On the Disappearance of Lake Mille Lacs

Two weeks ago, one of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes disappeared, leaving them with only 9,999. And, it wasn’t a small one, either. It was the state’s second largest inland lake. But, this is not like Goose Lake, which actually did dry up. The lake in question simply became temporarily invisible. So, no need to panic, fishing and boating enthusiasts. But, as you’ll see, the term “invisible” can be just as ambiguous as the term “lake”.

Let’s start with the fact that Minnesota doesn’t have 10,000 lakes. Their slogan is a lie! Depending on how you define a lake, Minnesota has 21,871, or 15,291, or 11,842. But, Wisconsin might have more (or less) and likes to argue with Minnesota about that fact. Michigan might have way more (62,798) or way less (6,537). And, they all pale in comparison to the number of lakes in Alaska. Here is an article that explains the situation nicely.

With that out of the way, today’s story comes from “current GOES” and what one colleague noticed during a cursory examination of GOES Imager images. Here’s the GOES-13 visible image from 19:30 UTC 27 January 2017:

GOES-13 visible image, taken 19:30 UTC 27 January 2017

GOES-13 visible image, taken 19:30 UTC 27 January 2017

Compare that with the visible image from 19:15 UTC 2 February 2017:

GOES-13 visible image, taken 19:15 UTC 2 February 2017

GOES-13 visible image, taken 19:15 UTC 2 February 2017

Notice anything different between the two images over Minnesota? No? Then let’s flip back-and-forth between the two, with a giant, red arrow pointing to the area in question:

Animation of the above images

Animation of the above images. The red arrow points to Lake Mille Lacs.

The red arrow is pointing to the location of Lake Mille Lacs. You might know it as Mille Lacs Lake. (Either way, it’s name is redundant; “Mille Lacs” is French for “Thousand Lakes,” making it Thousand Lakes Lake.) As the above images show, on 27 January 2017 Lake Mille Lacs was not visible in the GOES image. On 2 February 2017, it was. They both look like clear days, so what happened? Why did Lake Mille Lacs disappear?

As I said before, the lake didn’t dry up. It simply became temporarily invisible. But, this requires a discussion about what it means to be “visible”. Lake Mille Lacs shows up in the image from 2 February 2017 because it appears brighter than the surrounding land. That’s because the lake is covered with snow. Aren’t the surrounding land areas also covered with snow? Yes. However, the surrounding lands also have trees which obscure the snow and shade the background surface, which is why forested areas appear darker even when there is snow.

That leads to this question: why does the lake appear darker on 27 January? Because it rained the week before. Want proof? Look at the almanac for Brainerd (NW of Lake Mille Lacs) for the period of 18-22 January 2017. Every day made it above freezing along with several days of rain. Much of the snow melted (including the snow on the lake). Want more proof? Here’s a video taken on the lake from 20 January 2017. See how Minnesotans drive around on frozen lakes – even in the rain? And, see how wet and slushy the surface of the ice is? This makes it appear darker than when there is fresh snow on top. If you’ve ever seen a pile of slush, you know it’s not bright white, but a dull gray color. The less reflective slush on the lake reduced the apparent brightness down to the level of the surrounding woodlands. That’s why the lake appeared to disappear.

Now, this is “current GOES” imagery. We can do better with VIIRS, since we have more channels to play with. And, as we all know, GOES-R successfully launched back in November 2016 and is now in orbit as GOES-16. This satellite has the first Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI) in space. The ABI has many of the same channels as VIIRS, so the following discussion applies to both instruments. “New” GOES will have up to 500 m resolution in the visible, which is much closer to VIIRS (375 m) than “current” GOES (1 km). That’s another thing to think about when we talk about what is visible and what isn’t.

Here are the VIIRS high-resolution visible (I-1) images that correspond to the GOES images above:

VIIRS high-resolution visible (I-1) image, taken 19:35 UTC 27 January 2017

VIIRS high-resolution visible (I-1) image, taken 19:35 UTC 27 January 2017

VIIRS high-resolution visible (I-1) image, taken 19:22 UTC 2 February 2017

VIIRS high-resolution visible (I-1) image, taken 19:22 UTC 2 February 2017

Although, we should probably focus on Minnesota. Here are the cropped images side-by-side:

Comparison between VIIRS high-resolution visible (I-1) images

Comparison between VIIRS high-resolution visible (I-1) images

Remember: you can click on any image to bring up the full resolution version.

Although Lake Mille Lacs is just barely visible in the image from 27 January, it’s much easier to see on 2 February. So, we get the same story from VIIRS that we got with GOES, which is good. That means we don’t have a major fault of a multi-million dollar satellite. It’s a “fault” of the radiative properties of slush, combined with the low resolution of the GOES images above.

Keep your eyes also on the largest inland lake in Minnesota: Red Lake. The Siamese twins of Upper and Lower Red Lake didn’t get as much rain as Lake Mille Lacs and its snow never fully melted, so its appearance doesn’t change much between the two images.

The GOES Imager also has a longwave infrared (IR) channel, and a mid-wave IR channel similar to VIIRS. Since the goal of this is not to compare GOES to VIIRS, but to show how these lakes appear at different wavelengths, we’ll stick to the VIIRS images. Here are the high-resolution VIIRS longwave IR images from the same times:

Comparison of VIIRS high-resolution longwave IR (I-5) images

Comparison of VIIRS high-resolution longwave IR (I-5) images

In both images, the lakes are nearly invisible! This is because the longwave IR is primarily sensitive to temperature changes, and the slush is nearly the same temperature as the background land surface. With no temperature contrast to key on, the lake looks just like the surrounding land. Although, if you zoom in and squint, you might say that Lake Mille Lacs is actually more visible in the image from 27 January. 27 January was a warmer day (click back on that Brainerd almanac), and the surrounding land warmed up more than the slushy ice on the lake. 2 February was much colder on the lake and the land. But, let this be a lesson that, just because the lake doesn’t show up, it doesn’t mean the lake doesn’t exist!

Something interesting happens when you look at the mid-wave IR. All the lakes are visible, and take on a similar brightness, no matter how slushy they are:

Comparison of VIIRS high-resolution mid-wave IR (I-4) images

Comparison of VIIRS high-resolution mid-wave IR (I-4) images

In this wavelength range, both reflection of solar energy and thermal emission are important. Snow, ice and slush are not reflective and they are cold, making the lakes appear darker than the surrounding land. The fact that the land surrounding Lake Mille Lacs and Red Lake is darker on 2 February than it is on 27 January is further proof that it was a colder day with more snow on the ground.

Here’s where we get to the advantage of VIIRS (and, soon, GOES-16): it has more channels in the shortwave and near-IR. The 1.6 µm “snow and ice” band has a lot of uses, and I expect it will be a popular channel on the ABI. Here’s what the high-resolution channel looks like from VIIRS:

Comparison of VIIRS high-resolution near-IR (I-3) images

Comparison of VIIRS high-resolution near-IR (I-3) images

Compare these with the visible images above. Now, the reverse is true: Lake Mille Lacs is easier to see in the first image than the second! You can’t call it invisible at all on 27 January! The presence of liquid water makes the slush very absorbing – more than even ice and snow – so it appears nearly black. In fact, it’s hard to tell the difference between the slushy ice-covered Lake Mille Lacs, and the open waters of Lake Superior, which has no ice or slush on it. On 2 February, we see the fresh layer of snow on Lake Mille Lacs has increased the lake’s reflectivity, but it’s still slightly darker than the surrounding snow covered land. This is for two reasons: snow and ice are absorbing at 1.6 µm and the surrounding woodlands are more reflective.

Here’s a better comparison between the “visible” and the “snow and ice” bands:

Comparison of VIIRS I-1 and I-3 images (animation)

Comparison of VIIRS I-1 and I-3 images (animation)

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

Here’s an animation showing all five high-resolution bands on VIIRS for the two days:

Comparison of VIIRS high-resolution imagery channels (animation)

Comparison of VIIRS high-resolution imagery channels (animation)

Again, you have to click on it to see it animate.

Now, we can combine channels into RGB composites that highlight the snow and ice. We’ve discussed several RGB composites for snow detection before. And, we have been looking at the Natural Color RGB for a long time. This composite combines the high-resolution bands I-1 (0.64 µm), I-2 (0.86 µm) and I-3 (1.6 µm) as the blue, green and red components of the image, respectively. Here’s what it looks like for these two days:

Comparison of VIIRS Natural Color RGB composites

Comparison of VIIRS Natural Color RGB composites using high-resolution imagery bands

Lake Mille Lacs is visible on both days – first because it’s darker than the surroundings, then because it’s brighter. This composite demonstrates how vegetation can obscure the surface snow – it appears more brown in deciduous forests (and bare fields with no snow) and green in coniferous areas. But, the important point is that the wetter the snow and slush, the darker it appears. The fresher the snow, the brighter cyan color it has.

This is exaggerated in the “Snow RGB” that combines moderate resolution bands M-11 (2.25 µm), M-10 (1.6 µm) and M-7 (0.86 µm):

Comparison of VIIRS "Snow RGB" composites of channels M-11, M-10 and M-7

Comparison of VIIRS “Snow RGB” composites of channels M-11, M-10 and M-7

M-11 (2.25 µm) is sold as a “cloud particle size” band, but it also helps with snow and ice detection (and fires). The presence of water in melting snow enhances the darkening at 2.25 µm. In this RGB, that means melting snow appears more red, while fresh snow appears more pink. The slush on Lake Mille Lacs appears very dark – almost as dark as Lake Superior – so a Minnesotan might be forgiven if they see the image from 27 January and decide not to drive out on the lake to go ice fishing because they think the ice isn’t there.

Of course, VIIRS also gives us the True Color RGB – the most intuitive RGB composite – that combines the blue-, green- and red-wavelength visible bands: M-3 (0.48 µm), M-4 (0.55 µm) and M-5 (0.67 µm). If you’re curious, here’s what that looks like:

Comparison of VIIRS True Color RGB composite images

Comparison of VIIRS True Color RGB composite images

The slush on Lake Mille Lacs looks just like dirty slush and the fresh snow looks just like snow. (As it should!)

So, the second biggest lake in Minnesota never disappeared – it just changed its surface properties. And, it will always be “visible” to VIIRS in one channel or another – unless it’s cloudy (or it completely dries up).

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