The Outback on Fire

I’m not talking about a Subaru. I’m talking about the vast expanse of sparsely-populated Australia. We’ve already seen fires in the United States, Russia and the Canary Islands. Well, they have been happening down under, too. (Is there any part of this planet not currently experiencing a drought?)

Despite the risk of getting fire fatigue (“Another post about fires?” *yawn*), we’re going to look at these fires for two reasons. First, it gives me a chance to show off the “fire tornado” video clip that has been making the rounds on the Internet:

Second, VIIRS saw the fire that produced the “fire tornado” (and a whole bunch of other fires) and it gives me a chance to show off the newly christened “Fire Temperature RGB”.

First, let’s look at the boring (yet still valuable) way of detecting fires: identifying hot spots in a 3.9 µm image. Here’s what VIIRS channel M-13 (4.0 µm) saw over Australia on 19 September 2012:

VIIRS channel M-13 image of central Australia, taken 04:34 UTC 19 September 2012

VIIRS channel M-13 image of central Australia, taken 04:34 UTC 19 September 2012

Pixels hotter than 350 K show up as black in this image. Given this information, how many fires can you see? (Hint: click on the image, then on the “3200×1536″ link below the banner to see the image at full resolution. And, no, wise guy – you don’t count all the black pixels outside the boundaries of the data.)

Here’s the “pseudo-true color” RGB composite (this time made of M-05 [0.67 µm, blue], M-07 [0.87 µm, green], and M-10 [1.61 µm, red]):

False-color RGB composite of VIIRS channels M-05, M-07 and M-10, taken 04:34 UTC 19 September 2012

False-color RGB composite of VIIRS channels M-05, M-07 and M-10, taken 04:34 UTC 19 September 2012

With this RGB composite, really hot fires show up as bright red pixels. More hot spots are visible in the M-13 image than the “pseudo-true color” image because M-13 is much more sensitive to the heat from fires than M-05, M-07 and M-10 are. M-10 only picks up the signal from the hottest (or biggest) fires. M-05 and M-07 don’t pick up the heat signal at all, because the radiation from the sun, reflected off the Earth’s surface, drowns it out (which is precisely why the hot spots look red). M-13 is also better at detecting fires because it works at night, unlike these three channels.

You can make the hot spots from the smaller/less hot (lower brightness temperature) fires more visible by replacing M-10 with M-11 (2.25 µm) as the red channel in the RGB composite. M-11 is more sensitive to hot spots than M-10. If you do that, you get this image:

False-color RGB composite of VIIRS channels M-05, M-07 and M-11, taken 04:34 UTC 19 September 2012

False-color RGB composite of VIIRS channels M-05, M-07 and M-11, taken 04:34 UTC 19 September 2012

Since the previous RGB composite is often referred to as “natural color”, maybe this one should be called the “natural fire color” RGB composite. Now, most of the hot spots (not just the hottest ones) show up as red.

It should be noted that the fire complex in the grid box bounded by the 24 °S and 26 °S latitude and 128 °E and 132 °E longitude lines is where the video of the fire tornado came from. That fire is currently burning close to Uluru (a.k.a. Ayers Rock), the site where the creator beings live, according to local legend. According to an Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park newsletter from back in July, prescribed burns were taking place in and around the park, although it’s not clear if the fires seen by VIIRS now (in September) are part of the prescribed burns.

EUMETSAT recently held a workshop on RGB satellite products, where a new RGB composite was proposed for VIIRS: the “Fire Temperature RGB”, made from M-10 (1.61 µm, blue), M-11 (2.25 µm, green) and M-12 (3.70 µm, red). Here’s what that looks like:

False-color RGB composite of VIIRS channels M-10, M-11 and M-12, taken 04:34 UTC 19 September 2012

False-color RGB composite of VIIRS channels M-10, M-11 and M-12, taken 04:34 UTC 19 September 2012

In this composite, hot spots from fires show up as yellow, orange, bright red or white, depending on how hot they are. Liquid clouds show up as light blue. Ice clouds, which are missing from this scene, typically show up as dark green. The background surface shows up as a shade of purple. Burn scars, which show up as dark brown in the “natural color” and “natural fire color” composites, show up as more of a maroon color in the “fire temperature” composite. Coincidently, maroon is the “official color” of Queensland, although it looks like most of the maroon burn scars show up in the Northern Territory.

To easily compare the different views of the fires (and make it obvious to everyone what the fires look like), here’s an animation, zoomed in on the lower left corner of each of the images above:

Animated loop of images of the fires in Australia as seen by VIIRS, 04:34 UTC 19 September 2012

Animated loop of images of the fires in Australia as seen by VIIRS, 04:34 UTC 19 September 2012

The yellow highlighted areas are where the active fires are.

Now that you’ve seen several different ways of displaying fire hot spots with VIIRS, which one do you like best?

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