Lost in all the commotion caused by Hurricane Sandy, a curious event occurred on the other side of the country on 30 October 2012. A cloud of ash obscured the skies of Kodiak Island, Alaska, diverting flights in the region and forcing the people of Kodiak to stay inside or wear masks. Alaska has quite a few volcanoes, so this may not be a big thing to them except, this was no ordinary volcanic eruption: it was the leftovers of a volcanic eruption from 100 years ago!
The volcano that came to be known as Novarupta erupted on 6 June 1912. It was one of the largest volcanic eruptions of recorded history. It was 10 times more powerful than Mt. St. Helens with 100 times more ash. The explosion was heard more than 1100 km (700 miles) away in Juneau. The force of the eruption caused nearby Mt. Katmai to collapse on itself (10 km away). It formed the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes and, most importantly for us, covered the surrounding land with 150 m (500 ft) of ash.
This pile of ash – still there today – can be lifted by a stiff breeze (or, more appropriately, “strong breeze” or higher on the Beaufort wind scale), and blown pretty high off the ground (4000 ft according to the news report). This isn’t the first time this has happened. MODIS observed the same thing back in 2003.
So, what did VIIRS see? Here’s the “true color” image, the RGB composite of channels M-03 (0.488 µm, blue), M-04 (0.555 µm, green) and M-05 (0.672 µm, red):
Be sure (as with all the images) to click on the image, then on the link below the banner to see it at full resolution. (The link contains the dimensions of the full size image.)
The ash cloud (blowing right over the center of Kodiak Island) is not as obvious in this image as it was in the MODIS image in the link above, although it is visible. To be fair, the plume was much more optically thick in 2003, and there were fewer clouds and less snow to confuse it with.
Here is the false color (“pseudo-true color” or “natural color”) image, the RGB composite of channels M-05 (0.672 µm, blue), M-07 (0.865 µm, green) and M-10 (1.61 µm, red):
Hmmm. Once again, the ash plume is visible but not particularly noticeable. Is there a way to highlight the ash plume to make it easier to see?
EUMETSAT (the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites) has defined an RGB composite for detecting dust. Their product, which was developed primarily to detect dust storms over the Saharan desert, uses channels that are present (or similar to ones that are present) on VIIRS. This means we can apply the dust product for VIIRS as the difference between M-16 and M-15 (red), the difference between M-15 and M-14 (green) and M-15 by itself (blue), all in units of brightness temperature. If you do that, and use the same color scaling they use, you get this image:
The arrow points to the source region of the ash plume. In this RGB composite, dust shows up as hot pink (magenta), but it’s barely visible here. The reason is that this dust product is primarily useful where there is a large temperature contrast between the dust plume and the background surface, which we don’t have here.
A more common way to detect volcanic ash is to use the “split-window difference”. The “split-window difference” is the difference in brightness temperature between a 10.7-11.0 µm channel and a 12.0 µm channel. This difference is useful because volcanic ash has a difference of opposite sign to most everything else. Here’s what the split window difference (M-15 – M-16) looks like for this case:
This image has been scaled so that the colors range from -1 K (black) to +7 K (white). The ash plume stands out a bit more here by being much darker than the background. The only problem is, it isn’t perfect. Large amounts of water vapor, optically thick clouds, desert surfaces and boundary layer temperature inversions can all produce a negative difference (just like volcanic ash does).
These problems can be overcome to a certain extent by combining the “split-window difference” with a Principal Component Image (PCI) analysis technique. (This technique is too complicated to describe here but, if you have access to AMS journals, check out these journal papers.) Now, the ash plume is the only thing that’s black:
Notice the smaller plume identified by the orange arrow. This plume is not easy to identify in any of the previous images. The PCI technique works well. But, we’re not going to stop there.
Remember the dust plumes off the Cape Verde islands? They produced a strong signal in the difference between M-12 (3.7 µm) and M-15 (10.7 µm) due to solar reflection. Does a 100-year-old ash plume produce a similarly strong signal? See for yourself:
It does produce a signal, but it’s not as bright as the surrounding clouds. The color scale here ranges from -2 K (black) to +90 K (white).
M-06 (0.746 µm) is highly sensitive to anything that reflects solar radiation in the atmosphere or on the surface, which we learned from Hurricane Isaac. Here’s what the M-06 image looks like:
“Big deal,” you say. “None of those are better than the PCI analysis.” That may be true, but watch what happens when we combine M-06, the M-12 – M-15 image and the split-window difference image in a single RGB composite:
In this composite, blue values represent the M-06 reflectance scaled from 0 to 1.6, green values represent the brightness temperature difference between M-12 and M-15 scaled from -2 K to +90 K, and red values represent the brightness temperature difference between M-15 and M-16 scaled from -1 K to +7 K.
From a theoretical perspective, this RGB composite does exactly what you want: make the thing you’re trying to detect the only thing that is a certain color. For example, the ash plumes are the only things in this image that are green. From a practical perspective, however, this RGB composite doesn’t work so well. It only works because the ash plume is over water (otherwise M-06 wouldn’t be very useful). It only works during the day, where M-06 is available and the difference between M-12 and M-15 is significant (no solar component to M-12 at night).
Plus, the rainbow of colors is difficult to make sense of: green ash; clouds ranging from light blue to purple to orange (a function of optical thickness, particle size, and phase); bright purple snow; dark purple vegetation; maroon water. It’s not exactly pleasing to the eye. In contrast, the PCI analysis technique that uses the split-window difference works day and night, over ocean and over land. And it isn’t confusing to look at. Maybe we should have stopped when we got to the PCI technique. But then, we wouldn’t have learned anything new.