Polar Opposites

As we all know, the furthest south you can travel is to the South Pole – the Geographic South Pole, not the Magnetic South Pole or the Geomagnetic South Pole. When you get there, try to face east if you can. (This is easier to do at the “Ceremonial South Pole” than it is at the actual South Pole.)

The furthest south you can get by boat is an island off the coast* of Antarctica, called Ross Island. (*The term “coast” is used loosely here, since Ross Island is usually connected to Antarctica by the Ross Ice Shelf.) At the southern tip of Ross Island is the largest “city” in Antarctica: McMurdo Station. McMurdo is the port-of-entry for most visitors to Antarctica. It is also home to a ground station that receives data from NOAA-20 (and many other satellites). So, if you love the lower latency that comes with NOAA-20 VIIRS data, you have McMurdo Station to thank. (S-NPP data is only downlinked at Svalbard – once per orbit – while NOAA-20 is downlinked at both Svalbard and McMurdo.) This is the location of today’s resolved mystery.

The mystery began with the development of a new website for viewing global VIIRS imagery: Polar SLIDER*. (*Shameless self-promotion: I helped develop that website.) If you click on that link, choose “Southern Hemisphere” from the Sector menu to view Antarctica. With every product, you can zoom in anywhere on the globe* to view the full resolution data. (*Claim is void near the Equator.) Under the Product menu, you can choose between all 22 VIIRS channels (16 M-bands, 5 I-bands, and the Day/Night Band), or from a list of imagery products and cloud products. (And we are always working to add new products.) Since it’s perpetual night down there right now, you’ll notice that the visible and near-IR bands don’t give you much information – except the Day/Night Band, of course, which can provide images like this:

NOAA-20 VIIRS DNB image (14:25 UTC, 14 August 2019)

NOAA-20 VIIRS DNB image (14:25 UTC, 14 August 2019)

Ross Island is in the center of that image. That bright light at the southern tip of Ross Island is McMurdo Station. The second bright light south of that is the “airport“. Here’s an annotated image with the map plotted on it:

NOAA-20 VIIRS DNB image of Ross Island and surroundings (14:25 UTC, 14 August 2019)

NOAA-20 VIIRS DNB image of Ross Island and surroundings (14:25 UTC, 14 August 2019)

As always, click on an image to see it in full resolution. Now that we have our bearings, let’s look at the high resolution mid-wave IR band (I-4/3.74 µm):

NOAA-20 VIIRS channel I-4 (14:25 UTC, 14 August 2019)

NOAA-20 VIIRS channel I-4 (14:25 UTC, 14 August 2019)

See that white dot in the middle of Ross Island? What is that? (Hint: it’s not part of the map.)

To make some sense of this, look at the color table plotted on the bottom of the image. White pixels on this scale (not counting the map) are +100°C (+373 K). In contrast, the dark turquoise color surrounding it is in the -25°C to -30°C range (243-248 K). What could be over 100°C in Antarctica in the winter? Did something catch on fire?

It turns out, it is a semi-permanent feature according to this animation collected from Polar SLIDER. (You have to click on the animation to see it play.)

Animation of VIIRS channel I-4 images (13 August 2019)

Animation of VIIRS channel I-4 images (13 August 2019)

Looking at Day/Night Band images over the same time period, it also shows up as a bright spot:

Animation of VIIRS DNB images (13 August 2019)

Animation of VIIRS DNB images (13 August 2019)

Maybe it’s a nuclear reactor that powers all of McMurdo Station? (Nope. There was a nuclear power plant, but that was de-commissioned in 1972.) Maybe the fact that this bright (in the DNB), hot spot (mid-IR) is on top of a mountain has something to do with it? (Bingo!)

Ross Island is made up of volcanoes, the most prominent of which are Mt. Erebus and Mt. Terror (named for the ships on the original expedition that discovered them). Mt. Terror (the one on the right) is inactive. Mt. Erebus, on the other (left) hand, is the southernmost active volcano in the world. And, what’s relevant here is the fact that it is home to one of only five known lava lakes in the world. So, molten-hot liquid rock exists in an ice-covered environment where temperatures regularly dip down to -50°C or -60°C. And, it’s right next to the largest settlement in Antarctica. Sleep tight. (Since we’re less than a week away from the first sunrise of the spring, get your sleep while you can down there!)

Bárðarbunga, the Toxic Tourist Trap

Quick: what was the name of that Icelandic volcano that caused such a stir a few years ago? Oh, that’s right. You don’t remember. No one remembers. (Unless you live outside the U.S. in a place where you might have actually heard someone say the name correctly.) To Americans, it will forever be known as “That Icelandic Volcano” or “The Volcano That Nobody Can Pronounce” – even though it is possible to pronounce the name. Say it with me: Eye-a-Fiat-la-yo-could (Eyjafjallajökull).

Well, back at the end of August 2014 another volcano erupted in Iceland, and there is no excuse for not being able to pronounce this name correctly: Bárðarbunga. (OK, you have one excuse: use of the letter ð is uncommon outside of Iceland. In linguistics, ð is a “voiced dental fricative” which, in English, is a voiced “th”. “The” has a voiced “th”. “Theme” has an un-voiced “th” or, rather,  “voiceless dental non-sibilant fricative“.) Look, you don’t want to offend any Icelanders, so say it right:

“Bowr-thar-Bunga.” See, it’s easy to say. (You may see people who are afraid of the letter ð refer to the recent eruption as Holuhraun [pronounced “Ho-lu-roin”], because Bárðarbunga is part of the Holuhraun lava field. So be aware of that.)

I know what you’re going to ask: “What is so special about this volcano? I haven’t heard anything about it up to this point, so why should I care?” You haven’t heard anything about it because you don’t live in Iceland or in Europe, which is downwind of Iceland. And, why should you care? Let me count the ways in the rest of this blog post.

You probably have heard of Kīlauea (and have no trouble pronouncing that name) and the lava flow that inched its way towards the town of Pahoa. Kīlauea has been continuously erupting since 1983. Bárðarbunga erupted on 29 August 2014 and has been spewing lava ever since, which at this point, is over 100 days of non-stop erupting. It’s Iceland’s version of Kīlauea. (Hopefully, it won’t continue to erupt for another 30 years.)

Just like Kīlauea, Bárðarbunga is attracting tourists from all over the world. It seems every wannabe photographer and videographer has gone (or wants to go) to Iceland to try to come up with the next viral video showing the breathtaking lava flows. Seriously, do a search for Bardarbunga or Holuhraun on YouTube or vimeo and see how many results show up. Here’s a pretty typical example (filmed by someone from Iceland):

Want to join in the fun? Just grab your camera, head to Iceland, hire an airplane or helicopter pilot, and find the most dramatic music you can think of to go along with your footage. Watch out, though – the airspace around the volcano can be rather crowded. As this video shows, it can be hard to film the volcano without other aircraft getting in the way.

If photography is more your thing, here are the latest images of the eruption on Twitter. (Look for the pictures of Beyonce and Jay-Z. If Twitter is correct, they flew over the volcano for his birthday. Viewing the eruption has gone mainstream! You’re too late, hipsters! Good luck getting to the next volcanic eruption before it becomes cool.)

Back to the matter at hand: why you should care about Bárðarbunga. After its first 100 days of erupting, it has created a field of new lava (76 km2) that is larger than the island of Manhattan (59 km2). The volcano has been creating a toxic plume of SO2 for the last 100 days that is making it difficult to breathe. (Here are some of the known health effects of breathing SO2.) SO2 can ultimately be converted into sulfuric acid (acid rain), depending on the chemistry in the air around the volcano. And while it may not be producing as much ash as Eyjafjallajökull did, VIIRS imagery shows it is producing ash, which is a threat to aircraft.

If you follow this blog, you know the best RGB composite for detecting ash is the True Color composite. This is because the visible wavelength channels that make the composite are sensitive to the scattering of light by small particles, like dust, smoke and ash. Iceland is a pretty cloudy place, so it’s not always easy to spot the ash plume, so here it is at its most visible:

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 12:57 UTC 11 September 2014

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 12:57 UTC 11 September 2014. The red arrow points to the location of Bárðarbunga.

Click on the image (or any other image) to see the full resolution version. The red arrow shows the location of Bárðarbunga. In case you’re wondering, the borders drawn inside the island are IDL’s knowledge of the boundaries of lakes and glaciers (jökull in Icelandic). The big one just south of the red arrow is Vatnajökull – the largest glacier in Europe and one of three national parks in Iceland. (If you want to go there, be aware of closures due to volcanic activity.)

See the ash plume extending from the red arrow to the east-northeast out over the Atlantic Ocean? Now, try to find the ash plume in this animation of True Color images from 29 August to 14 October 2014:

Animation of VIIRS True Color images of Iceland 29 August - 14 October 2014

Animation of VIIRS True Color images of Iceland 29 August – 14 October 2014

As with most of my animations, I have selectively removed images where it was too cloudy to see anything. Sometimes, the steam from the volcano mixes with the ash to make its own clouds, much like a pyrocumulus. Watch for the ash to get blown to the northwest and then southwest in early October. In case you can’t see it, here’s a static example:

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 12:15 UTC 10 October 2014

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 12:15 UTC 10 October 2014. The red arrow shows the location of Reykjavik.

This time, the red arrow shows Reykjavik, the nation’s capitol and likely only city in Iceland you’ve heard of. The ash plume is pretty much right over Reykjavik!

Over the course of the first 100 days, no place in Iceland has been kept safe from the ash plume. But, that’s not the only threat from Bárðarbunga: I also mentioned SO2. If you recall from our look at Copahue (Co-pa-hway – say it right!) the EUMETSAT Dust algorithm is sensitive to SO2. So, can we detect the toxic sulfur dioxide plume from Bárðarbunga? Of course! But, it does depend on cloudiness and just how much (and how high) SO2 is being pumped into the atmosphere.

If you read my post on Copahue, you should have no trouble picking out the sulfur dioxide plume in this image of Bárðarbunga:

EUMETSAT Dust RGB composite applied to VIIRS, 12:57 UTC 11 September 2014

EUMETSAT Dust RGB composite applied to VIIRS, 12:57 UTC 11 September 2014

This image is from the same time as the first True Color image above, when the plume was very easy to see. Also note the large quantity of contrails (aka “chemtrails” to the easily misled). Those are the linear black streaks west of Iceland. If you’re confident in your ability to see the sulfur dioxide, see how often you can pick it out in this animation:

Animation of EUMETSAT Dust RGB images from VIIRS (29 August - 10 October 2014)

Animation of EUMETSAT Dust RGB images from VIIRS (29 August – 10 October 2014)

Some detail is lost because an RGB composite may contain as many as 16 million colors, while the .gif image standard only allows 256. But, you can still see the pastel-colored SO2 plume, which almost looks greenish under certain conditions due to interactions with clouds. Also note the volcano itself appears cyan – the hottest part of the image has a cool color! Unusual in a composite that makes almost everything appear red or pink.

If you want to see the volcano look more like a hot spot, here are animations of the shortwave IR (M-13, 4.0 µm) and the Fire Temperature RGB composite (which I promote whenever I can). I should preface these animations by saying I have not removed excessively cloudy images but, at least 80% of the days have two VIIRS afternoon overpasses and, to reduce filesizes, I have kept only one image per day:

Animation of VIIRS M-13 images of Iceland (29 August - 15 October 2014)

Animation of VIIRS M-13 images of Iceland (29 August – 15 October 2014)

The Fire Temperature RGB is made up of M-10 (1.6 µm; blue), M-11 (2.25 µm; green) and M-12 (3.7 µm; red):

Animation of VIIRS Fire Temperature RGB images of Iceland (29 August - 15 October 2014)

Animation of VIIRS Fire Temperature RGB images of Iceland (29 August – 15 October 2014)

No surprise, molten rock is quite hot! That area of lava has saturated my color table for M-13 and it saturated the Fire Temperature RGB. As I’ve said before, only the hottest fires show up white in the Fire Temperature RGB and lava is among the hottest things you’ll see with VIIRS. Sometimes, you can see the heat from the volcano through clouds (and certainly through the ash plume)! It’s also neat to watch the river of lava extend out to the northeast and then cool.

To quantify it a bit more, the first day VIIRS was able to see the hot spot of Bárðarbunga (31 August 2014), the M-13 brightness temperature was the highest I’ve seen yet: 631.99 K. The other midwave-IR channels (M-12 and I-4; 3.7 and 3.74 µm, respectively) saturate at 368 K. The Little Bear Fire (2012) peaked at 588 K and that fire was hot enough to show up in M-10 (1.6 µm) during the day, so it’s no wonder that we’ve saturated the Fire Temperature RGB.

There’s one more interesting way to look at Bárðarbunga using a new RGB composite. When I was first tipped to this event, I saw this image from NASA, which you can read more about here. That image was taken by the Operational Land Imager (OLI) from Landsat-8 and is a combination of “green, near-infrared and shortwave infrared” channels. Applying this to VIIRS, that combination becomes M-4 (0.55 µm), M-7 (0.87 µm) and M-11 (2.25 µm), which is similar to the Natural Color composite (M-5, 0.64 µm; M-7, 0.87 µm; M-10, 1.61 µm) except for a few notable differences. M-4 is more sensitive to smoke and ash and vegetation than M-5. And M-11 is more sensitive to fires and other hotspots than M-10.

The differences are subtle, but you can see them in this direct comparison:

Comparison between VIIRS "Natural Color" and "False Color with Shortwave IR" RGB composites (12:38 UTC 14 October 2014)

Comparison between VIIRS “Natural Color” and “False Color with Shortwave IR” RGB composites (12:38 UTC 14 October 2014)

NASA calls this RGB composite “False Color with Shortwave Infrared,” although I’m sure there has to be a better name. Any suggestions?

Most of my images and loops have come from the first 45 days after eruption. This was a very active period for the volcano, and is where most of the previously mentioned videos came from. (And trust me, you and your browser couldn’t handle the massive animations that would have resulted from using all 100+ days of images.) To prove Bárðarbunga has gone on beyond that, here’s one of the new RGB composites from 17 November 2014:

VIIRS false color RGB composite of channels M-4, M-7 and M-11, taken 13:42 UTC 17 November 2014

VIIRS false color RGB composite of channels M-4, M-7 and M-11, taken 13:42 UTC 17 November 2014

This image really makes Iceland look like a land of fire and ice, which is exactly what it is!

Investigating Mysteries of the Deep, Dark Night

Conspiracy theorists will tell you that conspiracies exist everywhere; that they’re part of daily life; and that most people are ignorant of all the attempts by various governments around the world to covertly control every facet of your life. Only they know the truth. But, that’s just what they want you to believe! Conspiracy theorists are simply manipulating you in order to control you and create a New World Order! Wake up!

Full disclosure: I am subsidized by the U.S. government to inform people of the capabilities and uses of the satellite instrument called VIIRS and today I’ll show you how that satellite instrument can help separate fact from fiction when it comes to the latest conspiracy theory. (Of course, working for the government means I could be part of the conspiracy!  Mwa ha ha!)

During the last week of August 2014, I was sent this link to a story from a pilot/photographer who captured “the creepiest thing so far” in his long flying career. I’ll quote his initial post again in its entirety here (for those of you too lazy to click on the links):

Last night [24 August 2014] over the Pacific Ocean, somewhere South of the Russian peninsula Kamchatka I experienced the creepiest thing so far in my flying career. After about 5 hours in flight we left Japan long time behind us and were cruising at a comfortable 34.000ft with about 4,5 hours to go towards Alaska.
We heard via the radio about earthquakes in Iceland, Chile and San Francisco, and since there were a few volcanos on our route that might or might not be going off during our flight, we double checked with dispatch if there was any new activity on our route after we departed from Hongkong.

Then, very far in the distance ahead of us, just over the horizon an intense lightflash shot up from the ground. It looked like a lightning bolt, but way more intense and directed vertically up in the air. I have never seen anything like this, and there were no flashes before or after this single explosion of light.

Since there were no thunderstorms on our route or weather-radar, we kept a close lookout for possible storms that might be hiding from our radar and might cause some problems later on.

I decided to try and take some pictures of the night sky and the strange green glow that was all over the Northern Hemisphere. I think it was sort of a Northern Lights but it was much more dispersed, never seen anything like this before either. About 20 minutes later in flight I noticed a deep red/orange glow appearing ahead of us, and this was a bit strange since there was supposed to be nothing but endless ocean below us for hundreds of miles around us. A distant city or group of typical Asian squid-fishing-boats would not make sense in this area, apart from the fact that the lights we saw were much larger in size and glowed red/orange, instead of the normal yellow and white that cities or ships would produce.

The closer we got, the more intense the glow became, illuminating the clouds and sky below us in a scary orange glow. In a part of the world where there was supposed to be nothing but water.

The only cause of this red glow that we could think of, was the explosion of a huge volcano just underneath the surface of the ocean, about 30 minutes before we overflew that exact position.

Since the nearest possible airport was at least 2 hours flying away, and the idea of flying into a highly dangerous and invisible ash-plume in the middle of the night over the vast Pacific Ocean we felt not exactly happy. Fortunately we did not encounter anything like this, but together with the very creepy unexplainable deep red/orange glow from the ocean’s surface, we felt everything but comfortable. There was also no other traffic near our position or on the same routing to confirm anything of what we saw or confirm any type of ash clouds encountered.

We reported our observations to Air Traffic Control and an investigation into what happened in this remote region of the ocean is now started.

If you go back and click on the link, you’ll see he posted several pictures of the mysterious red lights along with more detailed information about where and when this occurred. To save you some time, here is a representative picture (taken at 11:21 UTC 24 August 2014). And here is the location of the aircraft when they saw the lights.

There are three parts to this story: 1) the bright flash of light that looked like lightning coming up from the surface; 2) the aurora-like features in the sky; and 3) the red and orange lights from the clouds below that appeared to be larger than ordinary ship lights.

Since the story was first posted, people from all over commented on what they thought the lights were and the pilot has been updating his webpage to cover the most common and/or most likely explanations. The media picked up the story and used it to claim the world was coming to an end. Existing theories range from UFOs (unidentified flying objects) and UUSOs (unidentified under-surface objects) operated by space aliens to covert military operations to spontaneously-combusting methane bubbling out of the ocean to “earthquake lights“. The pilot himself initially thought it was an underwater volcanic eruption.

So, can VIIRS shed light on what was going on? Yes – at least, on #2 and #3. VIIRS passed over the area in question at 15:35 UTC on 24 August, which is about 4 hours after the pilot took his pictures. This means VIIRS can’t say anything about the lightning-like flash that was observed. So #1 is unexplained.

As for #2 – the aurora-like features in the sky – those are simply airglow waves. We’ve discussed airglow and airglow waves before here and here.

Now, onto #3 where VIIRS is most informative: the mysterious surface lights. I mentioned the VIIRS overpass at 15:35 UTC on 24 August. Here’s what the Day/Night Band (DNB) saw:

VIIRS Day/Night Band image from 15:35 UTC 24 August 2014.

VIIRS Day/Night Band image from 15:35 UTC 24 August 2014.

Look at 47.5°N latitude and 159°E longitude. (You can click on the image, then on the “4329 x 2342” link below the banner to see the full resolution image.) Those are the lights the pilot saw! (Note also that this night was near new moon, so any illumination of the clouds in that area comes from airglow. Light in the northeast corner of the image is twilight from the approaching sunrise.)

Now, VIIRS also has bands in the short-, mid- and long-wave infrared (IR). Surely, they must have seen the heat signature put out by a volcanic eruption, right? Not necessarily. The pilot’s photographs clearly show the lights shining through a layer of clouds, and it doesn’t take much cloud cover to obscure heat signatures at these wavelengths. But, for completeness, here are the observed brightness temperatures at 3.7 µm (channel M-12) and 10.7 µm (channel M-15):

VIIRS M-12 image from 15:35 UTC 24 August 2014

VIIRS M-12 image from 15:35 UTC 24 August 2014

VIIRS M-15 image from 15:35 UTC 24 August 2014

VIIRS M-15 image from 15:35 UTC 24 August 2014

I don’t see any hotspots in either of those images near the location of the lights. But, as I said, this doesn’t disprove the presence of flaming methane or volcanic activity because of possible obscuration by clouds. (Note that the clouds are easier to see in the DNB image than either of the IR images because there is no thermal contrast between the clouds and the open ocean for the IR images to take advantage of. There is, however, reflection of airglow light available to provide contrast in the DNB.)

What about the night before? The night after? Were the lights still there?

Here’s the DNB image from 15:54 UTC 23 August 2014 (aka the night before):

VIIRS DNB image from 15:54 UTC 23 August 2014

VIIRS DNB image from 15:54 UTC 23 August 2014

The light is there in pretty much the same place, although it looks like one big circle instead of a number of smaller lights. What is going on? Once again, it’s clouds. This time, the longwave IR shows we have optically thicker and/or an additional layer of high clouds over the lights:

VIIRS M-15 image from 15:54 UTC 23 August 2014

VIIRS M-15 image from 15:54 UTC 23 August 2014

Optically thicker clouds scatter and diffuse the light more, and what you are seeing in the DNB image is the area of clouds surrounding the light source that scatter the light to the satellite. See how clouds scatter the city lights of the U.S. Midwest in this comparison between the DNB and M-15 from 07:42 UTC 2 September 2014:

(You may have to refresh the page if this before/after image trick doesn’t work.)

It’s not that Chicago, Illinois and Gary, Indiana extend that far out into Lake Michigan or that the map is not plotting correctly. It’s that the optically thicker clouds over the southern end of the lake scatter more of the light back to the satellite (and over a larger area than the lights themselves), making it appear that the light is coming from over the lake.

Similarly, scattering in the clouds makes the individual “mystery lights” over the Pacific Ocean appear to be one large area of light, instead of a number of smaller lights.

How do the lights look on 25 August 2014 (aka the night after)? Here’s the DNB image:

VIIRS DNB image from 15:18 UTC 25 August 2014

VIIRS DNB image from 15:18 UTC 25 August 2014

Did you notice that? The lights aren’t in the same place as before. They moved. In fact, I tracked these lights in the DNB for two weeks. And I got this result:

Do volcanoes move around from day to day? I think we can safely say the pilot was not observing a volcanic eruption.

Now, I don’t know much about spontaneously combusting methane bubbles in the ocean, but I doubt they are this frequent. The pilot found another pilot’s report of methane burning over the ocean from 9 April 1984 (which also occurred during a flight from Japan to Alaska) but, that was during the day and it was the resulting cloud that was spotted, not the actual flames. There is no evidence of clouds being produced by these lights over this two week period. There also isn’t much evidence from seismic activity over this period to justify earthquake lights.

Another theory put forth was meteorites but, again, it seems highly improbable that VIIRS would be capturing this many meteorites hitting this localized area of the Pacific Ocean every night for two weeks. Plus, they would have to be pretty large meteors to appear as large as these lights.

Unless you believe in UFOs (or UUSOs), that leaves only one question: why were the pilots of this flight so quick to dismiss ships? The DNB has seen ships on the ocean before, and they look a lot like this. (You can find examples of individual boats observed by the DNB here and an example of larger squid boat operations here.)

It is true that most squid boats use white or greenish light and the pictures clearly show red and orange lights coming up through the clouds. But military ships are known to use red lights at night, at least, according to Yahoo! Answers.

If it looks like a fleet of ships and moves like a fleet of ships, I’m guessing it’s a fleet of ships. Unless, of course, it’s a gam of sharks with freakin’ laser beams attached to their heads.


Pumice Rafts: The Floating Rocks of the Sea

Do rocks float? The answer to that is “Depends on which rocks you’re talking about.”

We just looked at what happens in the atmosphere when a volcano like Copahue erupts. We also looked at the impact the 1912 eruption of Novarupta still has today. And, before VIIRS was launched into space, there was Eyjafjallajökull – the Icelandic volcano that nobody could pronounce. (Think “Eye-a-Fiat-la-yo-could” [click here to hear audio of some guy saying it properly].) These are examples of what geologists would refer to as an “explosive eruption”. Not all volcanoes blow ash into the atmosphere. Think of Kilauea in Hawaii – this is an example of an “effusive eruption” where lava oozes or bubbles up out of the ground in a rather non-violent manner. These are the most common volcanic eruptions on land that everyone should already be familiar with.

But, what happens when the volcano is underwater? You get what a group of New Zealand geologists are calling “Tangaroan” (named after the Maori god of the sea, Tangaroa). This article explains it in more detail, but the short version is this: at the bottom of the ocean, there is immense pressure from the weight of the water above the volcano that prevents an eruption from being truly “explosive”, yet the eruptions are often more violent than an effusive eruption. The magma, filled with gas, erupts into the ocean where the outer edges are instantly cooled and solidified. (The water is cold at the bottom of the ocean.) This traps all the gas inside and you get a rock that’s filled with millions of tiny air bubbles, which is called pumice. This new rock can be so light, it floats to the surface.

What does this have to do with VIIRS or a blog about imagery from weather satellites? Large underwater volcanic eruptions can create large quantities of pumice that float to the surface of the ocean and create what are called pumice rafts. VIIRS has seen these pumice rafts.

Here is a “natural color” or “pseudo-true color” RGB composite of VIIRS channels I-01 (0.64 µm, blue), I-02 (0.865 µm, green) and I-03 (1.61 µm, red), taken at 01:40 UTC 27 August 2012. Notice anything unusual in the water?

False color RGB composite of VIIRS channels I-01, I-02 and I-03, taken 01:40 UTC 27 August 2012

False color RGB composite of VIIRS channels I-01, I-02 and I-03, taken 01:40 UTC 27 August 2012

As always, click on the image, then on the “2798×2840” link below the banner to see the full resolution image. All those pale blue-gray swirls in the ocean surrounding Raoul Island and Macauley Island are the pumice rafts. They almost look like someone sprayed “Silly String” in the ocean.

To get a sense of the scale of these rafts, the latitude lines plotted on the image are ~111 km apart. Some of these rafts are 1-2 km wide in places. In this image you can see pumice rafts stretching from about 27.5 °S to 31.5 °S latitude and from about 175 °W to 178 °E longitude. That is a lot of floating rocks!

Here is a zoomed version of the previous image:

False color RGB composite of VIIRS channels I-01, I-02 and I-03, taken 01:40 UTC 27 August 2012

False color RGB composite of VIIRS channels I-01, I-02 and I-03, taken 01:40 UTC 27 August 2012

The main concentration of floating pumice is in the box the covers the area from 29 °S to 30 °S latitude and from about 176 °W to 178 °E longitude, although there is plenty of pumice south of that box – it’s just a little harder to see.

As an aside, Raoul and Macauley islands are part of the Kermadec Islands of New Zealand. If you’re interested, the New Zealand government is always looking for volunteers to spend six months on Raoul Island pulling weeds and keeping invasive species off the island. (There, that saves me from doing a Remote Island post to cover this.)

These pumice rafts have been traced back to the eruption of the Havre Seamount (an underwater volcano) on 18 July 2012. This new eruption is part of the “Ring of Fire” in the southwestern part of the Pacific Ocean, roughly 1,000 kilometers northeast of New Zealand. If you believe the Wikipedia article linked to first in this paragraph, the eruption was unknown until an aircraft passenger took pictures of the pumice raft from her plane on 31 July 2012. I have been able to track this pumice back to 26 July 2012. Before that, it is too cloudy, making it difficult to see anything. (Apparently, MODIS saw it on 19 July 2012.)

False color RGB composite of VIIRS channels I-01, I-02 and I-03, taken 01:39 UTC 26 July 2012

False color RGB composite of VIIRS channels I-01, I-02 and I-03, taken 01:39 UTC 26 July 2012

The red arrow points to the pumice raft. There’s a nice looking cyclone southwest of the pumice, but I’m not sure if it was given a name. If you zoom in, you can see Cheeseman Island and Curtis Island off to the east of the raft. These islands were obscured by clouds on the 27 August 2012 overpass. Cheeseman Island is only 7.6 ha (19 acres) and Curtis Island is 40 ha (99 acres), yet VIIRS has the resolution to see them!

In an effort to highlight these pumice rafts, a PCI analysis was performed on the five VIIRS high-resolution imagery (I-band) channels. PCI analysis uses principal components to identify the major modes of variability within the data. Analysis of the 5 VIIRS I-bands resulted in 5 PCIs or component images. Of those components, PCI-2, 3, and 5 appeared to show the pumice rafts. A particular RGB combination of those three components (red = PCI-5, green = PCI-2 and blue = PCI-3) resulted in the pumice appearing red on a green-blue ocean. Clouds are white, then cyan and then red for colder cloud-top temperatures. (Certain pepper-like black pixels are out of range in the PCI analysis.) The three principal components that highlight the pumice rafts are shown in the figure below, along with the resulting RGB composite. Unfortunately, these images were made using McIDAS-X, which has a habit of plotting VIIRS data upside-down. Therefore, north in each image is at the bottom.

PCI Analysis of the 5 VIIRS I-band channels from 01:40 UTC 27 August 2012

PCI Analysis of the 5 VIIRS I-band channels from 01:40 UTC 27 August 2012. Panels A, B, and C are the second, third and fifth principal component images from this analysis (PCI-2, PCI-3 and PCI-5). Panel D is an RGB composite of these three images with PCI-5 as red, PCI-2 as green and PCI-3 as blue. Images courtesy Don Hillger.

This in an image you’ll want to zoom in on to see the details as you consider the information in the previous paragraph. There are two main results of this PCI analysis: it can be used to highlight pumice rafts (although they have the same color as cold cloud tops) and the temperature information from channel I-5 (11.5 µm), which shows up in PCI-5, indicates that the pumice has a tendency to collect along gradients in sea surface temperature.

Being able to track the pumice rafts is important for geology, biology and oceanography. They can act as a tracer for following ocean currents. Some of them crack and fill with water, causing them to sink to the bottom, depositing the newly formed rock in other parts of the sea floor. The nature of the pumice gives clues about what happens in underwater volcanoes, a process that is not well known at this point. And, as these floating pieces of pumice are carried around, organisms like algae, coral, and barnacles will attach to them and grow, eventually settling in far away places. Studying these rafts may shed new light on how life can spread across the oceans.

So, yes – rocks can float. And they can be seen by a weather satellite with 375 m resolution.

Copahue, the Stinky Volcano

On the border between Chile and Argentina sits the volcano Copahue. (If you say it out loud, it is pronounced “CO-pa-hway”.) In the local Mapuche language, copahue means “sulfur water”.  This name was given to the volcano as the most active crater contains a highly acidic lake full of sulfur.  An eruption in 1992 filled the area with “a strong sulfur smell.” Later eruptions have involved “pyroclastic sulfur” (molten hot sulfur ash) and highly acidic mudflows. That doesn’t sound very pleasant.

Right before Christmas, Copahue was at it again. It erupted on 22 December 2012, sending a cloud of sulfur ash into the atmosphere, and MODIS got there first. VIIRS got there 4 hours later and took this image:

VIIRS "true color" RGB composite of channels M-03, M-04 and M-05, taken 18:38 UTC 22 December 2012

VIIRS "true color" RGB composite of channels M-03, M-04 and M-05, taken 18:38 UTC 22 December 2012

This is a “true color” image just like the MODIS one in the link. Make sure you click on the image, then on the “3200×2304” link below the banner to see it in full resolution. Then see if you can spot the volcanic ash cloud from Copahue. I’ll give you a hint: it’s the only cloud that appears brownish-gray.

If you still can’t see it, here’s a zoomed-in image with a yellow arrow to help you out:

VIIRS "true color" RGB composite of the Copahue volcano, taken 18:38 UTC 22 December 2012

VIIRS "true color" RGB composite of the Copahue volcano, taken 18:38 UTC 22 December 2012

Now compare the ash cloud in the VIIRS image with the ash cloud in the MODIS image from 4 hours earlier. (This is easier to do if you can locate in the VIIRS image the lakes marked as “Embalse los Barreales” in the MODIS image.) There’s a lot less ash in the VIIRS image, right?

Not so fast. As the ash dispersed, the plume thinned out, making it harder to see against the brown background surface. But, that doesn’t mean that it’s not there. Here’s the “split window difference” image from VIIRS at the same time:

VIIRS "split window difference" image (M-15 - M-16) taken 18:38 UTC 22 December 2012

VIIRS "split window difference" image (M-15 - M-16) taken 18:38 UTC 22 December 2012

That whole black plume is volcanic ash detected by the split window difference. The yellow arrow points to Copahue and the ash plume that is visible in the true color image. The red arrow points to the ash plume that is not visible in the true color image, yet is detected by this simple channel difference (M-15 minus M-16). A victory for the split window technique!

It was also a victory for the EUMETSAT Dust RGB, which didn’t work for the 100-year-old ash cloud over Alaska. Here’s what that RGB composite looks like when applied to VIIRS:

EUMETSAT's Dust RGB composite applied to VIIRS from 18:38 UTC 22 December 2012

EUMETSAT's Dust RGB composite applied to VIIRS from 18:38 UTC 22 December 2012

It is interesting that the ash plume right over Copahue is tough to detect in this RGB composite because it is red, just like a lot of the other clouds. As the plume thins out away from the volcano, its color changes to a variety of pastels of pink and blue, and even appears to extend out over the Atlantic Ocean. Where clouds and ash coexist near the coast of Argentina, pixels show up orange and yellow and green (click to the high-resolution image to see that).

Why does the plume appear to extend into the Atlantic Ocean in the EUMETSAT Dust RGB, and not in the split window difference? It is due to the fact that the Dust RGB uses channel M-14 (8.55 µm), which is sensitive to absorption by sulfur dioxide (SO2) gas. The split window difference is better at detecting sulfuric ash particles, which may have mostly settled out of the atmosphere before reaching the Atlantic coast. There are likely still some ash particles in the plume, though – just not enough to show up easily in the split window difference. Detection of SO2 gas plumes has been used to infer the presence of volcanic ash.

Being able to see the location of the volcanic ash very important to pilots. Aircraft engines don’t work that well when they are sucking in particles of liquified sulfur and other abrasive and corrosive materials spit out by stinky volcanoes like Copahue.