Severe Weather in the Mesosphere

So far (*knock on wood*), it’s been a pretty quiet year for severe weather. If you only count tornadoes, there have been 81 tornado reports from 1 January to 4 April this year. (11 of those have come just this week.) This is a lot fewer than the previous three year average of 192 tornadoes by the end of March. For that, you can thank the dreaded, terrifying “Polar Vortex” you’ve heard so much about over the winter. Tornadoes don’t like to come out when it’s cold everywhere. (Although, there was a notable exception on 31 March 2014, when a tornado hit a farm in Minnesota when the area was under a blizzard warning.)

I just said that there have been 11 tornado reports this week. Eight of those came in the past 24 hours. At the southern end of the line that brought the tornadoes to Illinois, Missouri and Texas, the severe weather included golf ball-size hail and this:


That report came from the National Weather Service in Corpus Christi, TX and it was caused by non-tornadic straight-line winds in Orange Grove. Winds capable of ripping a shed out of the ground, combined with golf ball-sized hail – that’s one recipe for broken windows. And it’s not a pleasant way to be awakened at 4:30 in the morning.

A couple of hours earlier, VIIRS caught this severe storm as it was rapidly growing. Here’s what the storm looked like in the high-resolution infrared channel (I-5, 11.45 µm):

VIIRS high-resolution IR image (channel I-5), taken at 08:13 UTC 4 April 2013.

VIIRS high-resolution IR image (channel I-5), taken at 08:13 UTC 4 April 2013.

Make sure you click on the image, then on the “2999×2985” link below the banner to see the full resolution image, which, for some reason, is the only version where the colors display correctly.

The storm that hit Orange Grove is the southern-most storm, with what looks like a letter “C” imprinted on the top. (That kind of feature typically looks more like a “V” and makes this an “Enhanced-V” storm, which you can learn more about here. Enhanced-V storms are noted for their tendency to produce severe weather.) For those of you keeping score at home, the coldest pixel in this storm is 184.7 K (-88.5 °C).

Compare the image above with the Day/Night Band image below (from the same time):

VIIRS Day/Night Band image, taken at 18:13 UTC 4 April 2014

VIIRS Day/Night Band image, taken at 08:13 UTC 4 April 2014

There are a few interesting features in this image. For one, there’s a lot of lightning over Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi. (Look for the rectangular streaks.) There’s even some lighting visible where our “Enhanced-V” is. Two, it takes a lot of cloudiness to actually obscure city lights: only the thickest storm clouds appear to be capable of blocking out light from the surface. Three: there are a lot of boats out in the Gulf of Mexico at 3 o’clock in the morning (and a few oil rigs as well). And four: notice what appear to be concentric rings circling the location where our severe storm is with its enhanced-V.

In this image, there is no moonlight (we’re before first quarter, so the moon isn’t up when VIIRS passes over at night). The light we’re seeing in those ripples is caused by “airglow”, which we’ve seen before. And the ripples themselves may be similar to what is called a “mesospheric bore.” If you don’t want to get too technical, a mesospheric bore is when this happens in the mesosphere. They are related to – but not exactly analogous to – undular bores, which you can read more about here.

Unlike the situation described for the undular bore in that last link, the waves here are caused by our severe storm. To put it simply, we have convection that has formed in unstable air in the troposphere. This convection rises until it hits the tropopause, above which the air is stable. This puts a halt to the rising motion of the convection but, some of the air has enough momentum to make it in to the stratosphere. This is called the “overshooting top“, and is where our -88°C pixels are located. (Look for the pinkish pixels in the middle of the “C” in the full-resolution infrared image.) The force of this overshooting top creates waves in the stable layer of air above (the stratosphere) that propagate all the way up into the mesosphere. The mesosphere is where airglow takes place, and these waves impact the optical path length through the layer where light is emitted. This of course, impacts the amount of light we see. The end result: a group of concentric rings of airglow light surrounding our storm.

You could make the argument that the waves we see in the Day/Night Band image are not an example of a bore. Bores tend to be more linear and propagate in one direction. These waves are circular and appear to propagate in all directions out from a central point. It may be better to describe them as “internal buoyancy waves“, which are similar to what happens when you drop a pebble into a pond. Only, in this case the pebble is a parcel of air traveling upwards, and the surface of the water is a stable layer of air. Compare the pebble drop scenario with this video of a bore traveling upstream in a river to see the difference.

In fact, if you look closer at the Day/Night Band image, in the lower-right corner (over the Gulf of Mexico) there is another group of more linear waves and ripples in the airglow that may actually be from a bore. It’s hard to say for sure, though, without additional information such as temperature, local air density, pressure and wind speeds way up in that part of the mesosphere.

By the way, you can see mesospheric bores and other waves in the airglow if you have sensitive-enough camera, like the one that took this image:

Photograph of a mesospheric bore. Image courtesy T. Ashcraft and W. Lyons (WeatherVideoHD.TV)

Photograph of a mesospheric bore. Image courtesy T. Ashcraft and W. Lyons (WeatherVideoHD.TV)

And, if you’re interested, the Arecibo Observatory has a radar and optical equipment set up to look at these upper-atmosphere waves (scroll down to Panel 2 on this page). The effect of these waves on atmospheric energy transport is a hot topic of research.

Golf ball-sized hail at the Earth’s surface is related to energy transport 100 km up in the atmosphere!


NOTE: This post has been updated since it was first written to clarify that the circular waves are likely not evidence of a bore, as was originally implied. They are more likely internal buoyancy waves, which are also known as gravity waves. For more information, consult your local library.

Catatumbo Lightning in the Day/Night Band

You may have noticed that many of the recent posts have featured imagery from the VIIRS Day/Night Band (DNB). That’s because the nighttime imagery produced by the DNB is so awesome! The DNB has seen clouds at night, auroras, forest fires, oil and gas flares, and even volcanic eruptions. Many of the previous images shown have included high resolution views of city (and even small town) lights. This post shows another interesting facet of DNB imagery: lightning. More specifically, Catatumbo lightning.

For those of you who don’t know (and didn’t click on that last link), Catatumbo lightning is one of the world’s most frequent lightning displays, with thunderstorms forming over the Catatumbo River in Venezuela an average of 160 nights per year. The lightning displays last up to 9 hours, beginning shortly after dusk. The lightning is nearly continuous and so vivid and reliable that it has been called the “Lighthouse of Maracaibo” or the “Catatumbo Lighthouse”, as fisherman and sailors have historically used it as a navigation aid. It is said that the locals were saved from an invasion by Sir Francis Drake in 1595, as the invading navy could not covertly enter Lake Maracaibo at night due to all the bright lightning. There is even a campaign to make Catatumbo lightning a UNESCO world heritage site. The lightning is so prominent, the state of Zulia in Venezuela has included it in their flag and coat of arms. Two years ago, the storms suddenly stopped for several months, causing mass panic in the streets- I mean, on the river- I mean… um, actually the villagers in this video don’t seem to care all that much.

Earlier this month, when the moon was about 80% full, Suomi NPP passed over Lake Maracaibo at night and, sure enough, a thunderstorm was present right over the mouth of the Catatumbo River.

VIIRS I-05 image of thunderstorms near Lake Maracaibo, Venezuela taken 06:44 UTC 10 May 2012

VIIRS I-05 image of thunderstorms near Lake Maracaibo, Venezuela taken 06:44 UTC 10 May 2012

This image, taken from the high resolution imagery IR-window channel (I-05, 11.45 µm) on 10 May 2012, shows the deep convection over Venezuela and Colombia. The largest thunderstorm near the center of the image formed along the shore of Lake Maracaibo, near the mouth of the Catatumbo River. Here’s what the DNB saw at the same time:

VIIRS Day/Night Band image of thunderstorms near Lake Maracaibo, Venezuela taken 06:44 UTC 10 May 2012

VIIRS Day/Night Band image of thunderstorms near Lake Maracaibo, Venezuela taken 06:44 UTC 10 May 2012

The bright, almost rectangular streaks in the image are lightning strikes. The red arrow points out a lightning strike from the Catatumbo storm – a “Catatumbo lightning” strike, if you will.

The blocky appearance of lightning is due to the fact that VIIRS is a scanning radiometer. As the instrument scans the swath of the Earth that it sees, a bright, transient flash (such as from lightning) will show up in the along-scan direction as an individual streak of light in each sensor. The DNB has 16 different sensors that scan the swath simultaneously, and since lightning typically stretches over a large enough area to be detected by all of them, you get 16 different streaks all lined up next to each other. By the time the sensors have rotated back around for the next scan, the lightning flash has ended, producing abrupt edges in the direction along the satellite track. Compare this with the DMSP Operational Linescan System, which produces much more “streaky” lightning.

In addition to the “Catatumbo lightning”, you can see several other lightning flashes in the two deepest thunderstorms over Colombia. These are far enough away from Lake Maracaibo that they probably don’t count as Catatumbo lightning.

Other interesting features can be seen in these images as well. The moon was bright enough to cast shadows in the DNB image, allowing for the detection of the overshooting tops. These match-up with the coldest brightness temperatures in the I-05 image (which show up as dark blue to pure white in this color scale). A few pixels in the largest storm over Colombia (the one with two visible lightning flashes) have managed to make it to pure white on the color scale, indicating temperatures below 190 K (-83 °C). The dark blue pixels indicate brightness temperatures between 196 and 190 K (-77 to -83 °C). Brrr.

Overshooting tops exist when the convection is so vigorous, it peaks out above the anvil of the storm and penetrates the stable layer above (which is usually the stratosphere in storms this deep). In addition to acting as an indicator for severe weather, overshooting tops are important for energy and chemical transport between the troposphere and stratosphere.

It’s also interesting to see what looks like thin cirrus over the Caribbean Sea near Panama (left center of the image) that show up in the infrared (I-05) image, but not in the DNB. Plus, a number of cold clouds over Venezuela would appear to be optically thick due to their low brightness temperatures in the infrared image (yellow starts at 245 K down to green at 214 K), but they are optically thin enough to see city lights below in the DNB image. Awesome!

The Last Line of Storms from the 14 April 2012 Tornado Outbreak

The second major tornado outbreak of the year took place on 14 April 2012 (after the 2 March outbreak that slammed Indiana and Kentucky). At last count, 115 tornadoes were reported from Oklahoma to Iowa. Credit must be given to the Storm Prediction Center, National Weather Service offices, and local TV and other media outlets for accurately predicting the severe weather event and keeping people informed as it happened, and the people of the area for paying attention to the weather. It must be counted as a success on many levels that 115 tornadoes over 4 states only resulted in 6 deaths (and those deaths occurred in the toughest situation to warn people – a rain-wrapped tornado in the middle of the night where the tornado sirens were disabled due to a lightning strike earlier in the day).

The last bout of severe weather occurred with a squall line that formed in the late evening (~02:30 UTC 15 April 2012) along the dry line in western Texas and quickly expanded into Oklahoma and Kansas. This line produced the deadly tornado in Woodward, OK, along with many reports of 1-2″ diameter hail. Suomi-NPP passed over this line of storms between 07:45 and 07:50 UTC (15 April). The high resolution infrared window band, I-5 (11.45 µm), shows the immense scale of this storm system stretching from Wisconsin and Minnesota to Texas, in great detail. Be sure to click on the image, then on the “1497×1953” link below the banner to see it in full resolution. (The full resolution image is ~2MB in size.)

View of a squall line over the Central Plains from VIIRS channel I-5, 7:45 UTC 15 April 2012

View of the squall line over the Central Plains from VIIRS channel I-5, 7:45 UTC 15 April 2012

The color scale here is the same one used for the 2 March 2012 tornado outbreak image and the 25 January squall line over southeast Texas. The darkest blue pixels visible amongst the white overshooting tops (more easily visible on the southern end of the squall line) have a brightness temperature below -77 C, indicative of very strong convection.

VIIRS View of March 2 Tornadic Storms

NPP/VIIRS passed over Southern Indiana on March 2 about thirty minutes before the most devastating tornadoes struck the towns of New Pekin and Henryville (among others).  At 1935 UTC, a pair of rotating thunderstorms, also known as supercells, were advancing eastward across Indiana.  The easternmost storm spawned the most damaging tornadoes.  Below is a VIIRS true color image from the NPP pass at 1935 UTC.

VIIRS True Color image of the severe storms on 2 March 2012 at 1935 UTC.

A zoomed-in visible view of the storms is below.

VIIRS I-band 1 (375-m resolution) from 2 March 2012 at 1935 UTC

The infrared (I-band 5) image is below, along with some annotations pointing out the two active supercells discussed above.  Note that the brightness temperatures associated with the overshooting top (OST) of the westernmost storm are colder than the easternmost storm, although both storms were quite strong at the time and the eastern storm ended up producing the deadlier tornadoes.  OSTs are transitory, so it’s possible that a new cold OST formed with the eastern storm shortly after the NPP pass.  These very high resolution infrared views of tornadic storms are among the first documented, given the recent launch of NPP.

VIIRS I-band 5 Infrared view from 2 March 2012 at 1935 UTC

To illustrate the effect of high resolution in the IR, below is a GOES-13 10.7 micrometer IR image from 1932 UTC, which has 4-km resolution at nadir.  The coldest brightness temperature in the westernmost storm in southern Indiana from GOES is 206.6 K, but with VIIRS it’s 195 K.

GOES-13 4-km IR Image from 1932 UTC on 2 March. Compare this image to the 375-m VIIRS image above to see the improvement provided by VIIRS over GOES.

The day after the tornadoes, relatively cloud-free skies in eastern Kentucky allowed VIIRS to see some of the tornado tracks.  In the image below, the faint white lines circled in red in Kentucky and West Virginia denote the new tornado damage paths.  When green vegetation is disrupted/destroyed, the result is typically a brighter scene at visible wavelengths.

VIIRS I-band 1 from 3 March 2012 over eastern KY and western WV. The tornado tracks are circled and show up as faint white lines


A squall line over Texas as seen by VIIRS

VIIRS RGB "true color" composite

A severe squall line formed over eastern Texas on 25 January 2012. There were 19 tornado reports and 48 reports of wind damage, including “a house destroyed by a possible downburst”, according to the Storm Prediction Center. The high resolution imager on VIIRS captured this squall line as it was rapidly intensifying. Shown below are images collected from channel I-5, the high-resolution infrared window channel (11.45 μm). (Click on images for full resolution.)

VIIRS Channel I05

A squall line over eastern Texas observed by VIIRS channel I05 (11.45 um) at 19:24 UTC on 25 January 2012.

This squall line had several overshooting tops over the Gulf of Mexico that reached a temperature of -77 C. A zoomed-in view of these tops are shown below.

VIIRS Channel I05

A squall line over eastern Texas observed by VIIRS channel I05 (11.45 um) at 19:24 UTC on 25 January 2012.

The dark blue pixels near the center of the image indicate an overshooting top approximately 5 km in diameter where temperatures were less than -77 C. Several pixels in a storm top at the bottom center of the image and in a storm top at the top center of the image (near Galveston, TX) also reached that temperature.

A sounding was taken at 18:00 UTC at the Lake Charles, LA, National Weather Service (NWS) office, which observed a minimum temperature of -74 C at 17.9 km above sea level, indicating that these are some tall thunderstorms. Image courtesy the University of Wyoming.

Radiosonde sounding

NWS sounding taken at 18:00 UTC from the Lake Charles, LA office.

The VIIRS imagery was collected right as the squall line was intensifying. Shown below is the radar loop from the Houston/Galveston radar between 18:00 UTC and 21:00 UTC. Note, at the beginning of the loop, the southern end of system consists of two rather disorganized lines of cells. These lines of cells merge at around 19:25 UTC (the time of the Suomi NPP overpass), and a much stronger and more organized squall line develops.

Radar loop

Radar loop from the Houston/Galveston NWS WSR-88D radar beginning at 18:00 UTC, 25 January 2012.

At roughly 375-m resolution at nadir, the I-5 channel on VIIRS is providing some of the highest resolution infrared imagery available to the atmospheric science community. We are just beginning to see the capabilities of this powerful instrument.