Remote Islands V: St. Helena and Ascension

You may have missed it in the news, but history was made last week:

A plane landed! Wow!

But, that’s not any old plane – that’s the first commercial airliner to land on St. Helena Island, which just completed the construction of their very first airport. That means there may be no more commercial sailing to this tiny island.

People prone to seasickness may be cheering the news. People afraid of flying might not. Did you notice it took three attempts to land that plane in the video above? The first pass was getting everything all lined up with no intention of landing. The landing gear wasn’t even down. The second – which looked like a roller coaster – was waived off due to the heavy crosswinds. The third time was the charm. However, it was such a shaky first landing, they’ve postponed the official opening of the airport.

So, where is St. Helena (pronounced Ha-LEEN-a), anyway? And why should I care?

Well, to answer the first question, it’s somewhere in this image:

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (12:45 UTC 26 April 2016)

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (12:45 UTC 26 April 2016).

Did you find it? To help you with your bearings, Africa is just outside this VIIRS swath on the right side of the image. Two hints: click on the image to bring up the full resolution version. St. Helena is just northwest of the center of the image. It’s the only island in the image not covered by clouds. Fun fact: every island within this VIIRS swath is part of the British Overseas Territory of St. Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha. We already looked more closely at Tristan da Cunha, so let’s take a look at the other two.

We can get a higher resolution look if we use the I-band Natural Color RGB composite:

VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels I-01, I-02 and I-03 (12:45 UTC 26 April 2016)

VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels I-01, I-02 and I-03 (12:45 UTC 26 April 2016).

Notice the island appears green in the center, surrounded by a ring of brown – just the way it looks on a really high resolution satellite image. VIIRS has the resolution to pick this out!

As for why you should care, I don’t know if I can answer that. If your first thought is to ask that question, you probably don’t care. But, there are a few interesting things to note about St. Helena (besides its new airport):

– It was once an important stopping point for ships sailing from Europe to India in search of spices. At least, until the Suez Canal opened.

– It later became a prison, housing those who fought against the British government and lost, including Napoleon Bonaparte, Dinuzulu, King of the Zulu Nation, and POWs from the Boer War.

– Along with Ascension Island, St. Helena helped inspire the modern environmental movement. And it was here that the first large scale experiments in weather modification took place. (Not counting rain dances, of course.)

After witnessing the effect of deforestation on the island in the late-1700s and early-1800s, it was believed that re-foresting would help keep moisture on the island, which would lead to more clouds and more rainfall. Ascension Island, which was essentially a barren wasteland when first discovered, was also planted with trees, creating it’s Green Mountain, which is clearly visible on very high resolution satellites.

Speaking of Ascension Island – where is that located? In the first image above, showing most of the Southern Atlantic, Ascension is near the upper left corner. It’s hard to see because it is covered by clouds. Just follow the 8 °S latitude line in from the left edge of the image.

Here it is at high resolution during a clear day:

VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels I-01, I-02, and I-03 (14:03 UTC 20 April 2016)

VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels I-01, I-02, and I-03 (14:03 UTC 20 April 2016).

If you look closely, you’ll see that there is a small cloud or two right over Green Mountain, so maybe the efforts of the early environmentalists paid off!

For completeness, Tristan da Cunha is in the lower left of the True Color image I posted at the top. While it is covered by clouds, you can tell it’s there because it is creating its own waves. Here it is on the next orbit, where it is closer to satellite nadir:

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (15:24 UTC 26 April 2016)

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (15:24 UTC 26 April 2016).

If I’ve inspired you to visit these islands, ask the government to give me a commission. But, seriously, don’t forget to say “Hi!” to Jonathan. Or see the many other plants and animals that are found nowhere else on Earth.

UPDATE (16 October 2017): Reuters has reported that the airport is now officially open to commercial flights (only a year and half after I wrote the original blog post)!

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.

Remote Islands IV: Where’s Waldo (Pitcairn)? Edition

Take a look at this VIIRS “Natural Color” image and see if you can find Pitcairn Island. It’s in there somewhere:

VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels I-1, I-2 and I-3, taken 22:25 UTC 10 April 2014

VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels I-1, I-2 and I-3, taken 22:25 UTC 10 April 2014

You’re definitely going to want to click through to the full resolution version. (Click on the image, then click again.) You won’t be able to see it otherwise. Take your time. Note: this is actually pretty similar to searching for fires.

Did you see it?

If you answered “no”: Good! That’s just what the early settlers of Pitcairn Island wanted: an island that no one could find! If you answered “yes”: I think you’re mistaken. You probably saw Henderson Island, which is bigger and easier to see.

Pitcairn is only 3.6 km across. That’s just 7 pixels in this composite of high-resolution (375 m at nadir; I-band) channels. It’s total land area is 4.6 km2. Henderson Island is 37.3 km2. There’s even a third island visible in this picture, but you need the eyes of an eagle to see it – Oeno at 0.65 km2. Look again and see if you see any green pixels.

If you give up, here’s the answer:

VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels I-1, I-2 and I-3, taken at 22:25 UTC 10 April 2014

VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels I-1, I-2 and I-3, taken at 22:25 UTC 10 April 2014. The visible islands are labelled.

Now, you may have just clicked to the full-resolution version and are now wondering if I’m right about Oeno Island. Is there really anything there? Yes. Just look at that part of the image zoomed in by 800%:

VIIRS Natural Color image (10 April 2014) zoomed in on Oeno Island

VIIRS Natural Color image (10 April 2014) zoomed in on Oeno Island

See those three green pixels (not counting the latitude line drawn on there) that are surrounded by lighter blue pixels? That’s Oeno. It is one of the smallest islands you can say that VIIRS “saw”. Here’s what it looks like from a really high-resolution satellite. The light blue pixels surrounding it are the surrounding reef and lagoon of the atoll.

So, why all the interest in a couple of tiny islands in a remote part of the Pacific Ocean? First of all, there are winter storms battering both coasts of the United States, so it’s nice to enjoy a little bit of escapism. Now you can fantasize about being on a tropical island instead of facing the reality of shoveling another 2 feet of snow. Second, it’s fun to look for little islands that can’t be seen with current geostationary satellites (although it will be interesting to see if the high-resolution [0.5 km] visible channel on Himawari will be able to see it; it might be too far east, though). Plus, it’s been over two years since I last looked at remote islands – there may a whole new generation of viewers interested in this stuff who never knew this was part of the blog. Third, I don’t have to write as much and you don’t have to read as much as I fill my blog post quota for the month.

However, to barely keep things on the topic of atmospheric science and satellite meteorology, I will note that, in the images above, you can see a string of clouds streaming to the northwest from both Pitcairn and Henderson Islands. This is the visible manifestation of fluid dynamics which we have discussed before.

If you’ve heard of Pitcairn Island prior to this, it’s probably because you heard of the Mutiny on the Bounty. A group of mutineers who didn’t want to be hanged for their crime settled on Pitcairn Island and burned their ships so they could never leave and, hopefully, never be found. That is the very definition of “getting away from it all”. (Pitcairn is also known to stamp collectors who seek the very rare stamps from the far corners of the world. Selling stamps to tourists is actually a significant part of their economy.)

Today, the island is home to ~50 people – all but two of which are direct descendents of the mutineers. Oeno and Henderson Islands are uninhabited. Henderson Island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that has been largely untouched by mankind. Oeno Island is a favorite “get-away” spot for Pitcairn Islanders for whom an island of 50 people is just too crowded!

If you want to know more about Pitcairn or you have an hour of free time to use up, check out this documentary on the island, its history, and the people who make it their mission to visit one of the world’s most remote islands:

Remote Islands, part III: Îles Kerguelen and Heard Island

 

At 10 o’clock the Captain was walking on deck and saw what he supposed to be an immense iceberg. … the atmosphere was hazy, and then a heavy snow squall came up which shut it out entirely from our view. Not long after the sun shone again, and I went up again and with the glass, tried to get an outline of it to sketch its form. The sun seemed so dazzling on the water, and the tops of the apparent icebergs covered with snow; the outline was very indistinct. We were all the time nearing the object and on looking again the Captain pronounced it to be land. The Island is not laid down on the chart, neither is it in the Epitome, so we are perhaps the discoverers, … I think it must be a twin to Desolation Island, it is certainly a frigid looking place.

VIIRS false color composite of channels I-01, I-02 and I-03, taken 09:16 UTC 27 October 2012

VIIRS false color composite of channels I-01, I-02 and I-03, taken 09:16 UTC 27 October 2012

The text above was the journal entry of Isabel Heard, wife of the American Captain John Heard, on 25 November 1853. The couple was en route from Boston, Massachusetts to Melbourne, Australia (a long time to spend in a boat) and the land they spotted became known as Heard Island. It should be noted that “Desolation Island” refers to Îles Kerguelen, which has its own unique story of discovery.

Kerguelen Island was discovered in 1772 by Yves-Joseph de Kerguelen de Trémarec, a French navigator commissioned by King Louis XV to discover the unknown continent in the Southern Hemisphere that he believed to be necessary to balance the globe. (Look at a globe or map of the world and notice that most of the land area is in the Northern Hemisphere.) Kerguelen himself never set foot on the island, but he told his king the island was inhabited and full of forests, fruits and untold riches. He called it “La France Australe” (Southern France). Captain Cook actually did land on the island a few years later and named it Desolation Island because it had none of that stuff, and King Louis XV imprisoned Kerguelen after his lie was discovered. Oops.

Îles Kerguelen, made up of the main island (Kerguelen to us, La Grande Terre to the French) and the many small surrounding islands are part of the French Southern and Antarctic Lands (Terres Australes et Antarctiques Françaises or TAAF). Heard Island is part of the Australian territory of Heard Island and McDonald Islands (HIMI).

These islands are in the “Roaring Forties” and “Furious Fifties”, the region of the Southern Ocean (southern Indian Ocean in this case) between 40 °S and 60 °S latitude. Get out your globe or world map once again and notice that there is very little land in this latitude range. This region is where strong, persistent westerly winds circle the globe. With no land in the way, there isn’t much to disturb this flow. The high winds almost always from the same direction create huge waves of 10 m (33 ft) or more. (Now imagine being John or Isabel Heard. Well, actually, if you suffer from sea-sickness you probably shouldn’t imagine it.) The cold winds flow over the relatively warmer waters of the ocean, forming persistent cloudiness. If you zoom in on the image above (click on the image, then on the “1893×1452” link below the banner for full resolution) you can see quite a bit of structure in the resulting “cloud streets“.

The persistent cloudiness makes Kerguelen and Heard Island a rare sight from any satellite. We can see them here because the flow is stable and the islands are producing the equivalent of a “rain shadow” on the clouds. (It’s tempting to call it a “cloud shadow” but, since clouds actually do cast shadows, it would just confuse people.) If we zoom in on Kerguelen, this shows up more clearly:

VIIRS false-color RGB composite of channels I-01, I-02 and I-03 taken 09:16 UTC 27 October 2012

VIIRS false-color RGB composite of channels I-01, I-02 and I-03 taken 09:16 UTC 27 October 2012

Notice how all the clouds are piling up on the west (windward) side of Kerguelen, where the highest mountains, are located. (These mountains are covered with snow and glaciers, as the cyan color indicates.) Could that be the equivalent of a bow shock near 68 °E longitude where there is an apparent crack in the clouds? On the leeward side of the island, downwind of the mountains, the air is descending, which prevents clouds from forming. Kerguelen created a hole in the clouds by disrupting the flow.

Now, let’s zoom in on Heard Island:

VIIRS false-color RGB composite of channels I-01, I-02 and I-03 taken 09:16 UTC 27 October 2012

VIIRS false-color RGB composite of channels I-01, I-02 and I-03 taken 09:16 UTC 27 October 2012

In addition to creating a hole in the clouds, Heard Island is creating all sorts of waves in the atmosphere. The ones you probably noticed first look like the wake created by a boat (and have the same basic cause). But, why do they start well out ahead of the island where the yellow arrow is pointing? Because those first waves are actually caused by the McDonald Islands (discovered by Capt. William McDonald in 1854). Even though the highest point on McDonald Island is only 186 m above mean sea level (610 ft), it’s enough to disrupt the flow.

The highest point on Heard Island is Mawson Peak at 2745 m (9006 ft), which is actually the highest elevation in Australia. It is part of Big Ben, an active volcano that last erupted in 2008. This peak is creating a series of lenticular clouds in the above image. A patch of cirrus clouds also exists downwind of Heard Island (the more cyan colored clouds), although it is not clear if these clouds were formed by the waves caused by Heard Island.

If you’re interested in visiting either of these islands, here are some other interesting facts: Kerguelen has a year-round population of ~100, almost all scientists. It has a permanent weather station and office maintained by Météo-France (France’s version of the National Weather Service), and the French version of NASA (CNES) has a station for launching rockets and monitoring satellites. Heard Island has no permanent residents. Every few years a scientific expedition sets out for the island to study the geology, biology, weather and climate of the island. The next one is planned for 2014 and is being called an “open source expedition”. There may still be time to join in if you’re looking for an adventure!

Remote Islands, part II: Tristan da Cunha

Are you tired of 100 °F heat? We sure are in Colorado. Denver tied an all-time record of five consecutive days of 100+ °F high temperatures this week (two of which had the all-time highest recorded temperature of 105 °F). Much of the country experienced record-breaking heat as well. What better place to escape the heat than to visit the Islands of Refreshment?

The islands were given the name by a group of four Americans who sailed there in 1810, intending to make it their own kingdom. Unfortunately, 75% of them died in a boating accident less than two years after they arrived. I suppose, if the fourth one died we never would have heard this story. To the rest of the world, the islands were and are known as Tristan da Cunha, named after Tristão da Cunha – the Portuguese explorer who first found them in 1506.

It’s hard to get more remote than Tristan da Cunha. The four main islands, Tristan da Cunha, Inaccessible Island, Nightingale Island and Gough Island are part of the British Overseas Territory of Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha. The only way to visit them is by boat from South Africa – which takes a week – and boats only come around once or twice a month. You also need to write a proposal to the Secretary of the Administrator outlining what you plan to do there in order to gain permission to visit. The permanent population of the islands is less than 300, and they’ve even developed their own version of English. Another interesting fact: they only acquired television in the last 10 years (according to Wikipedia).

So where is Tristan da Cunha? The small island territory is 2,816 km from the nearest continent (Africa) and 2,430 km from their administrative capital (St. Helena). Let’s see if you can find it in high-resolution visible (I-01, 0.64 µm) imagery from VIIRS:

Visible image (I-01) of Tristan da Cunha from VIIRS, taken 14:49 UTC 25 June 2012

Visible image (I-01) of Tristan da Cunha from VIIRS, taken 14:49 UTC 25 June 2012

Give up? I’ll make it easier and show the false color RGB composite (I-01, I-02 and I-03):

False color RGB composite of VIIRS channels I-01, I-02 and I-03 taken 14:49 UTC, 25 June 2012

False color RGB composite of VIIRS channels I-01, I-02 and I-03 taken 14:49 UTC, 25 June 2012

Three of the islands are easy to pick out now, particularly if you click to get the full size image. (Click on the image, then click on the 1512×1226 link below the banner.) The fourth island is difficult to see as it is covered by clouds and ice and snow, which look like clouds.

Here they are, labelled:

False color RGB composite of VIIRS channels I-01, I-02 and I-03 taken 14:49 UTC, 25 June 2012

False color RGB composite of VIIRS channels I-01, I-02 and I-03 taken 14:49 UTC, 25 June 2012

Nightingale Island, at 3.2 km2, is only about 5×4 pixels in size! The volcano that makes up the main island, Queen Mary’s Peak, rises 6,765 ft. above sea level and is casting a “cloud shadow” (i.e. no clouds are seen immediately downwind, or northeast, of the island). There may even be a von Kármán vortex behind it. Gough Island is also casting a “cloud shadow”, although it is much smaller.

If you really zoom in, you can almost convince yourself that VIIRS can identify two much smaller islands off the northern tip of Nightingale Island, Middle Island and Stoltenhoff Island:

False color RGB composite of VIIRS channels I-01, I-02 and I-03 taken 14:49 UTC, 25 June 2012

False color RGB composite of VIIRS channels I-01, I-02 and I-03 taken 14:49 UTC, 25 June 2012

Look for the two greenish pixels above Nightingale Island. These islands are both about 25 acres in size (0.1 km2).

While the only town, Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, is on Tristan da Cunha, there is also a year-round research facility on Gough Island. There are three meteorologist positions on the island, as it is an important weather station for South Africa and the United Kingdom. As a bonus, the record high temperature has never come close to 100 °F. So, if you’re really looking to get away from the heat (and everything else), Gough Island might be the place for you!