Rivers of Ice

Oh, Yakutsk! It has been a long time – 2012, to be exact – since we last spoke about you. It was a different time back then, with me still referring to the Natural Color RGB as “pseudo-true color”. (Now, most National Weather Service forecasters know it as the “Day Land Cloud RGB”). VIIRS was a only a baby with less than one year on the job. Back then, the area surrounding the “Coldest City on Earth” was on fire. This time, we return to talk about ice.

You see, rivers near the Coldest City on Earth freeze during the winter, as do most rivers at high latitudes. Places like the Northwest Territories, the Yukon, Alaska and Siberia use this to their advantage. Rivers that are frozen solid can make good roads, a fact that has often been overly dramatized for TV. Transporting heavy equipment may be better done on solid ice in the winter than on squishy, swampy tundra in the summer. But, that comes with a cost: ice roads only work during the winter.

In remote places like these, with few roads, rivers are the lifeblood of transportation – acting as roads during the winter and waterways for boats during the summer. But, what about the transition period that happens each spring and fall? Every year there is a period of time where it is too icy for boats and not icy enough for trucks. Monitoring for the autumn ice-up is an important task. And, perhaps it is more important to monitor for the spring break-up of the ice, since the break up period is often associated with ice jams and flooding.

We’ve covered the autumn ice up before (on our sister blog), but VIIRS recently captured a great view of the spring break up near Yakutsk, that will be our focus today.

We will start with the astonishing video captured by VIIRS’ geostationary cousin, the Advanced Himawari Imager (AHI) on Himawari-8 from 18 May 2018:

The big river flowing south to north in the center of the frame is the Lena River. (Yakutsk is on that river just south of the easternmost bend.) The second big river along the right side of the frame is the Aldan River, which turns to the west and flows into the Lena in the center of the frame.

Now that you are oriented, take a look at that video again in full screen mode. If you look closely, you will see a snake-like section of ice flowing from the Aldan into the Lena. This is exactly the kind of thing river forecasters are supposed to be watching for during the spring!

Of course, this is a geostationary satellite, which provides good temporal resolution, but not as good spatial resolution. The video is made from 1-km resolution imagery, but we are looking at high latitudes on an oblique angle, so the resolution is more like 3-4 km here. So, how does this look from the vantage point of VIIRS, which provides similar imagery at 375 m resolution? See for yourself:

(You will have to click on the image to get the animation to play.)

Animation of VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels I-1, I-2 and I-3 (18 May 2018)

Animation of VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels I-1, I-2 and I-3 (18 May 2018)

This animation includes both Suomi NPP and NOAA-20 VIIRS. That gives us ~50 min. temporal resolution to go with the sub-kilometer spatial resolution. Eagle-eyed viewers can see how the resolution changes over the course of the animation, as the rivers start out near the left edge of the VIIRS swath (~750 m resolution), then on subsequent orbits, the rivers are near nadir (~375 m resolution) and then on the right edge of the swath (~750 m resolution again). In any case, this is better spatial resolution than AHI can provide at this latitude.

One thing you can do with this animation is calculate how fast the ice was moving. I estimated the leading edge of the big “ice snake” moved about 59 pixels (22.3 km at 375 m resolution) during the 3 hour, 21 minute duration of the animation. That works out to an average speed of 6.7 km/hr (3.6 knots), which doesn’t seem unreasonable. Counting up pixels also indicates our big “ice snake” is at least 65 km long, and the Aldan River is nearly 3 km wide in its lower reaches when it meets the Lena River. That is in the neighborhood of 200 km2 of ice!

That much ice moving at 3 knots can do a lot of damage. Just look at what the ice on this much smaller river did to this bridge:

(Make sure you watch it all the way to the end!)

(What’s the Story) Middle-of-the-Night Glory?

A Morning Glory is a lot of things: a flower, a town in Kentucky, a popular choice for song and album titles, and – what is most relevant for us – it’s a rare atmospheric phenomenon that is both beautiful and potentially deadly.

For glider pilots, it’s the atmospheric equivalent to catching a 40-wave off the North Shore of Oahu. Like surfing the North Shore, the thrill is in catching a powerful wave and going for a ride, which only happens if you position yourself in the right spot. And, just like surfing a monster wave, one misstep can result in being crushed downward into a pile of jagged rocks and swept out to sea. The difference is, a North Shore wave is 10-12 m high and only travels a 100 m or so until it hits land and stops. A Morning Glory wave is 500-1000 m high and can travel hundreds of kilometers over a period of several hours. Here’s a picture of one:


“MorningGloryCloudBurketownFromPlane” by Mick Petroff – Mick Petroff. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MorningGloryCloudBurketownFromPlane.jpg#/media/File:MorningGloryCloudBurketownFromPlane.jpg

Simply put, a Morning Glory is a solitary wave, or “soliton“. We talked about mesospheric bores before, which are another kind of soliton. In this case, however, the soliton propagates through (or along the top of) the atmosphere’s boundary layer. Sometimes, it produces a cloud or series of clouds that came to be known as a “Morning Glory” because these clouds commonly occur near sunrise in the one place on Earth where this event isn’t rare.

Enough talk. The Day/Night Band (DNB) on VIIRS just saw a one. Let’s see if you can see it:

VIIRS DNB image of Australia (15:24 UTC 26 October 2015)

VIIRS DNB image of Australia (15:24 UTC 26 October 2015)

This really is like “Where’s Waldo?” because the image covers a much larger area than the Morning Glory. Even I didn’t see it at first. But, zoom in to the corner of the image over the Gulf of Carpentaria. (You can click on any of these images to see the full resolution version.) Now do you see it?

VIIRS DNB image of the Gulf of Carpentaria (15:24 UTC 26 October 2015)

VIIRS DNB image of the Gulf of Carpentaria (15:24 UTC 26 October 2015)

Once more on the zoom, and it’s obvious:

Same as above, but zoomed in on the Morning Glory.

Same as above, but zoomed in on the Morning Glory.

But, this happened at ~1:30 AM local time – depending on where in that image you are looking – so maybe it’s a Middle-of-the-Night Glory instead of a Morning Glory. (Fun fact: Northern Territory and South Australia are on a half-hour time zone, GMT+9:30. Queensland and the rest of eastern Australia are at GMT+10:00. But, the southern states have Daylight Saving Time while the north and west do not. That means almost every state has it’s own time zone.)

The Gulf of Carpentaria is where Morning Glory clouds are most likely to form. And, this is the peak season for them. (The season runs from late August to mid-November.) What is rare is seeing them so clearly at night.

Since this image was taken one night before a full moon, there was plenty of moonlight available to the DNB to see the “roll clouds” that are indicative of the Morning Glory. You can even see ripples that extend beyond the endpoints of the clouds, which might be some kind of aerosol plume affected by the waves.

There is another way to see this Morning Glory, and it’s what we call the “low cloud/fog product”. The low cloud/fog product is simply the difference in brightness temperature between the longwave infrared (IR) (10.7 µm) and the mid-wave IR (3.9 µm). For low clouds, this difference is positive at night and negative during the day. Here is an example of the low cloud/fog product applied to a new geostationary satellite, Himawari-8:

Animation of AHI Low Cloud/Fog product images (10:00 - 22:50 UTC 26 October 2015)

Animation of AHI Low Cloud/Fog product images (10:00 – 22:50 UTC 26 October 2015)

The Advanced Himawari Imager (AHI) on Himawari-8 is similar to VIIRS, except it has water vapor channels in the IR and it doesn’t have the Day/Night Band. It also stays in the same place relative to the Earth and takes images of the “full disk” every 10 minutes. That’s what allows you to see – in impressive detail – the evolution of this Morning Glory. The low, liquid clouds switch from white to black after sunrise because, as I said, the signal switches from positive (white) to negative (black) at sunrise. Ice clouds (e.g. cirrus) always look black in this product.

Here’s a zoomed in version of the above animation:

As above, except zoomed in to highlight the Morning Glory

As above, except zoomed in to highlight the Morning Glory

Of course, once the sun rises, the standard visible imagery from AHI captures the tail end of the Morning Glory:

Animation of AHI Band 3 images (20:00 - 23:30 UTC 26 October 2015)

Animation of AHI Band 3 images (20:00 – 23:30 UTC 26 October 2015)

And, once again, zoomed in:

As above, except zoomed in to highlight the Morning Glory

As above, except zoomed in to highlight the Morning Glory

At this point, it really is a Morning Glory, since it appeared at sunrise. Of course, at night, only the VIIRS Day/Night Band under full moonlight can show it in “all of its glory”. (Pun definitely intended.)

Pilots take note: the waves can still exist even when the clouds evaporate, and they are a source of severe turbulence.

If you want to know more about the phenomenon, watch this video with a lot of information or this video with a lot of pretty pictures. And, while a lot of people believe the cause of the Morning Glory is still a mystery, one scientist in Germany thinks the cause is now known. You can read all about his and other’s research into the science behind these solitary waves at this webpage.

UPDATE (12/16/2016): We’ve seen more examples of Morning Glory waves and clouds with Himawari-8. The formation of two Morning Glory waves may be seen on our Himawari Loop-of-the-Day webpage here and here. Plus, there is an extended loop covering a two day period shown in this very large animated GIF (83 MB).