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 Sirocco and the Giant Bowl of Dust

As mentioned before on this blog, there are typhoons, hurricanes, and cyclones, and they’re all basically the same thing. They’re just given a different name depending on where they occur in the world. Similarly, there are many different names for winds (not counting the classification of wind speeds developed by a guy named Beaufort). There’s the Chinook, the Santa Ana, the bora, the föhn (or foehn), the mistral, the zonda, the zephyr and the brickfielder. (A more complete list is here.) Some of these winds are different names for the same phenomenon occurring in different parts of the world, like the föhn, the chinook, the zonda and the Santa Ana. Others are definitely different phenomena, with different characteristics (compare the mistral with the brickfielder), but they all have the same basic cause: the atmosphere is constantly trying to equalize its pressure.

The Mediterranean is home to wide variety of named winds, one of which is the sirocco (or scirocco). (Europe is home to wide variety of languages, so this wind is also known as “ghibli,” “jugo” [pronounced “you-go”], “la calima” and “xlokk” [your guess is as good as mine].) Sirocco is the name given to the strong, southerly or southeasterly wind originating over northern Africa that typically brings hot, dry air and, if it’s strong enough, Saharan dust to Europe. Of course, after picking up moisture from the Mediterranean, the wind becomes humid, making life unpleasant for people along the north shore. Hot, humid and full of dust. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the sirocco is believed to be a cause of insomnia and headaches.

Now, I don’t know how hot it was, but an intense low pressure system passed through the Mediterranean around Leap Day and, out ahead of it, strong, southerly winds carried quite a bit of dust from northern Africa into Italy.  Here’s what it looked like in Algeria. And here’s what it looked like in Salento. See if you can see that dust in these True Color VIIRS images:

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (12:09 UTC 28 February 2016)

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (12:09 UTC 28 February 2016).

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (11:48 UTC 29 February 2016)

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (11:48 UTC 29 February 2016)

No problem, right? With True Color imagery, the dust is usually easy to identify and distinguish from clouds and the ocean because it looks like dust. It’s the same color as the sky over Salento, Italy in that video I linked to. The top image shows multiple source regions of dust (mostly Libya, with a little coming from Tunisia) being blown out over the sea. The second image shows one concentrated plume being pulled into the clouds over the Adriatic Sea, headed for Albania and Greece.

By the way, this storm system brought up to 2 meters (6.5 feet) of snow to northern Italy, and even brought measurable snow to Algeria! Africa and Europe made a trade: you take some of my dust, and I’ll take some of your snow.

But, this wasn’t the worst dust event to hit Europe recently. Here’s what the VIIRS True Color showed over Spain and Portugal on 21 February 2016:

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (12:40 UTC 21 February 2016)

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (12:40 UTC 21 February 2016).

And VIIRS wasn’t the only one to see this dust. Here’s a picture taken by Tim Peake, an astronaut on the International Space Station. Again, it’s easy to pick out the dust because it almost completely obscures the view of the background surface. But, what if the background surface is dust colored?

We switch now to the other side of the world and the Takla Makan desert in China, where the dust has been blowing for the better part of a week:

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (07:11 UTC 4 March 2016)

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (07:11 UTC 4 March 2016).

Can you tell what is dust and what is the desert floor? Can you see the Indian Super Smog on the south side of the Himalayas? Here is the same scene on a clear (no dust) day:

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (07:49 UTC 2 March 2016)

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (07:49 UTC 2 March 2016).

There is a subtle difference there, but you need good eyesight to see it. It might be easier to see if you loop the images:

Animation of VIIRS True Color images (1-7 March 2016)

Animation of VIIRS True Color images of the Takla Makan desert (1-7 March 2016).

You’ll have to click on the image to see it animate.

Did you notice the dark brown areas surrounding the Takla Makan? Those are areas that have green vegetation during the summer. Notice how they become completely obscured by the dust as the animation progresses. That’s one one way to tell that there’s dust there. But, as we have seen before, there are other ways to see the dust.

There’s EUMETSAT’s Dust RGB composite applied to VIIRS:

Animation of VIIRS EUMETSAT Dust RGB images (1-7 March 2016)

Animation of VIIRS EUMETSAT Dust RGB images of the Takla Makan desert (1-7 March 2016).

That’s another animation, by the way, so you’ll have to click on it to see it animate. The same is true for the Dynamic Enhanced Background Reduction Algorithm (DEBRA), which we also talked about before:

Animation of VIIRS DEBRA Dust Product images (1-7 March 2016)

Animation of VIIRS DEBRA Dust Product images of the Takla Makan desert (1-7 March 2016)

But, there’s one more dust detection technique we have not discussed before: the “blue light absorption” technique:

Animation of VIIRS Blue Light Dust images (1-7 March 2016)

Animation of VIIRS Blue Light Dust images of the Takla Makan desert (1-7 March 2016).

The Blue Light Dust detection algorithm keys in on the fact that many different kinds of dust absorb blue wavelengths of light more than the longer visible wavelengths. It uses this information to create an RGB composite where dust appears pastel pink, clouds and snow appear blueish and bare ground appears green. Of course, other features can absorb blue light as well, like the lakes near the northeast corner of the animation that show up as pastel pink. But, depending on your visual preferences and ability to distinguish color, the Blue Light Dust product gives another alternative to the hot pink of the EUMETSAT Dust RGB, the yellow of DEBRA, and the slightly paler tan of the True Color RGB.

One question you might ask is, “How come DEBRA shows a more vivid signal than the other methods?” In the True Color RGB, dust is slightly more pale than the background sand, because it’s made up of (generally) smaller sand particles (which are more easily lofted by the wind) that scatter light more effectively, making it appear lighter in color. In the EUMETSAT Dust RGB, dust appears hot pink because the “split window difference” (12 µm – 10.7 µm) is positive, while the difference in brightness temperatures between 10.7 µm and 8.5 µm is near zero and the background land surface is warm. In DEBRA, the intensity of the yellow is related to the confidence that dust is present in the scene based on a series of spectral tests. DEBRA is confident of the presence of dust even when the signals may be difficult to pick out in the other products, either because it’s a superior product, or because its confidence is misguided. (Hopefully, it’s the former and not the latter.)

By the way, the Takla Makan got its name from the native Uyghurs that live there. Takla Makan means “you can get in, but you can’t get out.” It has also been called the “Sea of Death.” I prefer to call it “China’s Big Bowl of Dust.” It’s a large area of sand dunes (bigger than New Mexico, but smaller than Montana) surrounded on most of its circumference by mountains between 5000 and 7000 m (~15,000-21,000+ feet!). The average annual rainfall is less than 1.5 inches (38 mm). That means when the wind blows it easily picks up the dusty surface, but that dust can’t go anywhere because it’s blocked by mountains (unless it blows to the northeast). The dust is trapped in its bowl.

The Takla Makan is also important historically, because travelers on the original Silk Road had to get around it. Notice on this map, there were two routes: one that skirted the northern edge of the Takla Makan and one that went around the southern edge. This part of Asia was the original meeting point between East and West.

CIRA produces all four imagery products over the Takla Makan desert in near-real time, which you can find here. And, in case you’re curious, you can check out how well DEBRA and the EUMETSAT Dust products compare for the dust-laden siroccos over southern Europe and northern Africa by clicking here and here (for the first event over Spain and Portugal) or here and here (for the second one over Italy and the Adriatic Sea).

Indian Super-Smog

We’ve poked a lot of fun at China and their serious smog problem. (Just this week, Beijing schools had their very first “smog day.” It’s just like a “snow day”, except you can’t go outside and write your name in it.) But, as it turns out, China is not the only country to produce super-thick smog. India does it, too. And, from the point of view of human health, India’s smog may actually be worse!

The World Health Organization just released a list of the Top 20 smoggiest cities, and 13 of them are in India (plus 1 in Bangladesh and 3 in Pakistan). Not a single Chinese city was anywhere in the Top 20! I’d consider taking back some of things I’ve said about China, except that 1) I never lied (although I did quote Brian Williams), and 2) the Chinese government is now instituting “smog days” because the smog is so bad. What I will do is stop comparing every type of air pollution to Chinese smog. From now on (at least until they start making some positive changes), India is the paragon of poor air quality on this blog.

Since VIIRS has no trouble seeing Chinese smog, it should have no problem seeing Indian smog. And it doesn’t:

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-4, M-4 and M-5 (07:14 UTC 18 November 2015)

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-4, M-4 and M-5 (07:14 UTC 18 November 2015).

You guessed it: all that gray area is optically thick smog! Let’s not forget, too, that India is the seventh largest country in world (2.4% of the Earth’s total surface area!), which is quite a large area to be covered by smog.

In the True Color image above from 18 November 2015, you can see that the people of Tibet are grateful for the Himalayas, which are an effective barrier to the smog. They may not get much air up there on the highest plateau in the world, but what little there is is much cleaner than what’s down below!

If your respiratory system is sensitive to this kind of thing, you might not want to read any further. Consider this your trigger warning. For those few brave enough to continue – prepare yourself, because it gets worse!

Here’s another VIIRS True Color image from 14 November 2015:

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (06:50 UTC 14 November 2015)

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (06:50 UTC 14 November 2015).

Now it’s even harder to see the background surface along the base of the Himalayas. And, it’s easy to compare India’s pollution with Burma’s – I mean Myanmar’s – clean air.

VIIRS passed over the center of India on 11 November 2015 and saw that almost the entire country was covered by smog, with the thickest smog near Delhi:

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (07:46 UTC 11 November 2015)

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (07:46 UTC 11 November 2015).

November 11th was the night of Diwali, the Hindu, Sikh and Jain “Festival of Lights” celebrating the “triumph of goodness over evil and knowledge over ignorance.” If you clicked that link and thought, “that doesn’t look so bad,” then note that the first few pictures were taken in England. In India, it was much smokier. I guess lighting all those fireworks in India comes with this “pro”: they can light the way through the thick smog; and this “con”: they give off smoke that adds to the thick smog. And, while the smog didn’t stop people from celebrating Diwali, it did affect people’s plans. It also caused a huge increase in the market for air purifiers.

The super-smog was not confined to November or Diwali. It’s still going on! Here’s a VIIRS image from 5 December 2015:

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (06:56 UTC 5 December 2015)

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (06:56 UTC 5 December 2015).

I assure you that India and Bangladesh are under there somewhere beneath all that gray muck!

As I mentioned in the previous post, we now have access to data from the new Japanese satellite, Himawari, which can be thought of as a geostationary version of VIIRS. Himawari-8 hangs out over the Equator at a longitude of 140 °E and it takes images of the full disk every 10 minutes. From its perspective, India is right on the edge of the Earth (which, in satellite meteorology is called “the limb”). This means Himawari’s line-of-sight to India has an extra long path through the atmosphere, and that makes the smog look even worse. Here’s a True Color/Geocolor loop of Himawari images of India’s “Worse-than-China” Super-Smog. You can find this and other amazing loops on our new “Himawari Loop of the Day” webpage. We also produce a lot of other Himawari imagery products, which we post here.

Shameless plugs aside, don’t forget: India’s smog is actually worse than China’s. And, unless you live in India, you probably didn’t think that was possible! (If you do live in India, get them to clean up the air!)

Horrendous Haboob in the Heart and Heat of History’s Homeland

We mentioned India earlier this year due to a hellish heatwave. It’s only fair that we talk about one of the other cradles of civilization (human history) and another horrible weather-related h-word.

People have been living along the Nile River in northeastern Africa and on the Arabian Peninsula for thousands of years (dating back to the Paleolithic Era). And, every once in a while, a story comes along that makes you wonder why. I’m not talking about the never-ending human conflict that has plagued the region. I’m talking about the hostile climate. (Of course, it wasn’t always hostile. There have been periods of abundant moisture. Read this. Or this.)

If you’ve watched Raiders of the Lost Ark, you are no-doubt familiar with the ancient city of Tanis, and the story about it that was the basis of the whole plot of the movie. If you haven’t seen the movie: 1) shame on you; and, 2) watch this clip.

“The city of Tanis was consumed by the desert in a sandstorm that lasted a whole year.”

I hate to be the bearer of bad news but, that part of the story is false. No year-long sandstorm hit Tanis. And, despite rumors that the actual Ark is buried in Tanis, it has never been found. (Because it’s stored in a giant government warehouse! Duh!) Plus, Indiana Jones is a fictional character in a movie. But, the movie is not entirely false. According to this article, a major archaeological find did take place at Tanis right before World War II (led by a French archaeologist, no less), and very few people know about it because of the war. Plus, there really was an Egyptian Pharaoh named Shoshenq/Shishak.

Even if Tanis was not buried by a year-long sandstorm, that doesn’t mean nasty sandstorms don’t exist. In fact, most of the Middle East is still dealing with a massive sandstorm that lasted a whole week last week. This storm put Beijing’s air pollution to shame. In fact, the dust reached the highest concentrations ever recorded in Jerusalem since Israel became it’s own country in 1948. It was responsible for several fatalities. Here are some pictures. Here’s a video from Saudi Arabia. Here’s what it looked like in Jordan and Lebanon. And, of course, what follows is what the storm looked like in VIIRS imagery.

Since this dust storm lasted a whole week, we got plenty of VIIRS imagery of the event. It started on the afternoon of 6 September 2015, and here’s the first VIIRS True Color image of it:

VIIRS True Color image of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (10:06 UTC 6 September 2015)

VIIRS True Color image of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5 (10:06 UTC 6 September 2015)

Can you see it? (Click on the image to see the full resolution version.) A trained eye can spot it from this image alone. An untrained eye might have difficulty distinguishing it from the rest of the desert and sand. Look for the tan blob over Syria that is obscuring the view of the Euphrates river.

If you can see that, you can track it over the rest of the week:

Animation of VIIRS True Color images (6-12 September 2015)

Animation of VIIRS True Color images (6-12 September 2015)

This animation was reduced to 33% of it’s original size to limit the bandwidth needed to display it. It contains the afternoon overpasses (1 image per day) because you need sunlight to see things in true color. And, while it suffers from the fact that animated GIFs only allow 256 colors (instead of the 16,777,216 colors possible in the original images), you should be able to see the dust “explode” over Israel, Lebanon and Jordan over the next two days. It eventually advects over northwestern Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Cyprus during the rest of the week.

The last time we looked at a major dust storm, the dust was easy to see. It was blown out over the ocean, which is a nice, dark background to provide the contrast needed to see the dust. Here, the dust is nearly the same color as the background – because it is made out of what’s in the background. Is there a better way to detect dust in situations like this?

EUMETSAT developed an RGB composite explicitly for this purpose, and they call it the “Dust RGB.” And we’ve talked about it before. And, here’s what that looks like:

Animation of EUMETSAT Dust RGB images from VIIRS (6-12 September 2015)

Animation of EUMETSAT Dust RGB images from VIIRS (6-12 September 2015)

Since this RGB composite uses only infrared (IR) channels, it works at night (although not as well) so you can get twice as many images over this time period. It also makes dust appear hot pink. The background appears more blue in the daytime images, so the dust does stand out. But, the background becomes more pink/purple at night, so the signal is harder to see at those times. Still, you can see the dust spread from Syria to Egypt over the course of the week.

My colleagues at CIRA have developed another way to identify dust: DEBRA. DEBRA is an acronym for Dynamic Enhanced Background Reduction Algorithm. As the name implies, DEBRA works by subtracting off the expected background signal, thereby reducing the background and enhancing the signal of the dust. So, instead of trying to see brown dust over a brown background (i.e. True Color RGB) or trying to see hot pink dust over a pinkish/purplish background (i.e. EUMETSAT Dust RGB) you get this:

Animation of VIIRS "DEBRA Dust" images (6-11 September 2015)

Animation of VIIRS “DEBRA Dust” images (6-11 September 2015)

DEBRA displays dust as yellow over a grayscale background. The intensity of the yellow is related to the confidence that a given pixel contains dust. It could display dust as any color of the rainbow, but yellow was chosen specifically because there are fewer people that are colorblind toward yellow than any other type of colorblindness. That makes the dust very easy to see for nearly everyone. (Sorry, tritanopes and achromats.) One of the biggest complaints about RGB composites is that the 7-12% of the population that has some form of colorblindness have difficulty trying to see what the images are designed to show. (Since I’m so fond of RGB composites, I better check my white male trichromat privilege. Especially since, according to that last link, white males are disproportionately colorblind.) The point is: we now have a dust detection algorithm that works well with (most) colorblind people, and it makes dust easier to see even for people that aren’t colorblind. DEBRA also works at night, but I’ve only shown daytime images here to save on filesize.

The last two frames of the DEBRA animation show something interesting: an even more massive dust storm in northern Sudan and southern Egypt! Fortunately, fewer people live there, but anyone who was there at the time must have a story to tell about the experience. Here are closer up views of that Sudanese sandstorm (or should I say “haboob” since this is the very definition of the word?). First the True Color:

VIIRS True Color image (10:32 UTC 10 September 2015)

VIIRS True Color image (10:32 UTC 10 September 2015)

Next, the EUMETSAT Dust RGB:

VIIRS EUMETSAT Dust RGB image (10:32 UTC 10 September 2015)

VIIRS EUMETSAT Dust RGB image (10:32 UTC 10 September 2015)

And, finally DEBRA:

MSG-3 DEBRA Dust image (10:30 UTC 10 September 2015)

MSG-3 DEBRA Dust image (10:30 UTC 10 September 2015)

If you’re wondering why the DEBRA image doesn’t seem to line up with the other two, it’s because I cheated. The DEBRA image came from the third Meteosat Second Generation satellite (MSG-3), which is a geostationary satellite. The majority of the haboob was outside our normal VIIRS processing domain for DEBRA, so I grabbed the closest available MSG-3 image. It has much lower spatial resolution, but similar channels, so DEBRA works just as well. And, you don’t necessarily need high spatial resolution to see a dust storm that is ~ 1000 km across. What MSG-3 lacks in spatial resolution, it makes up for in temporal resolution. Instead of two images per day, you get 1 image every 15 minutes. Here is a long loop of MSG-3 images over the course of the whole week, where you can see both sandstorms: (WARNING: this loop may take a long time to load because it contains ~600 large images). Keep your eye on Syria early on, then on Egypt and Sudan. Both haboobs appear to be caused by the outflow of convective storms. Also, how many other dust storms are visible over the Sahara during the week? For comparison purposes, here’s a similar loop of EUMETSAT Dust images. (MSG-3 does not have True Color capability.)

These sandstorms have certainly made their impact: they’ve broken poor air quality records, killed people, made life worse for refugees, closed ports and airports, and even affected the Syrian civil war.  Plus, the storms coincided with a heatwave. Having +100 °F (~40 °C) temperatures, high humidity and not being able to breathe because of the dust sounds awful. Correction: it is awful. And, life goes on in the Middle East.


UPDATE #1 (17 September 2015): Here’s a nice, zoomed-in, animated GIF of the Syrian haboob as seen by the DEBRA dust algorithm, made from MSG-3 images:

Click to view 59 MB Animated GIF

UPDATE #2 (17 September 2015): Steve M. also tipped me off to another – even more impressive – haboob that impacted Iraq at the beginning of the month (31 August – 2 September 2015). Here’s an animation of the DEBRA view of it:

Click to view 28 MB Animated GIF

This dust storm was even seen at night by the Day/Night Band, thanks to the available moonlight:

VIIRS Day/Night Band image of Iraq (22:43 UTC 31 August 2015)

VIIRS Day/Night Band image of Iraq (22:43 UTC 31 August 2015)

Look at that cute little swirl. Well, it would be cute if it weren’t so hazardous.

The Great Indian Heat Wave of 2015

Have you ever slept in a really hot room?

Of course, if you clicked on that link, keep in mind two things: perjury is a crime, and extreme heat is no joke. It is number one on the list of causes of weather-related fatalities. It may not capture the attention of the media like tornadoes, typhoons and tiger sharks but, exposure to extreme heat and extreme cold are routinely found to be the top two killers worldwide. (Well, that depends on the source of your information and how deaths are or are not attributed to weather. Some say extreme droughts and floods kill more.)

And of course, video footage of tornadoes and typhoons is more dramatic than frying an egg on the sidewalk or watching someone sweat inside a car. But, a recent heat wave in India is actually grabbing some attention from the media. Is it because there have been more than 2,200 documented fatalities? Or, the fact that it has been hot enough to make the roads melt?

Take a look at this hi/lo temperature calendar produced by the Weather Underground for Delhi, India during May 2015. If you’re paying attention, you’ll notice that only 4 days during the month had high temperatures less than 100 °F (38 °C). What is more concerning is that 18 out of the 31 days had low temperatures in the 80s. Look at May 18, 25 and 31: the lowest temperature recorded on each of those days was 87 °F (31 °C)! And take a look at the 10-day period in Hyderabad, India (May 20-29): highs near 110 °F everyday, with lows in the mid- to upper-80s.

And, for those of you in Phoenix or Death Valley, it is not a dry heat. According to this website, the automated weather station in Tirumala, Andhra Pradesh state recorded a temperature of 50 °C (122 °F) on May 31st. The day before, the high was 49 °C (120 °F), with a dew point of 24 °C (75 °F), which yields a heat index (or “feels like”) temperature of 59 °C (139 °F)!

Whether you side with Newman or Kramer on wanting to kill yourself after sleeping in a really hot room, with temperatures like this, it might not be your choice. If your body can’t cool down, you’ll be in trouble – especially if you don’t have air conditioning, like a lot of people in India.

You’ve probably guessed by now that VIIRS is capable of telling us something about this heatwave. And, you’re right! (Otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this.)

You should all know by now that the amount of radiation in the longwave infrared (IR) “window” (10-11 µm) is a function of the temperature of the object you’re looking at. We often refer to an object’s “brightness temperature,” which is the temperature that a black body would have if it emitted the same amount of radiation. With that in mind, here is the VIIRS longwave IR (M-15) image from 18 May 2015:

VIIRS IR (M-15) image from 08:06 UTC 18 May 2015.

VIIRS IR (M-15) image from 08:06 UTC 18 May 2015. Colors correspond to brightness temperatures according to the scale at lower right.

The first thing to notice is: there aren’t many clouds out there to block out the sun. The second thing to notice is: that big, black area in west-central India is where the color-enhancement of the image has lead to “saturation”. The IR color table I like to use saturates at brightness temperatures of 330 K (57 °C), which isn’t usually a problem because most places around the globe don’t get that hot. Some pixels in this image reached 332 K (59 °C/139 °F)! (The detectors of M-15 don’t saturate unless the brightness temperature is higher than 380 K, so this is not a problem with VIIRS.)

To prove there weren’t many clouds, here’s the True Color RGB (M-3/M-4/M-5):

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 08:06 UTC 18 May 2015

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 08:06 UTC 18 May 2015.

There is some smog and dust, though, if you look close but, it’s not quite the same thing. And wait! The observed temperatures were only 40-45 °C, not 59 °C! What gives?

Aha! You are now aware of the difference between “air temperature” and “skin temperature”. The satellite observes “skin temperature” – the temperature of the surface of the objects it’s looking at*.  Thermometers measure the temperature of the air 2 m above the ground (assuming they follow the WMO standards [PDF]). As anyone who has ever tried to fry an egg on the sidewalk knows, the egg would never get cooked if you suspended it in the air 2 m above the ground. The ground heats up a lot more than the air does in this situation. One of the reasons is that the atmosphere doesn’t absorb radiation in this wavelength range*- and, if it did, it wouldn’t be an “atmospheric window”.

(* Not exactly. The atmosphere does have some effects in this wavelength range that have to be removed to get a true skin temperature. These effects increase with wavelength in the 11-12 µm range, which is why you may hear it called a “dirty window”.)

Another thing you should already know (even without cracking a few eggs) is that it’s much more comfortable to walk barefoot on grass in a park, than it is to walk barefoot in the parking lot (especially if it’s hot enough to make the asphalt melt). VIIRS can also tell you this.

Below, we’ve zoomed in on the area around Bombay (Mumbai) and the Gulf of Cambay. This is an image overlay that you might have to refresh your browser to see. Bombay is on the coast near the bottom of the images. As you drag the line back and forth, notice the areas with vegetation in the True Color image have a lower brightness temperature than the areas with bare ground.


Vegetation has the ability to keep itself cool (in a process similar to sweating), unlike the bare dirt. Of course, there may be some terrain effects and marine effects along the coastline that are keeping those areas cooler. Although, the terrain west of the Gulf is the hottest part of the scene (notice it has very little green vegetation). And, if you think the marine-influenced boundary layer moderates the temperatures, which it does, it greatly adds to the humidity. Bombay’s highs during the month of May were only in the 90s F (33-35 °C), but dew points were also 80-86 °F (27-30 °C). This gives a heat index of anywhere between 110-130 °F (45-54 °C). And, of course, with all that humidity, it never cooled off at night.

I mentioned smog and dust earlier. Well, the haze, smog and dust were even worse over northwestern India on 20 May 2015:

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 07:28 UTC 20 May 2015

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 07:28 UTC 20 May 2015.

If you click on the image to see it in full resolution, you can see that the smog is trapped by the Himalayas. That means the people of Tibet are not only at more comfortable temperatures, they can also breathe fresh air.

In case you’re wondering, the dust does show up in the IR as well:

VIIRS IR (M-15) image, taken 07:28 UTC 20 May 2015

VIIRS IR (M-15) image, taken 07:28 UTC 20 May 2015.

Haze, smog, dust, unbearable heat and humidity: it’s no wonder why the people of India pray for the monsoon.