that out of the way, we can begin.

You may have heard on the news a story about the rapid ice melt that occurred in Greenland a couple weeks ago. Over a period of four days, the percentage of the surface of Greenland’s ice sheet that showed evidence that the ice was melting went from 40% to 97%. NASA’s Thomas Wagner does a good job explaining it in this interview. You’ll notice in the first link (from the Earth Times) that the rapid melt was first noticed by someone analyzing data from Oceansat-2. The ice melt was detected by its microwave scatterometer and was later confirmed by MODIS. Well, if MODIS can see this ice melt, surely VIIRS can see it, too. Let’s see.

First, let’s look at the false color RGB composite made from channels I-01 (0.64 µm, blue), I-02 (0.865 µm, green) and I-03 (1.61 µm, red). These images are comprised of 5 VIIRS granules stitched together and cropped slightly to get them in under the 15 MB limit for attachments to this blog. You really need to see them zoomed in to full resolution to see the kind of detail that the VIIRS bands provide. This isn’t even the full resolution of the satellite – these two images have been shrunk by a factor of 2 to get in under the file size limit, so it’s actually more like the resolution of the M-bands. (Click on the image, then click on the “2350 x 3372” link below the banner to see the full resolution image.)

Here’s what VIIRS saw on 8 July 2012, at 14:35 UTC:

False color RGB composite of VIIRS channels I-01, I-02 and I-03, taken 14:35 UTC 8 July 2012

False color RGB composite of VIIRS channels I-01, I-02 and I-03, taken 14:35 UTC 8 July 2012

And here’s what VIIRS saw five days later (14:42 UTC, 13 July 2012):

False color RGB composite of VIIRS channels I-01, I-02 and I-03, taken 14:42 UTC, 13 July 2012

False color RGB composite of VIIRS channels I-01, I-02 and I-03, taken 14:42 UTC, 13 July 2012

First thing to notice is that the low liquid clouds over Greenland really stand out in this composite above the ice sheet. As discussed before, this is one of the advantages of this kind of RGB composite. The second thing to notice, which is easier to see in the 13 July image, is that Iceland is the island that’s green, and Greenland is the island that is almost entirely ice. (Those silly Vikings and their misnomers!)

What is relevant here, though, is more subtle. The ice sheet appears to be a significantly darker blue over much of Greenland on 13 July than it does on 8 July. Notice also in these composites that large bodies of liquid water appear black. Now, there’s a lot going on here.

Small, liquid droplets (which are nearly spherical) that make up many of the clouds in the scene are very good at reflecting the solar radiation at all three wavelengths (0.64 µm, 0.865 µm, and 1.61 µm). When you combine high (and nearly equal) levels of red, green and blue on a computer monitor, you get something close to white. This is why the liquid clouds appear whitish.

The small ice particles (found in some of the clouds in these two images) are very good at reflecting radiation at 0.64 µm and 0.865 µm, but not as good at reflecting radiation at 1.61 µm. That means, for this RGB composite, we have high levels of blue and green, but low levels of red. This gives the pale bluish color known as cyan. Snow and ice on the ground are even worse at reflecting radiation at 1.61 µm (they absorb it), so you have a more pure color of cyan. (Although, snow and ice do reflect more than water at this wavelength.)

Liquid water (not in tiny spherical droplets) is not a good reflector at any of these wavelengths. Therefore, the low (and nearly equal) levels of red, green and blue give you black. As snow and ice melt, the reflectivity changes at each of these wavelengths (as the ice becomes more water-like), so the cyan color becomes darker.

It should be said that the primary purpose of the 1.61 µm channel is to aid in snow and ice detection. VIIRS actually has two of these channels: I-03 and M-10. In fact, you can see the effect of the melting ice a bit easier when looking at this channel alone. Here are the M-10 images of Greenland from 8 July and 13 July 2012:

VIIRS channel M-10 reflectance image of Greenland, taken 14:35 UTC 8 July 2012

VIIRS channel M-10 reflectance image of Greenland, taken 14:35 UTC 8 July 2012

VIIRS M-10 reflectance image of Greenland, taken 14:42 UTC 13 July 2012

VIIRS M-10 reflectance image of Greenland, taken 14:42 UTC 13 July 2012

In the first image from 8 July 2012, you can see that the clouds stand out as being bright (highly reflective) and the area of still-frozen ice is visible (a medium to dark gray, meaning somewhat reflective) over the most of the center of Greenland. On 13 July 2012, Greenland shows up as black – just like the surrounding ocean – except for small patches of land along the coast that are not underneath the massive ice sheet (and the clouds, of course). It is particularly noticeable in south-central Greenland. This decrease in reflectivity at 1.61 µm over this period of time is due to the snow and ice becoming more water-like as it is melting. So VIIRS can say a thing or two about the ice melt event.