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.

Record Russian Rain Runoff Responsible for Rapid River Rise

Sorry, I couldn’t help myself with that title.  Last time we looked at flooding in Russia, it was in the western parts – generally near Moscow and primarily along the Oka River – and caused by rapid melting of record spring snowfall. This time, flooding is occurring in Russia’s Far East, primarily along the Amur River, caused by heavy rainfall related to monsoon wind patterns in the region – record levels of flooding not seen before in the 160 years Russians have settled in the area.

Unfortunately, this natural disaster is affecting more than just Russia. In China, many people are dead or missing as the result of flooding. (The figure of “hundreds dead or missing” includes flooding caused by typhoons Utor and Trami in southeastern China, flash flooding in western China, and the subject of today’s post: river flooding in northeastern China and far east Russia.) The Chinese provinces of Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang have been hit particularly hard with persistent, heavy rains since late July, as have areas just across the border in Amur Oblast, Khabarovsk Krai and the Jewish Autonomous Oblast in Russia.

A few more facts: Heilongjiang is the Chinese name for the Amur River. It translates to English as “Black Dragon”. The Mongols called it Kharamuren (“Black Water”), which, I assume, the early Russian settlers shortened to Amur. It is the longest undammed river in the Eastern Hemisphere and the home to the endangered Amur leopard and Amur tiger. Since 1850, the Amur River has been the longest piece of the border between China and Russia. Now, in 2013, the Amur River has reached the highest levels ever recorded.

Backing up a bit, here’s what the area looked like according to “Natural Color” or “pseudo-true color” VIIRS imagery back in the middle of July:

VIIRS false-color RGB composite of channels I-01, I-02 and I-03, taken 03:27 UTC 14 July 2013

VIIRS false-color RGB composite of channels I-01, I-02 and I-03, taken 03:27 UTC 14 July 2013

As always, click on the image, then on the “2368×1536” link below the banner to see the full resolution version. Here’s what the same area looked like about a month later:

VIIRS false color RGB composite of channels I-01, I-02 and I-03, taken 03:14 UTC 21 August 2013

VIIRS false color RGB composite of channels I-01, I-02 and I-03, taken 03:14 UTC 21 August 2013

Notice anything different? The Amur River has overflowed its floodplain and is over 10 km (6 miles) wide in some places. Just downriver (northeast) from Khabarovsk, the flooded area is up to 30 km (18 miles) wide!

Pay attention to Khabarovsk. Back in 1897, the Amur River crested there with a stage of 6.42 m (about 21 feet in American units), which was the previous high water mark. On 22 August 2013, the river stage reached 7.05 m (23 feet) and was expected to keep rising to 7.8 m (25.6 feet) by the end of August. The map below (in Russian) shows the local river levels on 22 August 2013. It came from this website.

Amur River levels at various locations in Khabarovsk Krai, Russia on 22 August 2013.

Amur River levels at various locations in Khabarovsk Krai, Russia on 22 August 2013.

Note that Khabarovsk in Cyrillic is Хабаровск (the black dot in the lower left), and Amur is Амур. The blue numbers represent the river stage in cm. Red numbers indicate the change in water level (in cm) over the last 24 hours. The colored dots indicate how high the river level is above flood stage according to the color scale (also in cm). The river at Khabarovsk is more than 4 meters (13 feet) above flood stage.

Not impressed by comparing a “before” and “after” image? Here’s an animation over that time period (14 July to 21 August 2013), with images from really cloudy days removed:

Animation of VIIRS false-color composites of channels I-01, I-02 and I-03

Animation of VIIRS false-color composites of channels I-01, I-02 and I-03. Click on the image, then on the "1184x768" link below the banner to view the animation.

You have to click through to the full resolution version before the loop will play. In order to not make the world’s largest animated GIF, the I-band images in the loop have been reduced in resolution by a factor of 2, making them the same resolution as if I had used M-5, M-7 and M-10 to make this “Natural Color” composite.

The Day/Night Band is not known for its ability to detect flooding at night, but it also saw how large the Amur River has become:

VIIRS Day/Night Band image, taken 17:27 UTC 20 August 2013

This image was taken on 20 August 2013, which just so happens to be the night of a full moon. The swollen rivers are clearly visible thanks to the moonlight (and general lack of clouds).

Khabarovsk is a city of over 500,000 people and would require a major evacuation effort if the river reached the expected 7.8 m level. Over 20,000 people have already been evacuated in Russia alone (and over a million people in China) according to this report. Oh, and at least two bears.

This heavy rain and flooding makes it all the more surprising that, a little further north and west in Russia, there have been numerous, massive wildfires. Check out this “True Color” image from VIIRS, taken on 16 August 2013:

VIIRS"True Color" composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 03:12 UTC 16 August 2013.

VIIRS"True Color" composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 03:12 UTC 16 August 2013.

See the supersized swirling Siberian smoke spreading… OK, I’ll quit with the alliteration. Here’s the smoke plume on the very next overpass (about 90 minutes later) seen on a larger scale:

VIIRS "True Color" composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 04:52 UTC 16 August 2013.

VIIRS "True Color" composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 04:52 UTC 16 August 2013.

A strong ridge of high pressure with its clockwise flow is trapping the smoke over the region. In this image you can see quite a few of the smoke sources where the fires are still actively burning. Look in the latitude/longitude box bounded by 98 °E to 105 °E and 59 °N to 61 °N. By the way, that’s Lake Baikal on the bottom of the image, just left of center.

A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation indicates that the area covered by smoke is roughly 500,000 km2. (Of course it is complicated by the fact that the smoke is mixing in with the clouds, so it is hard to define a true boundary for the smoke on the north and west sides.) That puts it in the size range of Turkmenistan, Spain and Thailand. If that’s not a good reference for you, how’s this? The smoke covers an area larger than California and smaller than Texas.

These fires have burned for more than a month. This article from NASA includes a MODIS image from 25 July 2013 containing massive smoke plumes and shows that areas of central Russia (particularly north of the Arctic Circle) have had a record heatwave this summer. And here are a few more images of the smoke from MODIS over the past few weeks.

Heatwaves and fires and floods? Russia is all over the map. Literally. I mean, look at a map of Asia – Russia is all over that place. It even spreads into Europe!

Fires near the “Coldest City on Earth”

Raise your hand if you’ve only ever heard of Yakutsk because of the board game “Risk”. (If you raised your hand, you might want to look around and make sure that no-one saw you raise your hand for no reason.)  Yakutsk is actually the capital city of the Sakha Republic (a.k.a. Yakutia), which, according to Wikipedia, is the largest sub-national governing body in the world (only slightly smaller than India in terms of land area). Over 260,000 people live in Yakutsk, which has been called the “Coldest City on Earth” (with 950,000 total in Yakutia) even though, according to this article, it doesn’t sound very pleasant in the winter (or summer, for that matter). In January, the average temperature is -42 °C (-45 °F), and it isn’t very far from Oymyakon, where the lowest temperature ever recorded in a permanently inhabited location was observed (-71.2 °C or -96.2 °F). In the summer, it can make it up to +35 °C (95 °F) and legends tell of reindeer dying from choking on all the insects that cloud the air.

This summer, large areas of Siberia (including Yakutia) have been on fire. Some pictures from MODIS have already been circulating around the internet (e.g. here and here). And someone beat me to posting VIIRS images already. To make it easier to judge the size of the fires that are visible in the VIIRS Day/Night Band (DNB) image in the last link, here is a close-up with latitude and longitude lines added:

VIIRS DNB image of fires in Siberia, taken 16:25 UTC 4 August 2012

VIIRS DNB image of fires in Siberia, taken 16:25 UTC 4 August 2012

At this latitude, longitude lines are ~55 km apart. The latitude lines are ~111 km apart. So, you can see that these fires cover quite a large area. Unfortunately, you can’t see Yakutsk, which is underneath the clouds (and possibly smoke) at about 62° N, 130° E.

For comparison, here is the M-13 (4.05 µm) image from the same time. The primary purpose of M-13 is to detect wildfires. Notice how all of the hot spots (black spots) line up with all of the light sources that the DNB saw:

VIIRS channel M-13 brightness temperature image taken 16:25 UTC 4 August 2012

VIIRS channel M-13 brightness temperature image taken 16:25 UTC 4 August 2012

The visible image from earlier that day showed just how much smoke was produced by all of these fires:

Visible image of fires in Siberia from VIIRS channel M-5, taken 02:38 UTC 4 August 2012

Visible image of fires in Siberia from VIIRS channel M-5, taken 02:38 UTC 4 August 2012

Except for a few clouds near the edges of the scene, that is pretty much all smoke.

A few days later, the burn areas were easily visible with many fires still active, although not producing nearly as much smoke. RGB composites can really highlight what is going on with these fires, so let’s look at a few.

You should already be familiar with the “true color” image (M-3, 0.488 µm [blue], M-4, 0.555 µm [green] and M-5, 0.672 µm [red]):

True color image from VIIRS channels M3, M4 and M5 of fires in Siberia, taken 03:22 UTC 7 August 2012

True color image from VIIRS channels M3, M4 and M5 of fires in Siberia, taken 03:22 UTC 7 August 2012

And the “pseudo-true color” image made by combining the first three I-bands (I-01, 0.64 µm [blue], I-02, 0.865 µm [green] and I-03, 1.61 µm [red]):

False color (or "pseudo-true color") image of fires in Siberia from VIIRS channels I-01, I-02 and I03, taken 03:22 UTC 7 August 2012

False color (or "pseudo-true color") image of fires in Siberia from VIIRS channels I-01, I-02 and I03, taken 03:22 UTC 7 August 2012

The “pseudo-true color” image may be referred to as “natural color” depending on who you talk to. It should be noted that these last two images were kept at the native resolution of VIIRS with no re-mapping or re-sizing the image. There is only cropping to keep the file sizes manageable.

As discussed before, the pseudo-true color composite has the advantage of easily distinguishing ice and snow from liquid clouds, and it is really sensitive to vegetation. Plus, scattering by molecules in the atmosphere is greatly reduced, so you don’t have to do any atmospheric correction to produce a nice image. There is also the advantage that it uses I-bands, which have twice the resolution of the M-bands. But, that advantage was almost always neutralized by the fact that the images would have to be compressed to create a reasonable file size so that it would fit on this blog. If you click on the images above, then on the full-resolution link below the banner, you can easily compare the true resolution between the M-band image and the I-band image.

You can see here that the burn scars (all the dark brown areas) show up really well in the pseudo-true color image. (Some of the lighter or reddish brown areas are mountain ranges.) You might also notice that the active fires are still producing smoke, which shows up a lot better in the true color image. Some of the burn scars cover an area close to 60 km across.

As luck would have it (or, more accurately, the planning ahead by the scientists and engineers who designed VIIRS), channels M-5 (0.672 µm), M-7 (0.865 µm) and M-10 (1.61 µm) are very similar to the first three I-bands, so we can easily produce an M-band “pseudo-true color” image:

"Pseudo-true color" composite of VIIRS channels M-5, M-7 and M-10 of fires in Siberia, taken 03:22 UTC 7 August 2012

"Pseudo-true color" composite of VIIRS channels M-5, M-7 and M-10 of fires in Siberia, taken 03:22 UTC 7 August 2012

For reference, the location of Yakutsk has been identified. Also, if you’re curious, the big river that curves from the left-middle of the image to the top-center is the Lena River. It is up to 10 km wide in parts, particularly north of Yakutsk. Its second largest tributary, the Aldan River, is also easily visible as it meanders through a lot of the burn areas.

If you replace M-10 with M-11 (2.25 µm) as the red channel, you get this image:

False color RGB composite of VIIRS channels M-5, M-7 and M-11, taken 03:22 UTC 7 August 2012

False color RGB composite of VIIRS channels M-5, M-7 and M-11, taken 03:22 UTC 7 August 2012

Here, the green is darker due to the lower reflectivity of the surface in M-11 compared with M-10. The advantage of this RGB composite it that, if you zoom in, you can actually see where the fires are still active, as those pixels show up bright red. (If the fire is hot enough, you’ll get red pixels in the “pseudo-true color” composite also, but M-11 is more responsive to heat from fires than M-10, so you can see lower temperature fires this way.) You can also see the faint bluish smoke plumes originating from the areas that are actively burning.

If you go in the other direction and use only the shortest wavelengths, the surface becomes difficult to see, but the smoke stands out more. Here is the RGB composite of M-1 (0.412 µm [blue]), M-2 (0.445 µm [green]) and M-3 (0.488 µm [red]):

False color RGB composite of VIIRS channels M-1, M-2 and M-3, taken 03:22 UTC 7 August 2012

False color RGB composite of VIIRS channels M-1, M-2 and M-3, taken 03:22 UTC 7 August 2012

Here, the wavelengths of these channels range from the violet to the blue portion of the visible spectrum. At these shorter wavelengths, scattering in the atmosphere becomes much more important and the solar radiation has a tough time making it all the way to the surface. All the smoke and haze increases the scattering, so it is difficult to pick out features on the surface. That same scattering, though, really highlights the smoke plumes, which are difficult to see in the other false color composites.  Since the scattering by the stuff in this image doesn’t vary much between these three channels, you get an image without much color to it.

With much of Colorado and, really, much of the western U.S. having burned already this year, it’s easy to know what the people of Siberia are going through. Fortunately, none of the fires have really threatened any towns. And, another plus: I bet those clouds of mosquitoes don’t like the dry weather that has caused all of these fires.