Bárðarbunga, the Toxic Tourist Trap

Quick: what was the name of that Icelandic volcano that caused such a stir a few years ago? Oh, that’s right. You don’t remember. No one remembers. (Unless you live outside the U.S. in a place where you might have actually heard someone say the name correctly.) To Americans, it will forever be known as “That Icelandic Volcano” or “The Volcano That Nobody Can Pronounce” – even though it is possible to pronounce the name. Say it with me: Eye-a-Fiat-la-yo-could (Eyjafjallajökull).

Well, back at the end of August 2014 another volcano erupted in Iceland, and there is no excuse for not being able to pronounce this name correctly: Bárðarbunga. (OK, you have one excuse: use of the letter ð is uncommon outside of Iceland. In linguistics, ð is a “voiced dental fricative” which, in English, is a voiced “th”. “The” has a voiced “th”. “Theme” has an un-voiced “th” or, rather,  “voiceless dental non-sibilant fricative“.) Look, you don’t want to offend any Icelanders, so say it right:

“Bowr-thar-Bunga.” See, it’s easy to say. (You may see people who are afraid of the letter ð refer to the recent eruption as Holuhraun [pronounced “Ho-lu-roin”], because Bárðarbunga is part of the Holuhraun lava field. So be aware of that.)

I know what you’re going to ask: “What is so special about this volcano? I haven’t heard anything about it up to this point, so why should I care?” You haven’t heard anything about it because you don’t live in Iceland or in Europe, which is downwind of Iceland. And, why should you care? Let me count the ways in the rest of this blog post.

You probably have heard of Kīlauea (and have no trouble pronouncing that name) and the lava flow that inched its way towards the town of Pahoa. Kīlauea has been continuously erupting since 1983. Bárðarbunga erupted on 29 August 2014 and has been spewing lava ever since, which at this point, is over 100 days of non-stop erupting. It’s Iceland’s version of Kīlauea. (Hopefully, it won’t continue to erupt for another 30 years.)

Just like Kīlauea, Bárðarbunga is attracting tourists from all over the world. It seems every wannabe photographer and videographer has gone (or wants to go) to Iceland to try to come up with the next viral video showing the breathtaking lava flows. Seriously, do a search for Bardarbunga or Holuhraun on YouTube or vimeo and see how many results show up. Here’s a pretty typical example (filmed by someone from Iceland):

Want to join in the fun? Just grab your camera, head to Iceland, hire an airplane or helicopter pilot, and find the most dramatic music you can think of to go along with your footage. Watch out, though – the airspace around the volcano can be rather crowded. As this video shows, it can be hard to film the volcano without other aircraft getting in the way.

If photography is more your thing, here are the latest images of the eruption on Twitter. (Look for the pictures of Beyonce and Jay-Z. If Twitter is correct, they flew over the volcano for his birthday. Viewing the eruption has gone mainstream! You’re too late, hipsters! Good luck getting to the next volcanic eruption before it becomes cool.)

Back to the matter at hand: why you should care about Bárðarbunga. After its first 100 days of erupting, it has created a field of new lava (76 km2) that is larger than the island of Manhattan (59 km2). The volcano has been creating a toxic plume of SO2 for the last 100 days that is making it difficult to breathe. (Here are some of the known health effects of breathing SO2.) SO2 can ultimately be converted into sulfuric acid (acid rain), depending on the chemistry in the air around the volcano. And while it may not be producing as much ash as Eyjafjallajökull did, VIIRS imagery shows it is producing ash, which is a threat to aircraft.

If you follow this blog, you know the best RGB composite for detecting ash is the True Color composite. This is because the visible wavelength channels that make the composite are sensitive to the scattering of light by small particles, like dust, smoke and ash. Iceland is a pretty cloudy place, so it’s not always easy to spot the ash plume, so here it is at its most visible:

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 12:57 UTC 11 September 2014

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 12:57 UTC 11 September 2014. The red arrow points to the location of Bárðarbunga.

Click on the image (or any other image) to see the full resolution version. The red arrow shows the location of Bárðarbunga. In case you’re wondering, the borders drawn inside the island are IDL’s knowledge of the boundaries of lakes and glaciers (jökull in Icelandic). The big one just south of the red arrow is Vatnajökull – the largest glacier in Europe and one of three national parks in Iceland. (If you want to go there, be aware of closures due to volcanic activity.)

See the ash plume extending from the red arrow to the east-northeast out over the Atlantic Ocean? Now, try to find the ash plume in this animation of True Color images from 29 August to 14 October 2014:

Animation of VIIRS True Color images of Iceland 29 August - 14 October 2014

Animation of VIIRS True Color images of Iceland 29 August – 14 October 2014

As with most of my animations, I have selectively removed images where it was too cloudy to see anything. Sometimes, the steam from the volcano mixes with the ash to make its own clouds, much like a pyrocumulus. Watch for the ash to get blown to the northwest and then southwest in early October. In case you can’t see it, here’s a static example:

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 12:15 UTC 10 October 2014

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 12:15 UTC 10 October 2014. The red arrow shows the location of Reykjavik.

This time, the red arrow shows Reykjavik, the nation’s capitol and likely only city in Iceland you’ve heard of. The ash plume is pretty much right over Reykjavik!

Over the course of the first 100 days, no place in Iceland has been kept safe from the ash plume. But, that’s not the only threat from Bárðarbunga: I also mentioned SO2. If you recall from our look at Copahue (Co-pa-hway – say it right!) the EUMETSAT Dust algorithm is sensitive to SO2. So, can we detect the toxic sulfur dioxide plume from Bárðarbunga? Of course! But, it does depend on cloudiness and just how much (and how high) SO2 is being pumped into the atmosphere.

If you read my post on Copahue, you should have no trouble picking out the sulfur dioxide plume in this image of Bárðarbunga:

EUMETSAT Dust RGB composite applied to VIIRS, 12:57 UTC 11 September 2014

EUMETSAT Dust RGB composite applied to VIIRS, 12:57 UTC 11 September 2014

This image is from the same time as the first True Color image above, when the plume was very easy to see. Also note the large quantity of contrails (aka “chemtrails” to the easily misled). Those are the linear black streaks west of Iceland. If you’re confident in your ability to see the sulfur dioxide, see how often you can pick it out in this animation:

Animation of EUMETSAT Dust RGB images from VIIRS (29 August - 10 October 2014)

Animation of EUMETSAT Dust RGB images from VIIRS (29 August – 10 October 2014)

Some detail is lost because an RGB composite may contain as many as 16 million colors, while the .gif image standard only allows 256. But, you can still see the pastel-colored SO2 plume, which almost looks greenish under certain conditions due to interactions with clouds. Also note the volcano itself appears cyan – the hottest part of the image has a cool color! Unusual in a composite that makes almost everything appear red or pink.

If you want to see the volcano look more like a hot spot, here are animations of the shortwave IR (M-13, 4.0 µm) and the Fire Temperature RGB composite (which I promote whenever I can). I should preface these animations by saying I have not removed excessively cloudy images but, at least 80% of the days have two VIIRS afternoon overpasses and, to reduce filesizes, I have kept only one image per day:

Animation of VIIRS M-13 images of Iceland (29 August - 15 October 2014)

Animation of VIIRS M-13 images of Iceland (29 August – 15 October 2014)

The Fire Temperature RGB is made up of M-10 (1.6 µm; blue), M-11 (2.25 µm; green) and M-12 (3.7 µm; red):

Animation of VIIRS Fire Temperature RGB images of Iceland (29 August - 15 October 2014)

Animation of VIIRS Fire Temperature RGB images of Iceland (29 August – 15 October 2014)

No surprise, molten rock is quite hot! That area of lava has saturated my color table for M-13 and it saturated the Fire Temperature RGB. As I’ve said before, only the hottest fires show up white in the Fire Temperature RGB and lava is among the hottest things you’ll see with VIIRS. Sometimes, you can see the heat from the volcano through clouds (and certainly through the ash plume)! It’s also neat to watch the river of lava extend out to the northeast and then cool.

To quantify it a bit more, the first day VIIRS was able to see the hot spot of Bárðarbunga (31 August 2014), the M-13 brightness temperature was the highest I’ve seen yet: 631.99 K. The other midwave-IR channels (M-12 and I-4; 3.7 and 3.74 µm, respectively) saturate at 368 K. The Little Bear Fire (2012) peaked at 588 K and that fire was hot enough to show up in M-10 (1.6 µm) during the day, so it’s no wonder that we’ve saturated the Fire Temperature RGB.

There’s one more interesting way to look at Bárðarbunga using a new RGB composite. When I was first tipped to this event, I saw this image from NASA, which you can read more about here. That image was taken by the Operational Land Imager (OLI) from Landsat-8 and is a combination of “green, near-infrared and shortwave infrared” channels. Applying this to VIIRS, that combination becomes M-4 (0.55 µm), M-7 (0.87 µm) and M-11 (2.25 µm), which is similar to the Natural Color composite (M-5, 0.64 µm; M-7, 0.87 µm; M-10, 1.61 µm) except for a few notable differences. M-4 is more sensitive to smoke and ash and vegetation than M-5. And M-11 is more sensitive to fires and other hotspots than M-10.

The differences are subtle, but you can see them in this direct comparison:

Comparison between VIIRS "Natural Color" and "False Color with Shortwave IR" RGB composites (12:38 UTC 14 October 2014)

Comparison between VIIRS “Natural Color” and “False Color with Shortwave IR” RGB composites (12:38 UTC 14 October 2014)

NASA calls this RGB composite “False Color with Shortwave Infrared,” although I’m sure there has to be a better name. Any suggestions?

Most of my images and loops have come from the first 45 days after eruption. This was a very active period for the volcano, and is where most of the previously mentioned videos came from. (And trust me, you and your browser couldn’t handle the massive animations that would have resulted from using all 100+ days of images.) To prove Bárðarbunga has gone on beyond that, here’s one of the new RGB composites from 17 November 2014:

VIIRS false color RGB composite of channels M-4, M-7 and M-11, taken 13:42 UTC 17 November 2014

VIIRS false color RGB composite of channels M-4, M-7 and M-11, taken 13:42 UTC 17 November 2014

This image really makes Iceland look like a land of fire and ice, which is exactly what it is!

Hell Froze Over (and the Great Lakes, too)

This has been some kind of winter. The media has focused a lot of attention on the super-scary “Polar Vortex” even though it isn’t that scary or that rare. (I wonder if Hollywood will make it the subject of the next big horror movie in time for Halloween.) Many parts of Alaska have been warmer than Georgia, with Lake Clark National Park tying the all-time Alaskan record high temperature for January (62 °F) on 27 January 2014. (Atlanta’s high on that date was only 58 °F.) Sacramento, California broke their all-time January record high temperature, reaching 79 °F three days earlier. In fact, many parts of California had record warmth in January, while everyone on the East Coast was much colder than average. Reading this article made me think of an old joke about statisticians: a statistician is someone who would say: if your feet are stuck in a freezer and your head is stuck in the oven, you are, on average, quite comfortable.

One consequence of the cold air in the eastern United States is that Hell froze over. No, not the Gates of Hell in Turkmenistan. This time I’m talking about Hell, Michigan. Hell is a nice, little town whose residents never get tired of people telling that joke.

It has been so cold in the region around Hell that the Great Lakes are approaching a record for highest percentage of surface area covered by ice. This article mentions some of the benefits of having ice-covered Lakes, including: less lake-effect snow, more sunshine and less evaporation from the Lakes, which would keep lake levels from dropping. Although, that is at the cost of getting ships stuck in the ice, and reducing the temperature-moderating effects of the Lakes, which allows for colder temperatures on their leeward side.

This article (and many other articles I found) uses MODIS “True Color” images to highlight the extent of the ice. Why don’t they show any VIIRS images? Well, I’m here to rectify that.

First off, I can copy all those MODIS images and show the “True Color” RGB composite from VIIRS:

VIIRS "True Color" RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 17:27 UTC 11 February 2014

VIIRS "True Color" RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 17:27 UTC 11 February 2014

While it was a rare, sunny winter day for most of the Great Lakes region on 11 February 2014, it’s hard to tell that from the True Color imagery. I mean, look at this True Color MODIS image shown on NPR’s website. Can you tell what is ice and what is clouds?

There are ways of distinguishing ice from clouds, which I have talked about before but, it doesn’t hurt to look at these methods again and see how well they do here. First, let’s look at my modification of the EUMETSAT “Snow” RGB composite:

VIIRS "Snow" RGB composite of channels M-11, M-10 and M-7, taken 17:27 UTC 11 February 2014

VIIRS "Snow" RGB composite of channels M-11, M-10 and M-7, taken 17:27 UTC 11 February 2014

This “Snow” RGB composite differs by using reflectances at 2.25 µm in the place of the 3.9 µm channel that EUMETSAT uses. (Their satellite doesn’t have a 2.25 µm channel.) It’s easy to see where the clouds are now. Of course, now the snow and ice appear hot pink, which you may not find aesthetically pleasing. And it certainly isn’t reminiscent of snow and ice.

If you don’t like the “Snow” RGB, you may like the “Natural Color” RGB composite:

VIIRS "Natural Color" RGB composite of channels I-01, I-02 and I-03, taken 17:27 UTC 11 February 2014

VIIRS "Natural Color" RGB composite of channels I-01, I-02 and I-03, taken 17:27 UTC 11 February 2014

This has the benefit of making snow appear a cool cyan color, and has the added benefit that you can use the high-resolution imagery bands (I-01, I-02 and I-03) to create it. There is twice the resolution in this image than in the Snow and True Color RGB images. Here’s another benefit you may not have noticed right away: the clouds, while still white, appear to be slightly more transparent in the Natural Color RGB. This makes it a bit easier to see the edge of the ice on the east side of Lake Michigan and the center of Lake Huron, for example.

If you’re curious as to how much ice is covering the lakes, here are the numbers put out by the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (which is about a 25 minute drive from Hell) from an article dated 13 February 2014:

Lake Erie: 96%; Lake Huron: 95%; Lake Michigan: 80%; Lake Ontario: 32% and Lake Superior: 95%. This gives an overall average of 88%, up from 80% the week before. The record is 95% set in 1979, although it should be said satellite measurements of ice on the Great Lakes only date back to 1973.

Why does Lake Ontario have such a low percentage? That last article states, “Lake Ontario has a smaller surface area compared to its depth, so it loses heat more slowly. It’s like putting coffee in a tall, narrow mug instead of a short, wide one. The taller cup keeps the coffee warmer.”  Doesn’t heat escape from the sides of a mug as well as the top? And isn’t Lake Superior deeper than Lake Ontario? Another theory is that “Lake Ontario’s depth and the churning caused by Niagara Falls means that it needs long stretches of exceptionally cold weather to freeze.”  Does Niagara Falls really have that much of an impact on the whole lake?

So, what is the correct explanation? I’m sorry, VIIRS can’t answer that. It can only answer “How Much?” It can’t answer “Why?”

 

BONUS UPDATE (17 February 2014):

It has come to my attention that the very next orbit provided better images of the Great Lakes, since they were no longer right at the edge of the swath. Here, then, are the True Color, Snow and Natural Color RGB composite images from 19:07 UTC, 11 February 2014:

VIIRS "True Color" composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 19:07 UTC 11 February 2014

VIIRS "True Color" composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 19:07 UTC 11 February 2014

 

VIIRS "Snow" RGB composite of channels M-11, M-10 and M-7, taken 19:07 UTC 11 February 2014

VIIRS "Snow" RGB composite of channels M-11, M-10 and M-7, taken 19:07 UTC 11 February 2014

 

VIIRS "Natural Color" composite of channels I-01, I-02, and I-03, taken 19:07 UTC 11 February 2014

VIIRS "Natural Color" composite of channels I-01, I-02, and I-03, taken 19:07 UTC 11 February 2014

 

UPDATE #2 (18 March 2014): The Great Lakes ice cover peaked at 92.2% on 6 March 2014, just short of the all-time record in the satellite era. March 6th also happened to be a clear day over the Great Lakes, and VIIRS captured these images:

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 18:35 UTC 6 March 2014

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 18:35 UTC 6 March 2014

 

VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels M-5, M-7 and M-10, taken 18:35 UTC 6 March 2014

VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels M-5, M-7 and M-10, taken 18:35 UTC 6 March 2014

Wild Week of Wildfires, Part III

The last two posts covered flooding. Now, a month later, we are back to covering last year’s most common topic: wildfires. This time, we’ll make a game out of it. Keep in mind that, for many operational fire weather forecasters, this isn’t a game – it is information that could prove useful in saving lives or homes from destruction. If you have read the earlier posts on fire detection and haven’t forgotten what you’ve been told (here’s a good one to go back and read), this should be easy for you.

The following images are the unmapped data from three consecutive VIIRS granules over the Southwest U.S., starting at 20:36 UTC 11 June 2013. The “raw” data has been processed to produce the “True Color”, “Natural Fire Color” and “Fire Temperature” RGB composites. Plus, the brightness temperature data from channel M-13 (4.0 µm) has a color table applied to it to aid in fire detection. Satellite channels near 4 µm are the “industry standard”, so to speak, for detecting fires as they are highly sensitive to sub-pixel heat sources like fires. The “Natural Fire Color” and “Fire Temperature” composites are RGB composites developed just for VIIRS that both had their debut on this very blog.

The question is: how many fires can you see? Remember, you have to allocate resources (firefighters, helicopters, planes, etc.) based on your assessment. The media is hounding you for all the latest statistics on each blaze and they can’t wait until the 5:00 briefing. They need the scoop now to get higher ratings. Plus, the crew is loading fire retardant on the plane as you read this. Where should the pilot fly to? Everyone is counting on you! (Of course, you would never have just satellite data by itself in a real-life scenario – but, do you want to play this game, or just think of flaws?)

I’ll give you a hint: You won’t see any fires unless you view each image at full resolution. Click on the image, then on the “3200×2304” link below the banner to see the full resolution version. (You could even open each full resolution image in a new tab, and click between the tabs for easy comparison, assuming you’re not using some archaic version of Internet Explorer or another old browser that doesn’t allow tabs. When you would click on the “3200×2304” link, instead right-click and select “Open in New Tab”. Another option would be to save the images and open them in an image viewing software program that will allow you to zoom in more than 100% but, that is starting to sound like a lot of work and I’m not sure I want to play this game anymore. It’s too complicated. By the way, if that’s the way you feel, don’t become the manager of a fire incident team.)

I’ll give you another hint: Many of the hot spots that indicate fires are only 1-2 pixels in size. Be prepared to look for needles in the haystack, and make sure you have your reading glasses on, if you need them.

VIIRS "True Color" composite of channels M-03, M-04 and M-05, taken at 20:36 UTC 11 June 2013

VIIRS "True Color" composite of channels M-03, M-04 and M-05, taken at 20:36 UTC 11 June 2013

VIIRS "Natural Fire Color" composite of channels M-05, M-07 and M-11, taken 20:36 UTC 11 June 2013

VIIRS "Natural Fire Color" composite of channels M-05, M-07 and M-11, taken 20:36 UTC 11 June 2013

VIIRS "Fire Temperature" composite of channels M-10, M-11 and M-12, taken 20:36 UTC 11 June 2013

VIIRS "Fire Temperature" composite of channels M-10, M-11 and M-12, taken 20:36 UTC 11 June 2013

VIIRS channel M-13 image, taken 20:36 UTC 11 June 2013

VIIRS channel M-13 image, taken 20:36 UTC 11 June 2013

So, did you see them all? You should have identified 12 fires. Did you find less than 12? Some of them are hard (or impossible) to see in some of the images. Did you find more than 12? The color scale used on the M-13 image led to false alarms, so you can be forgiven if that’s what caused you count too many.

This example shows some of the complicating factors when trying to identify fires from satellites. It also shows why fire managers never rely on satellite data alone. Now, having said that, VIIRS can and does provide useful information on fires.

First, here’s the answer (link goes to PDF) from the National Interagency Fire Center. They identified 15 active “large incident” fires on 12 June 2013. (They update their maps once per day, so all the fires that started on 11 June make it on the 12 June map.) But, there are differences between their map and what VIIRS saw.

First, the Mail Trail fire (#5 in the PDF) is outside the domain of these three VIIRS granules, so you couldn’t have found that in these images. Fires #3, 4 and 7 (Healy, Porcupine and Ferguson) are obscured by clouds, and/or were mostly contained, transitioning from active to inactive. The Tres Lagunas Fire (#13) started back in May and is undergoing mop up activities. The hot spots from that fire (if there are any left) aren’t visible in the images, but the burn scar is. That leaves the Stockade (#1), Crowley Creek (#2), Hathaway (#6), Fourmile (#8), Silver (#9), Thompson Ridge (#10), Jaroso (#11), Big Meadows (#12), Royal Gorge (#14), and Black Forest (#15) – 10 fires which are all visible in the VIIRS images. Plus, VIIRS saw two more fires that are not included on that list: one in southern California (near the Salton Sea) that I couldn’t find any information on, plus a pellet plant fire in Show Low, Arizona. (Small fires in towns are usually outside the scope of the National Interagency Fire Center, so they don’t bother to list those.)

I would argue that the “Fire Temperature” composite worked the best at identifying each of these fires, but all 4 images have their uses. Here’s the Fire Temperature RGB image with the visible fires identified:

VIIRS "Fire Temperature" composite of channels M-10, M-11 and M-12, taken 20:36 UTC 11 June 2013

VIIRS "Fire Temperature" composite of channels M-10, M-11 and M-12, taken 20:36 UTC 11 June 2013

Answer honestly. Which fires did you see, and which fires did you miss?

The Fire Temperature RGB takes advantage of the VIIRS channels in the portion of the electromagnetic spectrum ranging from the near-infrared (NIR) to the shortwave infrared (SWIR). The blue component is M-10 (1.61 µm), the green component is M-11 (2.25 µm) and the red component is M-12 (3.7 µm). As wavelength increases over this range, the contribution of the Earth’s emission sources increases and the contribution from the sun decreases. As a result, only the hottest hot spots show up in M-10, as they have to be seen over the large signal of radiation from the sun reflecting off the Earth’s surface. In M-12 (as in M-13), hot spots from fires produce more radiation at that wavelength than the amount of reflected solar radiation. M-11 is somewhere in the middle. That means relatively cool (e.g. smoldering) or small fires only show up in M-12, which makes those pixels appear red. Pixels containing fires hot enough or large enough to show up in M-11 will take on an orange to yellow color. Pixels containing fires hot enough or large enough to show up in all three channels will appear white.

You have to be careful, though, as some pixels in the Fire Temperature RGB appear red, even though there aren’t any fires in them. A few of these pixels show up red in the M-13 image, and are labelled as “not a fire/false alarm”:

VIIRS M-13 image, taken 20:36 UTC 11 June 2013

VIIRS M-13 image, taken 20:36 UTC 11 June 2013

According to the color table used, any pixel with a brightness temperature above 340 K (67 °C) will be colored, with colors ranging from red to orange to pale yellow as temperature increases. Now, look at that area in the True Color image (or on Google Maps):

VIIRS "True Color" composite of channels M-03, M-04 and M-05, taken 20:36 UTC 11 June 2013

VIIRS "True Color" composite of channels M-03, M-04 and M-05, taken 20:36 UTC 11 June 2013

That area is very dark – almost black – volcanic rock with very little vegetation that has been baking in the sun all day. It has managed to acquire a brightness temperature that is higher than some of the active fire pixels. The Crowley Creek fire doesn’t show up as red in the M-13 image (the Stockade fire is the one with the yellow and orange pixels) and the Fourmile fire is barely visible. (It has two pixels warmer than 340 K, even though 10 pixels appear red in the Fire Temperature RGB). The color scale in the M-13 image could be applied to a different temperature range, but you’ll always have that trade-off: have the colors start at too high a temperature, and you’ll miss some fires; have the colors start at too low a temperature, and you’ll increase the false alarms.

The True Color image should have helped you identify 5 of the fires. The smoke plumes that show up are a dead giveaway. I’m talking about the Big Meadows, Royal Gorge, Jaroso, Thompson Ridge and Silver fires, of course. There may be smoke with the Hathaway fire, but it would be mixed in with the cirrus clouds and hard to see. Not all fires produce a lot of smoke, though. Having information on the ones that do aids in issuing air quality alerts, among other benefits.

Lastly, the Natural Fire Color image highlights most (but not all) of the fires. Look for the red pixels:

VIIRS "Natural Fire Color" composite of channels M-05, M-07 and M-11, taken 20:36 UTC 11 June 2013

VIIRS "Natural Fire Color" composite of channels M-05, M-07 and M-11, taken 20:36 UTC 11 June 2013

The Natural Fire Color doesn’t show active hot spots at Crowley Creek, and the Hathaway and Fourmile fires are difficult to see, because they aren’t quite hot enough. (Generally speaking, any fire that shows up red in the Fire Temperature RGB is too cold to show up as red in the Natural Fire Color.) But, this composite has the advantage of showing burn scars in addition to the active fires. Burn scars appear dark brown. The Fourmile and Crowley Creek burn scars are visible. Plus, burn scars from last year’s fires still show up: The Whitewater-Baldy, High Park and Waldo Canyon scars are identified. The Tres Lagunas was mentioned above, and it’s burn scar is visible. If you look closely, I’m sure you could find more burn scars from last year’s long fire season.

Here are all four images, zoomed in on each fire at 800%, combined into an animation to highlight how each fire appears in each image:

Animation of M-13, True Color, Natural Fire Color and Fire Temperature imagery zoomed in each fire (20:36 UTC 11 June 2013)

Animation of M-13, True Color, Natural Fire Color and Fire Temperature imagery zoomed in each fire (20:36 UTC 11 June 2013)

For some reason, you have to click to the full resolution version of the image before the animation will display.

Hopefully, this exercise is useful in demonstrating the complications that arise when trying to detect fires from satellites in space, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of some of the various methods VIIRS has at it’s disposal to aid the fire weather community.

Drought in the Land of the Long, White Cloud

Science fiction fanatics know it as “Middle-earth“.  Abel Tasman, the Dutch explorer who became the first European to sail there, called it “Staten Landt“, which was later changed to Nieuw Zeeland, Nova Zeelandia, and, finally, New Zealand. The native Maori people call it “Aotearoa“, which loosely translates to “the land of the long, white cloud”.

A group of volcanic islands southeast of Australia, New Zealand is known for the Southern Alps, the locations where they filmed the Lord of the Rings trilogy and rugby, although I’m sure there’s more to the country than that. Residents of New Zealand refer to themselves as “kiwis”, although it is not clear if they prefer to be thought of as birds or fruit.

Being an island nation in the mid-latitudes with 17 peaks above 10,000 ft (3,000 m), you might expect there would be no shortage of moisture and uplift to form clouds and precipitation. There are sea breezes, mountain/valley circulations, orographic uplift of prevailing winds, periodic mid-latitude cyclones and the occasional tropical storm to get things started. But, that’s not the case this year.

The North Island is currently experiencing its worst drought in over 30 years. Many places have experienced less than half of normal precipitation this summer, according to NIWA (their version of NOAA). These are places that normally receive 40-80 inches of precipitation per year. (Remember, summer just ended down there and that 500 mm is roughly 20 inches.)

Wellington, the nation’s capital, has begun rationing water for the first time in recorded history (which covers about 170 years). The chair of the Wellington region’s committee in charge of the water supply was quoted as saying, “People should shower with a friend, if that’s an option . . . or put a brick in the toilet. If you know anyone who’s particularly adept at rain dances, then encourage them to get out there and do what they do.”

One of the previous links mentioned that the drought is so bad, it can be seen from space. They didn’t provide evidence to back up that claim, so I guess I have to do it. Here’s what VIIRS saw on 28 January 2013 (before the North Island went 4-6 weeks without any significant precipitation):

"True Color" RGB composite of VIIRS channels M-03, M-04 and M-05, taken 01:49 UTC 28 January 2013

"True Color" RGB composite of VIIRS channels M-03, M-04 and M-05, taken 01:49 UTC 28 January 2013

And here is what VIIRS saw on 21 March 2013 (after 4-6 weeks without significant precipitation):

"True Color" RGB composite of VIIRS channels M-03, M-04, and M-05, taken 02:15 UTC 21 March 2012

"True Color" RGB composite of VIIRS channels M-03, M-04, and M-05, taken 02:15 UTC 21 March 2012

The two images above are “true color” composites. If you look closely at the two images, you might notice significantly less green vegetation in the 21 March 2013 image, particularly in box that covers 39° to 40° S latitude and 174° to 176° E longitude. (Remember, you can see the full-resolution image by clicking on it, and then on the “1434×2120” link below the banner.)

Not convincing? Maybe it shows up a bit better in the “natural color” composite, which has a strong vegetation signal. Here are those images:

False color composite of VIIRS channels M-05, M-07 and M-10, taken 01:49 UTC 28 January 2013

False color composite of VIIRS channels M-05, M-07 and M-10, taken 01:49 UTC 28 January 2013

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False color composite of VIIRS channels M-05, M-07 and M-10, taken 02:15 UTC 21 March 2012

False color composite of VIIRS channels M-05, M-07 and M-10, taken 02:15 UTC 21 March 2012

And just to be clear, here are the images zoomed in on the west side of the North Island, where the drought has hit the hardest:

Drought impact on vegetation in the North Island of New Zealand between 28 January and 21 March 2013

Drought impact on vegetation in the North Island of New Zealand between 28 January (left) and 21 March 2013 (right)

In the image on the left, from 28 January, light green areas represent grassland/pasture (backed up by this land use map) and dark green areas represent forests. In the image on the right, from 21 March, the grassy areas have turned brown while the forests have remained green. Six weeks with almost no rain will do that to grass.

While the “true color” and “natural color” RGB composites are only qualitative (and require viewers to be able to distinguish sometimes subtle changes in the amount of green in the images), there are ways to quantify the “greenness” of vegetation from satellite. The most widely used method is the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI for short). The NDVI has been calculated for more than 40 years with Landsat and AVHRR. We can do the same calculation with VIIRS. That’s what is shown below.

VIIRS NDVI images of New Zealand from 28 January and 21 March 2013

VIIRS NDVI images of New Zealand from 28 January (left) and 21 March 2013 (right)

On this color scale, red and yellow colors indicate high values of NDVI (or very green vegetation). Green and blue colors indicate low values of NDVI (sparse, dead or brown vegetation). Notice how most of the North Island has gone from yellow or red in January (on the left) to blue or green in March (on the right). NDVI values have decreased by 20-30% over this period.

I guess if there is one benefit of the drought, it’s that it has been clear enough over New Zealand for satellites to see it. In fact, January and February have broken records for the amount of sunshine in many parts of the country. The land of the long, white cloud hasn’t been living up to its name.

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!