People have been living along the Nile River in northeastern Africa and on the Arabian Peninsula for thousands of years (dating back to the Paleolithic Era). And, every once in a while, a story comes along that makes you wonder why. I’m not talking about the never-ending human conflict that has plagued the region. I’m talking about the hostile climate. (Of course, it wasn’t always hostile. There have been periods of abundant moisture. Read this. Or this.)
If you’ve watched Raiders of the Lost Ark, you are no-doubt familiar with the ancient city of Tanis, and the story about it that was the basis of the whole plot of the movie. If you haven’t seen the movie: 1) shame on you; and, 2) watch this clip.
“The city of Tanis was consumed by the desert in a sandstorm that lasted a whole year.”
I hate to be the bearer of bad news but, that part of the story is false. No year-long sandstorm hit Tanis. And, despite rumors that the actual Ark is buried in Tanis, it has never been found. (Because it’s stored in a giant government warehouse! Duh!) Plus, Indiana Jones is a fictional character in a movie. But, the movie is not entirely false. According to this article, a major archaeological find did take place at Tanis right before World War II (led by a French archaeologist, no less), and very few people know about it because of the war. Plus, there really was an Egyptian Pharaoh named Shoshenq/Shishak.
Even if Tanis was not buried by a year-long sandstorm, that doesn’t mean nasty sandstorms don’t exist. In fact, most of the Middle East is still dealing with a massive sandstorm that lasted a whole week last week. This storm put Beijing’s air pollution to shame. In fact, the dust reached the highest concentrations ever recorded in Jerusalem since Israel became it’s own country in 1948. It was responsible for several fatalities. Here are some pictures. Here’s a video from Saudi Arabia. Here’s what it looked like in Jordan and Lebanon. And, of course, what follows is what the storm looked like in VIIRS imagery.
Since this dust storm lasted a whole week, we got plenty of VIIRS imagery of the event. It started on the afternoon of 6 September 2015, and here’s the first VIIRS True Color image of it:
Can you see it? (Click on the image to see the full resolution version.) A trained eye can spot it from this image alone. An untrained eye might have difficulty distinguishing it from the rest of the desert and sand. Look for the tan blob over Syria that is obscuring the view of the Euphrates river.
If you can see that, you can track it over the rest of the week:
This animation was reduced to 33% of it’s original size to limit the bandwidth needed to display it. It contains the afternoon overpasses (1 image per day) because you need sunlight to see things in true color. And, while it suffers from the fact that animated GIFs only allow 256 colors (instead of the 16,777,216 colors possible in the original images), you should be able to see the dust “explode” over Israel, Lebanon and Jordan over the next two days. It eventually advects over northwestern Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Cyprus during the rest of the week.
The last time we looked at a major dust storm, the dust was easy to see. It was blown out over the ocean, which is a nice, dark background to provide the contrast needed to see the dust. Here, the dust is nearly the same color as the background – because it is made out of what’s in the background. Is there a better way to detect dust in situations like this?
Since this RGB composite uses only infrared (IR) channels, it works at night (although not as well) so you can get twice as many images over this time period. It also makes dust appear hot pink. The background appears more blue in the daytime images, so the dust does stand out. But, the background becomes more pink/purple at night, so the signal is harder to see at those times. Still, you can see the dust spread from Syria to Egypt over the course of the week.
My colleagues at CIRA have developed another way to identify dust: DEBRA. DEBRA is an acronym for Dynamic Enhanced Background Reduction Algorithm. As the name implies, DEBRA works by subtracting off the expected background signal, thereby reducing the background and enhancing the signal of the dust. So, instead of trying to see brown dust over a brown background (i.e. True Color RGB) or trying to see hot pink dust over a pinkish/purplish background (i.e. EUMETSAT Dust RGB) you get this:
DEBRA displays dust as yellow over a grayscale background. The intensity of the yellow is related to the confidence that a given pixel contains dust. It could display dust as any color of the rainbow, but yellow was chosen specifically because there are fewer people that are colorblind toward yellow than any other type of colorblindness. That makes the dust very easy to see for nearly everyone. (Sorry, tritanopes and achromats.) One of the biggest complaints about RGB composites is that the 7-12% of the population that has some form of colorblindness have difficulty trying to see what the images are designed to show. (Since I’m so fond of RGB composites, I better check my white male trichromat privilege. Especially since, according to that last link, white males are disproportionately colorblind.) The point is: we now have a dust detection algorithm that works well with (most) colorblind people, and it makes dust easier to see even for people that aren’t colorblind. DEBRA also works at night, but I’ve only shown daytime images here to save on filesize.
The last two frames of the DEBRA animation show something interesting: an even more massive dust storm in northern Sudan and southern Egypt! Fortunately, fewer people live there, but anyone who was there at the time must have a story to tell about the experience. Here are closer up views of that Sudanese sandstorm (or should I say “haboob” since this is the very definition of the word?). First the True Color:
Next, the EUMETSAT Dust RGB:
And, finally DEBRA:
If you’re wondering why the DEBRA image doesn’t seem to line up with the other two, it’s because I cheated. The DEBRA image came from the third Meteosat Second Generation satellite (MSG-3), which is a geostationary satellite. The majority of the haboob was outside our normal VIIRS processing domain for DEBRA, so I grabbed the closest available MSG-3 image. It has much lower spatial resolution, but similar channels, so DEBRA works just as well. And, you don’t necessarily need high spatial resolution to see a dust storm that is ~ 1000 km across. What MSG-3 lacks in spatial resolution, it makes up for in temporal resolution. Instead of two images per day, you get 1 image every 15 minutes. Here is a long loop of MSG-3 images over the course of the whole week, where you can see both sandstorms: (WARNING: this loop may take a long time to load because it contains ~600 large images). Keep your eye on Syria early on, then on Egypt and Sudan. Both haboobs appear to be caused by the outflow of convective storms. Also, how many other dust storms are visible over the Sahara during the week? For comparison purposes, here’s a similar loop of EUMETSAT Dust images. (MSG-3 does not have True Color capability.)
These sandstorms have certainly made their impact: they’ve broken poor air quality records, killed people, made life worse for refugees, closed ports and airports, and even affected the Syrian civil war. Plus, the storms coincided with a heatwave. Having +100 °F (~40 °C) temperatures, high humidity and not being able to breathe because of the dust sounds awful. Correction: it is awful. And, life goes on in the Middle East.
UPDATE #1 (17 September 2015): Here’s a nice, zoomed-in, animated GIF of the Syrian haboob as seen by the DEBRA dust algorithm, made from MSG-3 images:
UPDATE #2 (17 September 2015): Steve M. also tipped me off to another – even more impressive – haboob that impacted Iraq at the beginning of the month (31 August – 2 September 2015). Here’s an animation of the DEBRA view of it:
This dust storm was even seen at night by the Day/Night Band, thanks to the available moonlight:
Look at that cute little swirl. Well, it would be cute if it weren’t so hazardous.
UPDATE #3 (4 October 2021): Here is a link to more information about color blindness, provided by an avid viewer: Everything you need to know about Color Blindness