Much of the United States has had a below-average amount of snow this fall (and below-average precipitation for the whole year). Look at how little snow cover there was in the month of November. Parts of Europe, however, have seen snow. It’s nice to know that it’s falling somewhere. But, can you tell where?
Here is a visible image (0.6 µm) from Meteosat-9, taken 12 December 2012 (at 12:00 UTC):
And here’s the infrared image (10.8 µm) from the same time:
These are images provided by EUMETSAT. Can you tell where the snow is? Or what is snow and what is cloud?
Here’s a much higher resolution image from VIIRS (zoomed in the Alps), taken only 3 minutes later:
Now is it easy to differentiate clouds from snow? Just changing the resolution doesn’t help that much.
This has long been a problem for satellites operating in visible to infrared wavelengths. Visible-wavelength channels detect clouds based on the fact that they are highly reflective (just like snow). Infrared (IR) channels are sensitive to the temperature of the objects they’re looking at, and detect clouds because they are usually cold (just like snow). So, it can be difficult to distinguish between the two. If you had a time lapse loop of images, you’d most likely see the clouds move, while the snow stays put (or disappears because it is melting). But, what if you only had one image? What if the clouds were anchored to the terrain and didn’t move? How would you detect snow in these cases?
EUMETSAT has developed several RGB composites to help identify snow. The Daytime Microphysics RGB (link goes to PowerPoint file) looks like this:
Snow is hot pink (magenta), which shows up pretty well. Clouds are a multitude of colors based on type, particle size, optical thickness, and phase. That whole PowerPoint file linked above is designed to help you understand all the different colors.
The Daytime Microphysics RGB uses a reflectivity calculation for the 3.9 µm channel (the green channel of the RGB). Without bothering to do that calculation, I’ve replaced the reflectivity at 3.9 µm with the reflectivity at 2.25 µm (M-11) when applying this RGB product to VIIRS, and produced a similar result:
Except for the wavelength difference of the green channel (and minor differences between the VIIRS channels and Meteosat channels), everything else is kept the same as the official product definition. Once again, the snow is pink, in sharp contrast to the clouds and the snow-free surfaces. We won’t bother to show the Nighttime Microphysics/Fog RGB (link goes to PowerPoint file) since this is a daytime scene.
EUMETSAT has also developed a Snow RGB (link goes to PowerPoint file):
This also uses the reflectivity calculated for the 3.9 µm channel. Plus, it uses a gamma correction for the blue and green channels. Is it just me, or does snow show up better in the Daytime Microphysics RGB?
If you switch out the 3.9 µm for the 2.25 µm channel again and skip the gamma correction when creating this RGB composite for VIIRS, the snow stands out a lot more:
Now you have snow ranging from pink to red with gray land areas, black water and pale blue to light pink clouds. This combination of channels makes snow identification easier than the official “Snow RGB”, I think.
All of this is well and good but, for my money, nothing beats what EUMETSAT calls the “natural color” RGB. I have referred to it as the “pseudo-true color“. Here’s the low-resolution EUMETSAT image:
And the higher resolution VIIRS image:
The VIIRS image above uses the moderate resolution channels M-5, M-7 and M-10, although this RGB composite can be made with the high-resolution imagery channels I-01, I-02 and I-03, which basically have the same wavelengths and twice the horizontal resolution. Below is the highest resolution offered by VIIRS (cropped down slightly to reduce memory usage when plotting the data):
Make sure to click on the image and then on the “2594×1955” link below the banner to see the image in full resolution.
This RGB composite is easier on the eyes and easier to understand. Snow has high reflectivity in M-5 (I-01) and M-7 (I-02) but low reflectivity in M-10 (I-03) so, when combined in the RGB image, it shows up as cyan. Liquid clouds have high reflectivity in all three channels so it shows up as white (or dirty, off-white). The only source of contention is that ice clouds, if they’re thick enough, will also show up as cyan.
Except for the cyan snow and ice, the “natural color” RGB is otherwise similar to a “true color” image. Vegetation shows up green, unlike the other RGB composites where it has been gray or purple or a very yellowish green. That makes it more intuitive for the average viewer. You don’t need to read an entire guide book to understand all the colors that you’re seeing.
Compare all of these RGB composites against the single channel images at the top of the page. They all make it easier to distinguish clouds from snow, although some work better than others. Now compare the VIIRS images with the Meteosat images. Which ones look better?
(To be fair, it’s not all Meteosat’s fault. The images provided by EUMETSAT are low-resolution JPG files [which is a lossy-compression format]. The VIIRS images shown here are loss-less PNG files, which are much larger files to have to store and they require more bandwidth to display.)
As a bonus (consider it your Christmas bonus), here are a few more high-resolution “natural color” images of snow and low clouds over the Alps. These are kept at a 4:3 width-to-height ratio and a 16:9 ratio, so they make ideal desktop wallpapers.
That was the 4:3 ratio image. Here’s the 16:9 ratio image:
Enjoy the snow (or be glad you don’t have to drive in it)!