B-31 and the Pine Island Glacier

Nope. This post is not about a warplane, an alcoholic beverage or a “New Wave” band from the 1970s. (Those are all B-52s.) And I’m not talking about a county road in Michigan or a New York City bus line. B-31 is the rather bland name given to the massive iceberg that just broke off from the Pine Island Glacier in Antarctica. (Of course, if you tried to name every chunk of ice floating around Antarctica, how long would it take you to run out of names and just switch to random letters and numbers?)

This particular chunk of ice is special, however, as it has been described as the size of a city. Now, as a scientist, I have to say that the size of a city is a terrible unit of measurement. How big a city are we talking about? I suspect people who live in one of the ten largest cities in the world would laugh at what the people of Wyoming call a “city”. And are we talking the size of the greater metropolitan area or just what is within the city limits?

The article that describes B-31 as the size of city mentioned that it was roughly the size of Singapore, or twice the size of Atlanta. Those seem like odd choices for comparison. How many of you have a good idea of what the land area is of Singapore? And twice the size of Atlanta? They could have used New York City, which has just over twice the land area of Atlanta and people are probably more familiar with New York City. In any case, all of these size estimates have errors.

The original estimate came from this NASA MODIS image and associated caption, which put the size of B-31 as 35 km x 20 km. Now, that’s 700 km2 assuming the iceberg is a perfect rectangle, which you can see in the image that it isn’t. Singapore has a land area of 714 km2, while New York City is 768 km2 and Atlanta is 341 km2 (these are “within the city limits” numbers, not the size of the greater metropolitan area). Since the iceberg is actually smaller than the 35 km x 20 km rectangle based on the widest and longest dimensions of the iceberg, maybe “twice the size of Atlanta” is the most accurate estimate.

Anyway, MODIS is not the only satellite instrument out there capable of viewing B-31. Landsat-8 saw it in much higher resolution in another post from NASA. And, of course this entire blog is about what VIIRS can see. Now, VIIRS doesn’t have the resolution of Landsat or the highest-resolution channels on MODIS, but VIIRS has the Day/Night Band, allowing us to see the iceberg both day and night (at visible wavelengths).

To show why that is important, take a look at the infrared image (M-15, 10.7 µm) below. Images in the “infrared window” (the N-band window, according to this site) used to be the only way to detect surface features and clouds at night. At these wavelengths, the amount of radiation detected by the satellite is a function of the temperature of the objects the instrument is looking at. As always, to see the high resolution version of the image, click on it, then on the “1660×1706” link below the banner.

VIIRS IR image (M-15) taken 23:34 UTC 7 November 2013

VIIRS IR image (M-15) taken 23:34 UTC 7 November 2013

See that slightly darker gray area near the center of the image? That’s open water in Pine Island Bay, which is only slightly warmer than the ice and low clouds surrounding it. Otherwise, there isn’t much detail in this picture. What really stands out are the cold, high clouds that are highlighted by the color scale. Contrast this with a visible wavelength image from the same time (M-5, 0.67 µm):

VIIRS visible (M-5) image, taken 23:34 UTC 7 November 2013

VIIRS visible (M-5) image, taken 23:34 UTC 7 November 2013

The open water in Pine Island Bay shows up clear as day because, well, it is daytime and the ice and snow reflect a lot more sunlight back to the satellite than the open water does. Icebergs can easily be distinguished from the low clouds now. You can even see through some of the low clouds to identify individual icebergs that are not visible in the infrared image. The difference in reflectivity between the ice and water at visible wavelengths is a lot greater than the difference in brightness temperature in the 10-12 µm infrared wavelengths, and that contrast is what makes things more easily visible.

Now, it is summer down there and at these latitudes, the sun is up for most of the day (actually, all day for everywhere in this scene on the Summer Solstice, which occurred on 21 December 2013), so you could say that using the VIIRS Day/Night Band to look at this stuff is unnecessary. But, since VIIRS is on a polar-orbiting satellite, it views the poles a lot more frequently than where you or I live: every 101 minutes on average, instead of every 12 hours in the low and mid-latitudes. That means it may occasionally capture a nighttime image here or there during the short nights and will frequently capture images where the day/night terminator crosses through the scene and we still want to be able to see what’s going on then. And you need the Day/Night Band to do that.

For the first time on this blog, however, we’re not going to show the Day/Night Band data exactly. We’re going to show the Near Constant Contrast imagery product, which is produced from the Day/Night Band. You can read up more on the Near Constant Contrast product and how it’s related to the Day/Night Band here. At this point, we’ll refer to NCC and DNB rather than having to type out Near Constant Contrast and Day/Night Band all the time.

Here’s a NCC image from 7 November 2013 at 20:15 UTC where the Pine Island Glacier has been identified. B-31 is still attached to the glacier – it’s sticking out into the bay and, if you look at the high resolution version of the image, you may be able to see the crack where it has started to calve.

VIIRS Near Constant Contrast image from 20:15 UTC 7 November 2013

VIIRS Near Constant Contrast image from 20:15 UTC 7 November 2013. The Pine Island Glacier is identified.

Keep your eye on that spot as you watch this zoomed-in animation of NCC images starting from the above image to 03:06 UTC 18 November:

Animation of VIIRS NCC images of the Pine Island Glacier from 7-18 November 2013

Animation of VIIRS NCC images of the Pine Island Glacier from 7-18 November 2013

I should say that the above animation does not include images from every orbit. I’ve subjectively removed images that were too cloudy to see anything as well as images where the VIIRS swath didn’t cover enough of the scene. This left 25 images over the 11 day period. Even so, VIIRS captured the moment of B-31 breaking free quite well.

Imagine the sound that this 600+ km2 chunk of ice made as it broke free. I bet it sounded something like this glacier calving event in Greenland:

 

One of the articles linked to above mentioned the importance of tracking such a large iceberg, because it could impact ships in the area. (Just this week a ship got stranded in ice off the coast of Antarctica.) So, I decided to see if VIIRS could track it. The results are in the MP4 video clip linked to below. You may need an appropriate browser plug-in or add-on (or whatever your browser calls it) to be able to view the video.

Animation of VIIRS NCC images from 7 November – 26 December 2013 (.mp4 file)

That’s 50 days of relatively cloud-free VIIRS NCC images (7 November – 26 December 2013), compressed down to 29 seconds. Go ahead, watch the video more than once. Each viewing uncovers additional details. Notice how B-31 doesn’t move much after 10 December. Notice how ice blocks the entrance to Pine Island Bay at the beginning of the loop, then clears out by the end of the loop. Notice all the icebergs near the shore that are pushed or pulled or blown out to sea from about 20 December through the end of the loop. Notice that B-31 isn’t even the biggest chunk of ice out there. Notice the large ice sheet on the west side of Pine Island Bay that breaks up right at the end of the loop. In fact, here’s another zoomed-in animated GIF to make sure you notice it:

Animation of VIIRS NCC images from 20-26 December 2013

Animation of VIIRS NCC images from 20-26 December 2013

That area of ice is much larger than B-31! (Dare I say, as large as the state of Rhode Island? Probably not, because then you’ll just think of how Rhode Island is the smallest US state, so it can’t be very impressive. It’s also not very accurate since that estimate is based on eye-balling it and thinking it looks like it could be four times the size of B-31.)

Of course, we are heading towards the middle of summer in the Antarctic when the ice typically reaches its minimum extent. So the ice breaking up isn’t unusual. Plus, large calving events occur on the Pine Island Glacier every few years. But, the B-31 event is noteworthy because Pine Island Glacier holds about 5% of the total freshwater contained on Antarctica.  It’s also the site of an ongoing field experiment where researchers are investigating glacier-ocean interactions. You can read up on what it’s like to install instruments on a glacier while living in a tent on the coldest continent 1000 miles from any other human settlement in this article. (That article doesn’t say if any instruments are still stuck in B-31 and floating out to sea, though.) And, if you’re curious, Pine Island Glacier has its own Twitter account. So far, the conclusions are that Pine Island Glacier is thinning, receding and speeding up. Large calving events are just one piece of the puzzle, but an important piece to understand since they contribute to sea level rise.

The calving process of B-31 was first noticed by NASA researchers noticing a crack forming in Pine Island Glacier while flying over the area in October 2011 – before VIIRS was even launched. But, VIIRS was there to capture the end result of that crack two years later!

 

UPDATE (22 April 2014): B-31 has continued to drift towards the open ocean. Researchers at NASA have been monitoring the movement of the massive iceberg since it first calved, and have put together their own video here, which tracks B-31 from the time of my video above into mid-March 2014.

Chinese Super-Smog

No, not a Super-Smörg, super smog. Smog that is so thick, you can taste it. The smog in many parts of eastern China has been so bad this winter, it is literally “off-the-charts“. Based on our Environmental Protection Agency‘s not-very-intuitive Air Quality Index (see pages 13-16, in particular) any value above 300 is hazardous to everyone’s health. The scale doesn’t even go above 500 because the expectation is that the air could never get that polluted. Applying this scale to the air in Beijing, the local U.S. Embassy reported an Air Quality Index value of 755 on 13 January 2013. Visibility has been reduced to 100 m at times. This video (from 31 January 2013) gives a vivid description of the problems of the smog:

If that wasn’t bad enough, here’s video from NBC News where Brian Williams reveals a factory was on fire for three hours before anyone noticed because the smog was so thick!

Did you happen to notice in the beginning of the NBC video that the “air pollution is so bad that the thick smog can now be seen from space”? Of course, the satellite image shown in that clip came from MODIS. (It must have friends in high places. That, or people get the MODIS images out on their blogs less than two weeks after the event occurred, unlike this blog.) Needless to say, VIIRS has seen the smog, too, and it is terrible.

For comparison purposes, here’s what a clean air day looks like over eastern China:

VIIRS "true color" RGB composite of channels M-03, M-04 and M-05, taken 05:21 UTC 28 September 2012

VIIRS "true color" RGB composite of channels M-03, M-04 and M-05, taken 05:21 UTC 28 September 2012

This is a “true color” composite taken 05:21 UTC 28 September 2012. (As always, click on the image, then on the “2040×1552” link below the banner to see the full resolution image.) There appears to be some air pollution in that image (look near 33° N latitude between 112° and 116° E longitude), but it’s not that noticeable.

Here’s what it looks like when Beijing is reporting record levels of air pollution (04:56 UTC 14 January 2013):

VIIRS true color RGB composite of channels M-03, M-04 and M-05, taken 04:56 UTC 14 January 2013

VIIRS true color RGB composite of channels M-03, M-04 and M-05, taken 04:56 UTC 14 January 2013

You may have heard of a “brown cloud of pollution“. Here the clouds actually appear brown thanks to all that pollution. Notice the area around Shijiazhuang – the most polluted city in China – and how brown those clouds are in comparison to the clouds on the left and right edges of the image. Then look south from Shijiazhuang to where everything south and west of the cloud bank has a dull gray color. That is all smog! It’s enough to make anyone with a respiratory condition want to cough up a lung just from seeing this.

Now, this is a complicated scene with clouds, snow, ice and smog. So, to clear things up (in a manner of speaking), here is the same image with everything labelled:

VIIRS true color RGB composite of channels M-03, M-04, and M-05, taken 04:56 UTC 14 January 2013

VIIRS true color RGB composite of channels M-03, M-04, and M-05, taken 04:56 UTC 14 January 2013

The gray smog can be seen around Beijing as well, but it pales in comparison to the rest of eastern China. Think about that! Replay the videos above and consider that might not have even been the worst smog in China at the time!

Too bad there are a lot of clouds over the area. What does it look like on a “clearer” day? (“Clearer”, of course, refers to the amount of clouds, not air pollution.) It looks worse! The image below was taken at 04:32 UTC on 26 January 2013:

VIIRS true color RGB composite of VIIRS channels M-03, M-04, and M-05, taken 04:32 UTC 26 January 2013

VIIRS true color RGB composite of VIIRS channels M-03, M-04, and M-05, taken 04:32 UTC 26 January 2013

The area covered by smog rivals the area of South Korea, which is visible on the right side of the image. (One of the reports I linked to above put the figure at 1/7th of the land area of China covered by smog around this time, which is actually a lot bigger than South Korea!) I’m just counting the smog in the image that is thick enough to completely obscure the surface. There is likely smog that isn’t as obvious (and isn’t labelled) in that image. The snow between Shijiazhuang, Tianjin and Beijing is covered by smog that isn’t quite thick enough to totally obscure it. And the large area of snow south of Tianjin is likely covered with smog. (It sure is a lot dirtier in appearance than the snow near the top of the image.)

If you don’t believe my labels, the “pseudo-true color” or “natural color” RGB composite clearly identifies the low clouds (which usually appear a dirty, off-white color even without smog), ice clouds (pale cyan) and snow (vivid cyan):

VIIRS false color RGB composite of channels M-05, M-07 and M-10 (a.k.a. "natural color"), taken 04:32 UTC 26 January 2013

VIIRS false color RGB composite of channels M-05, M-07 and M-10 (a.k.a. "natural color"), taken 04:32 UTC 26 January 2013

Notice the smog in this image. It is an unholy grayish-greenish color with a value near 70-105-93 in R-G-B color space. The “natural color” composite is made from channels M-05 (0.67 µm, blue), M-07 (0.87 µm, green) and M-10 (1.61 µm, red), which are longer wavelengths than their “true color” counterparts. Longer wavelengths mean reduced scattering by atmospheric aerosols, so the higher green value may be due to the strong surface vegetation signal in M-07 being able to penetrate through the smog. (Either that or the smog is composed of some chemical compound that has a higher reflectivity value in M-07 than in the other two channels.)

I’ve looked at the EUMETSAT Dust, Daytime Microphysics and Nighttime Microphysics/Fog RGBs, which you might think would show super-thick smog and they don’t. At least, it’s not obvious.

The EUMESAT Dust RGB applied to VIIRS, valid 04:32 UTC 26 January 2013

The EUMESAT Dust RGB applied to VIIRS, valid 04:32 UTC 26 January 2013

The Dust RGB above uses M-14 (8.55 µm), M-15 (10.7 µm) and M-16 (12.0 µm) and requires there to be a large temperature contrast between the dust (cool) and the background surface (hot). Smog almost always occurs when there is a temperature inversion (the air at the ground is colder than the air above) so the necessary temperature contrast won’t exist.

The Daytime Microphysics RGB shows the smoggy areas are a slightly different color than other cloud-free surfaces, but that color can be confused with other non-smoggy surfaces. The clouds really stand out, though:

The EUMETSAT Daytime Microphysics RGB applied to VIIRS, valid 04:32 UTC 26 January 2013

The EUMETSAT Daytime Microphysics RGB applied to VIIRS, valid 04:32 UTC 26 January 2013

Perhaps, with a different scaling, the smog might stand out more.

The Nighttime Microphysics RGB from the night before (18:50 UTC 25 January 2013) is interesting. Notice the cloud identified by the letter “B” and the non-cloud next to it, “A”:

The EUMETSAT Nighttime Microphysics/Fog RGB applied to VIIRS, valid 18:50 UTC 25 January 2013

The EUMETSAT Nighttime Microphysics/Fog RGB applied to VIIRS, valid 18:50 UTC 25 January 2013

Now compare this with the Day/Night Band image from the same time:

VIIRS Day/Night Band image of eastern China, taken 18:50 UTC 25 January 2013

VIIRS Day/Night Band image of eastern China, taken 18:50 UTC 25 January 2013

This was a day before full moon. Thanks to the moon, clouds, snow and smog are visible in addition to the city lights. Points “A” and “B” have nearly identical brightness in the Day/Night Band, but only “B” shows up as a cloud in the Nighttime Microphysics RGB. These lighter areas around “A” and “B” are partially obscuring city lights, indicating “B” is a cloud, while “A” is smog. (If either was snow, you’d be able to see the city lights more clearly. See the lighter area northwest of Beijing, which is snow.)

Nothing sees super-smog like the true color composite, but the Day/Night Band will see it as long as there is enough moonlight. Smog as optically thick as a cloud… *hacking cough* … Yuck!

Copahue, the Stinky Volcano

On the border between Chile and Argentina sits the volcano Copahue. (If you say it out loud, it is pronounced “CO-pa-hway”.) In the local Mapuche language, copahue means “sulfur water”.  This name was given to the volcano as the most active crater contains a highly acidic lake full of sulfur.  An eruption in 1992 filled the area with “a strong sulfur smell.” Later eruptions have involved “pyroclastic sulfur” (molten hot sulfur ash) and highly acidic mudflows. That doesn’t sound very pleasant.

Right before Christmas, Copahue was at it again. It erupted on 22 December 2012, sending a cloud of sulfur ash into the atmosphere, and MODIS got there first. VIIRS got there 4 hours later and took this image:

VIIRS "true color" RGB composite of channels M-03, M-04 and M-05, taken 18:38 UTC 22 December 2012

VIIRS "true color" RGB composite of channels M-03, M-04 and M-05, taken 18:38 UTC 22 December 2012

This is a “true color” image just like the MODIS one in the link. Make sure you click on the image, then on the “3200×2304” link below the banner to see it in full resolution. Then see if you can spot the volcanic ash cloud from Copahue. I’ll give you a hint: it’s the only cloud that appears brownish-gray.

If you still can’t see it, here’s a zoomed-in image with a yellow arrow to help you out:

VIIRS "true color" RGB composite of the Copahue volcano, taken 18:38 UTC 22 December 2012

VIIRS "true color" RGB composite of the Copahue volcano, taken 18:38 UTC 22 December 2012

Now compare the ash cloud in the VIIRS image with the ash cloud in the MODIS image from 4 hours earlier. (This is easier to do if you can locate in the VIIRS image the lakes marked as “Embalse los Barreales” in the MODIS image.) There’s a lot less ash in the VIIRS image, right?

Not so fast. As the ash dispersed, the plume thinned out, making it harder to see against the brown background surface. But, that doesn’t mean that it’s not there. Here’s the “split window difference” image from VIIRS at the same time:

VIIRS "split window difference" image (M-15 - M-16) taken 18:38 UTC 22 December 2012

VIIRS "split window difference" image (M-15 - M-16) taken 18:38 UTC 22 December 2012

That whole black plume is volcanic ash detected by the split window difference. The yellow arrow points to Copahue and the ash plume that is visible in the true color image. The red arrow points to the ash plume that is not visible in the true color image, yet is detected by this simple channel difference (M-15 minus M-16). A victory for the split window technique!

It was also a victory for the EUMETSAT Dust RGB, which didn’t work for the 100-year-old ash cloud over Alaska. Here’s what that RGB composite looks like when applied to VIIRS:

EUMETSAT's Dust RGB composite applied to VIIRS from 18:38 UTC 22 December 2012

EUMETSAT's Dust RGB composite applied to VIIRS from 18:38 UTC 22 December 2012

It is interesting that the ash plume right over Copahue is tough to detect in this RGB composite because it is red, just like a lot of the other clouds. As the plume thins out away from the volcano, its color changes to a variety of pastels of pink and blue, and even appears to extend out over the Atlantic Ocean. Where clouds and ash coexist near the coast of Argentina, pixels show up orange and yellow and green (click to the high-resolution image to see that).

Why does the plume appear to extend into the Atlantic Ocean in the EUMETSAT Dust RGB, and not in the split window difference? It is due to the fact that the Dust RGB uses channel M-14 (8.55 µm), which is sensitive to absorption by sulfur dioxide (SO2) gas. The split window difference is better at detecting sulfuric ash particles, which may have mostly settled out of the atmosphere before reaching the Atlantic coast. There are likely still some ash particles in the plume, though – just not enough to show up easily in the split window difference. Detection of SO2 gas plumes has been used to infer the presence of volcanic ash.

Being able to see the location of the volcanic ash very important to pilots. Aircraft engines don’t work that well when they are sucking in particles of liquified sulfur and other abrasive and corrosive materials spit out by stinky volcanoes like Copahue.

End of Autumn in the Alps

Much of the United States has had a below-average amount of snow this fall (and below-average precipitation for the whole year). Look at how little snow cover there was in the month of November. Parts of Europe, however, have seen snow. It’s nice to know that it’s falling somewhere. But, can you tell where?

Here is a visible image (0.6 µm) from Meteosat-9, taken 12 December 2012 (at 12:00 UTC):

Meteosat-9 visible image of central Europe, taken 12:00 UTC 12 December 2012

Meteosat-9 visible image of central Europe, taken 12:00 UTC 12 December 2012. Image courtesy EUMETSAT.

And here’s the infrared image (10.8 µm) from the same time:

Meteosat-9 IR-window image of central Europe, taken 12:00 UTC 12 December 2012

Meteosat-9 IR-window image of central Europe, taken 12:00 UTC 12 December 2012. Image courtesy EUMETSAT.

These are images provided by EUMETSAT. Can you tell where the snow is? Or what is snow and what is cloud?

Here’s a much higher resolution image from VIIRS (zoomed in the Alps), taken only 3 minutes later:

VIIRS visible image of central Europe, taken 12:03 UTC 12 December 2012

VIIRS visible image (channel I-01) of central Europe, taken 12:03 UTC 12 December 2012

Now is it easy to differentiate clouds from snow? Just changing the resolution doesn’t help that much.

This has long been a problem for satellites operating in visible to infrared wavelengths. Visible-wavelength channels detect clouds based on the fact that they are highly reflective (just like snow). Infrared (IR) channels are sensitive to the temperature of the objects they’re looking at, and detect clouds because they are usually cold (just like snow). So, it can be difficult to distinguish between the two. If you had a time lapse loop of images, you’d most likely see the clouds move, while the snow stays put (or disappears because it is melting). But, what if you only had one image? What if the clouds were anchored to the terrain and didn’t move? How would you detect snow in these cases?

EUMETSAT has developed several RGB composites to help identify snow. The Daytime Microphysics RGB (link goes to PowerPoint file) looks like this:

Meteosat-9 "Daytime Microphysics" RGB composite of central Europe, taken 12:00 UTC 12 December 2012

Meteosat-9 "Daytime Microphysics" RGB composite of central Europe, taken 12:00 UTC 12 December 2012. Image courtesy EUMETSAT.

Snow is hot pink (magenta), which shows up pretty well. Clouds are a multitude of colors based on type, particle size, optical thickness, and phase. That whole PowerPoint file linked above is designed to help you understand all the different colors.

The Daytime Microphysics RGB uses a reflectivity calculation for the 3.9 µm channel (the green channel of the RGB). Without bothering to do that calculation, I’ve replaced the reflectivity at 3.9 µm with the reflectivity at 2.25 µm (M-11) when applying this RGB product to VIIRS, and produced a similar result:

VIIRS "Daytime Microphysics" RGB composite of the Alps, taken 12:03 UTC 12 December 2012

VIIRS "Daytime Microphysics" RGB composite of the Alps, taken 12:03 UTC 12 December 2012

Except for the wavelength difference of the green channel (and minor differences between the VIIRS channels and Meteosat channels), everything else is kept the same as the official product definition. Once again, the snow is pink, in sharp contrast to the clouds and the snow-free surfaces. We won’t bother to show the Nighttime Microphysics/Fog RGB (link goes to PowerPoint file) since this is a daytime scene.

EUMETSAT has also developed a Snow RGB (link goes to PowerPoint file):

Meteosat-9 "Snow" RGB composite of central Europe, taken 12:00 UTC 12 December 2012

Meteosat-9 "Snow" RGB composite of central Europe, taken 12:00 UTC 12 December 2012. Image courtesy EUMETSAT.

This also uses the reflectivity calculated for the 3.9 µm channel. Plus, it uses a gamma correction for the blue and green channels. Is it just me, or does snow show up better in the Daytime Microphysics RGB?

If you switch out the 3.9 µm for the 2.25 µm channel again and skip the gamma correction when creating this RGB composite for VIIRS, the snow stands out a lot more:

VIIRS "Snow" RGB (with modifications as explained in the text), taken 12:03 UTC 12 December 2012

VIIRS "Snow" RGB (with modifications as explained in the text), taken 12:03 UTC 12 December 2012

Now you have snow ranging from pink to red with gray land areas, black water and pale blue to light pink clouds. This combination of channels makes snow identification easier than the official “Snow RGB”, I think.

All of this is well and good but, for my money, nothing beats what EUMETSAT calls the “natural color” RGB. I have referred to it as the “pseudo-true color“. Here’s the low-resolution EUMETSAT image:

Meteosat-9 "Natural Color" RGB of central Europe, taken 12:00 UTC 12 December 2012. Image courtesy EUMETSAT.

And the higher resolution VIIRS image:

VIIRS "Natural Color" RGB of central Europe, taken 12:03 UTC 12 December 2012

VIIRS "Natural Color" RGB composite of channels M-5, M-7 and M-10, taken 12:03 UTC 12 December 2012

The VIIRS image above uses the moderate resolution channels M-5, M-7 and M-10, although this RGB composite can be made with the high-resolution imagery channels I-01, I-02 and I-03, which basically have the same wavelengths and twice the horizontal resolution. Below is the highest resolution offered by VIIRS (cropped down slightly to reduce memory usage when plotting the data):

VIIRS "Natural Color" RGB composite of channels I-01, I-02 and I-03, taken 12:03 UTC 12 December 2012

VIIRS "Natural Color" RGB composite of channels I-01, I-02 and I-03, taken 12:03 UTC 12 December 2012

Make sure to click on the image and then on the “2594×1955” link below the banner to see the image in full resolution.

This RGB composite is easier on the eyes and easier to understand. Snow has high reflectivity in M-5 (I-01) and M-7 (I-02) but low reflectivity in M-10 (I-03) so, when combined in the RGB image, it shows up as cyan. Liquid clouds have high reflectivity in all three channels so it shows up as white (or dirty, off-white). The only source of contention is that ice clouds, if they’re thick enough, will also show up as cyan.

Except for the cyan snow and ice, the “natural color” RGB is otherwise similar to a “true color” image. Vegetation shows up green, unlike the other RGB composites where it has been gray or purple or a very yellowish green. That makes it more intuitive for the average viewer. You don’t need to read an entire guide book to understand all the colors that you’re seeing.

Compare all of these RGB composites against the single channel images at the top of the page. They all make it easier to distinguish clouds from snow, although some work better than others. Now compare the VIIRS images with the Meteosat images. Which ones look better?

(To be fair, it’s not all Meteosat’s fault. The images provided by EUMETSAT are low-resolution JPG files [which is a lossy-compression format]. The VIIRS images shown here are loss-less PNG files, which are much larger files to have to store and they require more bandwidth to display.)

As a bonus (consider it your Christmas bonus), here are a few more high-resolution “natural color” images of snow and low clouds over the Alps. These are kept at a 4:3 width-to-height ratio and a 16:9 ratio, so they make ideal desktop wallpapers.

VIIRS "natural color" composite of channels I-01, I-02 and I-03, taken 12:29 UTC 14 November 2012

VIIRS "natural color" composite of channels I-01, I-02 and I-03, taken 12:29 UTC 14 November 2012. This is an ideal desktop wallpaper for 4:3 ratio monitors.

That was the 4:3 ratio image. Here’s the 16:9 ratio image:

VIIRS "natural color" composite of channels I-01, I-02 and I-03, taken 12:29 UTC 14 November 2012

VIIRS "natural color" composite of channels I-01, I-02 and I-03, taken 12:29 UTC 14 November 2012. This is an ideal desktop wallpaper for 16:9 ratio monitors.

Enjoy the snow (or be glad you don’t have to drive in it)!

The Case of the 100-year-old Ash Cloud

Lost in all the commotion caused by Hurricane Sandy, a curious event occurred on the other side of the country on 30 October 2012. A cloud of ash obscured the skies of Kodiak Island, Alaska, diverting flights in the region and forcing the people of Kodiak to stay inside or wear masks. Alaska has quite a few volcanoes, so this may not be a big thing to them except, this was no ordinary volcanic eruption: it was the leftovers of a volcanic eruption from 100 years ago!

The volcano that came to be known as Novarupta erupted on 6 June 1912. It was one of the largest volcanic eruptions of recorded history. It was 10 times more powerful than Mt. St. Helens with 100 times more ash. The explosion was heard more than 1100 km (700 miles) away in Juneau. The force of the eruption caused nearby Mt. Katmai to collapse on itself (10 km away). It formed the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes and, most importantly for us, covered the surrounding land with 150 m (500 ft) of ash.

This pile of ash – still there today – can be lifted by a stiff breeze (or, more appropriately, “strong breeze” or higher on the Beaufort wind scale), and blown pretty high off the ground (4000 ft according to the news report). This isn’t the first time this has happened. MODIS observed the same thing back in 2003.

So, what did VIIRS see? Here’s the “true color” image, the RGB composite of channels M-03 (0.488 µm, blue), M-04 (0.555 µm, green) and M-05 (0.672 µm, red):

VIIRS "true color" RGB composite of channels M-03, M-04 and M-05, taken 22:23 UTC 30 October 2012

VIIRS "true color" RGB composite of channels M-03, M-04 and M-05, taken 22:23 UTC 30 October 2012

Be sure (as with all the images) to click on the image, then on the link below the banner to see it at full resolution. (The link contains the dimensions of the full size image.)

The ash cloud (blowing right over the center of Kodiak Island) is not as obvious in this image as it was in the MODIS image in the link above, although it is visible. To be fair, the plume was much more optically thick in 2003, and there were fewer clouds and less snow to confuse it with.

Here is the false color (“pseudo-true color” or “natural color”) image, the RGB composite of channels M-05 (0.672 µm, blue), M-07 (0.865 µm, green) and M-10 (1.61 µm, red):

VIIRS false color RGB composite of channels M05, M-07 and M-10, taken 22:23 UTC 30 October 2012

VIIRS false color RGB composite of channels M05, M-07 and M-10, taken 22:23 UTC 30 October 2012

Hmmm. Once again, the ash plume is visible but not particularly noticeable. Is there a way to highlight the ash plume to make it easier to see?

EUMETSAT (the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites) has defined an RGB composite for detecting dust. Their product, which was developed primarily to detect dust storms over the Saharan desert, uses channels that are present (or similar to ones that are present) on VIIRS. This means we can apply the dust product for VIIRS as the difference between M-16 and M-15 (red), the difference between M-15 and M-14 (green) and M-15 by itself (blue), all in units of brightness temperature. If you do that, and use the same color scaling they use, you get this image:

The EUMETSAT Dust RGB composite applied to VIIRS for 22:23 UTC 30 October 2012

The EUMETSAT Dust RGB composite applied to VIIRS for 22:23 UTC 30 October 2012

The arrow points to the source region of the ash plume. In this RGB composite, dust shows up as hot pink (magenta), but it’s barely visible here. The reason is that this dust product is primarily useful where there is a large temperature contrast between the dust plume and the background surface, which we don’t have here.

A more common way to detect volcanic ash is to use the “split-window difference”. The “split-window difference” is the difference in brightness temperature between a 10.7-11.0 µm channel and a 12.0 µm channel. This difference is useful because volcanic ash has a difference of opposite sign to most everything else. Here’s what the split window difference (M-15 – M-16) looks like for this case:

VIIRS "Split-window difference" image from 22:23 UTC 30 October 2012

VIIRS "Split-window difference" image from 22:23 UTC 30 October 2012

This image has been scaled so that the colors range from -1 K (black) to +7 K (white). The ash plume stands out a bit more here by being much darker than the background. The only problem is, it isn’t perfect. Large amounts of water vapor, optically thick clouds, desert surfaces and boundary layer temperature inversions can all produce a negative difference (just like volcanic ash does).

These problems can be overcome to a certain extent by combining the “split-window difference” with a Principal Component Image (PCI) analysis technique. (This technique is too complicated to describe here but, if you have access to AMS journals, check out these journal papers.) Now, the ash plume is the only thing that’s black:

VIIRS PCI analysis image from 22:23 UTC 30 October 2012

VIIRS PCI split window analysis image from 22:23 UTC 30 October 2012. Image courtesy Don Hillger. Upside-down text courtesy McIDAS-X.

Notice the smaller plume identified by the orange arrow. This plume is not easy to identify in any of the previous images. The PCI technique works well. But, we’re not going to stop there.

Remember the dust plumes off the Cape Verde islands? They produced a strong signal in the difference between M-12 (3.7 µm) and M-15 (10.7 µm) due to solar reflection. Does a 100-year-old ash plume produce a similarly strong signal? See for yourself:

VIIRS channel difference image between M-12 and M-15 from 22:23 UTC 30 October 2012

VIIRS channel difference image between M-12 and M-15 from 22:23 UTC 30 October 2012

It does produce a signal, but it’s not as bright as the surrounding clouds. The color scale here ranges from -2 K (black) to +90 K (white).

M-06 (0.746 µm) is highly sensitive to anything that reflects solar radiation in the atmosphere or on the surface, which we learned from Hurricane Isaac. Here’s what the M-06 image looks like:

VIIRS channel M-06 image, taken 22:23 UTC 30 October 2012

VIIRS channel M-06 image, taken 22:23 UTC 30 October 2012

“Big deal,” you say. “None of those are better than the PCI analysis.” That may be true, but watch what happens when we combine M-06, the M-12 – M-15 image and the split-window difference image in a single RGB composite:

VIIRS RGB composite of M06 (blue), M12 - M15 (green) and M15 - M16 (red), taken 22:23 UTC 30 October 2012

VIIRS RGB composite of M06 (blue), M12 - M15 (green) and M15 - M16 (red), taken 22:23 UTC 30 October 2012

In this composite, blue values represent the M-06 reflectance scaled from 0 to 1.6, green values represent the brightness temperature difference between M-12 and M-15 scaled from -2 K to +90 K, and red values represent the brightness temperature difference between M-15 and M-16 scaled from -1 K to +7 K.

From a theoretical perspective, this RGB composite does exactly what you want: make the thing you’re trying to detect the only thing that is a certain color. For example, the ash plumes are the only things in this image that are green. From a practical perspective, however, this RGB composite doesn’t work so well. It only works because the ash plume is over water (otherwise M-06 wouldn’t be very useful). It only works during the day, where M-06 is available and the difference between M-12 and M-15 is significant (no solar component to M-12 at night).

Plus, the rainbow of colors is difficult to make sense of: green ash; clouds ranging from light blue to purple to orange (a function of optical thickness, particle size, and phase); bright purple snow; dark purple vegetation; maroon water. It’s not exactly pleasing to the eye. In contrast, the PCI analysis technique that uses the split-window difference works day and night, over ocean and over land. And it isn’t confusing to look at. Maybe we should have stopped when we got to the PCI technique. But then, we wouldn’t have learned anything new.