Today, we’re going to take a look at another less-covered VIIRS channel on this blog: M-9, also known as the “cirrus band”. (Disambiguation: if you’re looking for the electronic musical group “Cirrus (band)“, you’re in the wrong place.) We don’t use M-9 on this blog much because it doesn’t often provide amazing images. But, it is used for a lot of practical applications, so it is worth knowing about. We are also going to say “Hello!” to Suomi-NPP’s baby brother, NOAA-20, and welcome a new VIIRS instrument in space!
Unlike M-8, the “cirrus band” (PDF) is on nearly all of the new geostationary satellites (except Himawari). It’s also on MODIS, Landsat, and several other polar-orbiting satellite imagers. The “cirrus band” is unique in that it is highly sensitive to water vapor, but is located in the near-IR (1.38 µm) where emission from the Earth is minimal. (So, contrary to popular belief, VIIRS does have a water vapor channel. It just doesn’t behave like the typical mid-wave IR water vapor channels most people are used to.)
Electromagnetic radiation at 1.38 µm is absorbed by water vapor. But, the Earth and its atmosphere are too cold to emit much at this wavelength. (Thankfully, or we would have all melted by now.) Of course, the sun is hot enough. This means the 1.38 µm radiation coming from the sun is absorbed by water vapor in our atmosphere, and the only* radiation making its way back to VIIRS is what is reflected off of clouds above the water vapor. This makes channels centered at 1.38 µm particularly useful at identifying thin cirrus that would otherwise blend in with the background on other channels. Hence, the name “cirrus band”. (* Of course, reflection off of high clouds is not the only source, as we shall see. That’s the reason for this blog post.)
So, high clouds are white and the background is black – this is the assumption when looking at VIIRS’s cirrus band (unless you’re using a funky color table). But, take a look at this image that S-NPP VIIRS took on 17 January 2018:
On my monitor, viewing angle makes a big difference as to how bright the features appear. If you are viewing this on a laptop or tablet, your screen is much easier to adjust that than my Jumbotron if it’s hard to see. You can also move your head around and see if anyone else looks at you funny. (This is also a good way to test out a TV in the store before you buy it. Will people sitting off to the side get the same view as someone directly in front of the TV? You might want to know that if hosting a party for the big game this weekend.)
Let’s zoom in on the area in question:
And, give the image maximum contrast:
There is a feature in that image that looks awfully like the coastline of the Gulf of Mexico stretching from Louisiana to the Florida panhandle. It sure looks like you can see the Mississippi River, the Tennessee River, and all the “lakes” in eastern Texas. But, I thought water vapor was supposed to absorb all the radiation before it made it to the surface! And, this is Louisiana we’re talking about. The entire coastal region of the state is a big swamp – I mean a collection of bayous. So, there should be plenty of water vapor around.
One would expect to see all the way to the surface in high-altitude arid areas, like the Bolivian Altiplano and the upper elevations of the Atacama Desert. And, you do:
But, one does not expect to see the surface of Louisiana at 1.38 µm, since it is so close to sea level and it is one of the most humid parts of the United States. Maybe something is wrong with S-NPP VIIRS? Let’s look at our new baby, NOAA-20 VIIRS:
And, once again, with maximum contrast:
Note that NOAA-20 was launched back in November 2017, and is still undergoing post-launch testing and checkout, so it has not been declared operational just yet. But, this is a good test for the new VIIRS. It can see the same surface features S-NPP did 50 minutes earlier. And, it means that both instruments are working. So, why can we see all the way to the surface of Louisiana in the “cirrus band”? Because, the atmosphere was incredibly dry.
Here’s the sounding from Slidell, LA (on the other side of Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans) on 12 UTC 17 January 2018. Notice the precipitable water value (“PWAT”) is 2.47, which is reported on soundings in mm. That’s just less than 0.1 inches. The nearby soundings taken at Shreveport and Lake Charles reported PWATs of 2.45 mm and 2.77 mm, respectively. Normal for this time of year is about 7 times greater! (Note that he corrected his typo.)
To put this into perspective, this was drier than the Sahara Desert was a few days later:
Notice you can’t see the surface of the Sahara, indicating there was more water vapor in the air over the desert than there was over Louisiana. The only thing you can see are the cirrus clouds and other clouds that made it to the upper atmosphere. This is more typical of the “cirrus band”.
Now, back to Louisiana: the dry, Arctic airmass resulted in a number of record low temperatures. Plus, this was accompanied by snow, as seen by both S-NPP and NOAA-20:
Snow was reported all the way to Gulf Coast, and you can see evidence of it in the images around Houston, TX, which is pretty rare. But, wait! Why didn’t we see snow in the M-9 “cirrus band” images? Because snow is not very reflective at 1.38 µm, and it blends in with the background. To show what an interesting winter it has been, here’s a map put out by the Weather Prediction Center from 18 January 2018, showing estimated total snowfall accumulations for this winter (so far). Note that an area of Mississippi and Louisiana has had approximately the same amount of snow as most of Iowa and southern Wisconsin (and even here in Northern Colorado!). All 48 contiguous United States have received measurable snowfall!
Fun fact: you can open one of the True Color images in a new browser tab, and the other image in this tab and toggle back and forth between them. This allows you to see the clouds move, and the edges of the snowfield melt. If you have eagle eyes, you can also see that the S-NPP image is sharper on the east side of the image (close to its nadir), while the NOAA-20 image is sharper on the west side (close to its nadir). The satellites are both in the same orbit, but on opposite sides of the Earth. Since the Earth is constantly rotating underneath them, and the VIIRS swath is designed to fill all the gaps at the Equator (unlike MODIS), their ground tracks at low and mid-latitudes are separated by half the width of a VIIRS swath. Nadir for one VIIRS is near the edge of the swath of the other VIIRS. (But, not at high latitudes.) The distance from Tallahassee, Florida to Houston, Texas is a pretty good rule of thumb for the spatial distance between the two satellites when they’re over the United States. Fifty minutes is a good rule of thumb for the temporal distance between them (and this is true all over the globe).
So, for once, Louisiana was colder than the Arctic (Ocean, at least) and drier than the Sahara Desert!