Aircraft distrails and contrails

December 30th, 2013 |
Suomi NPP VIIRS 0.64 µm visible channel and false-color RGB images

Suomi NPP VIIRS 0.64 µm visible channel and false-color RGB images

Two signatures of aircraft traffic sometimes seen in satellite imagery are (1) dissipation trails, or “distrails”, and (2) condensation trails, or “contrails”. On 30 December 2013, examples of both were seen over Virginia and West Virgina. Multiple layers of clouds existed over the region as a cold frontal boundary was moving eastward; ahead of the cold front patchy areas of low-level supercooled water droplet clouds were drifting northeastward across North Carolina and Virginia, and examples of aircraft distrails could be seen in a comparison of Suomi NPP VIIRS 0.64 µm visible channel and false-color Red/Green/Blue (RGB) images at 17:29 UTC (above). When aircraft penetrated the supercooled water droplet cloud deck, particles in their exhaust acted as ice condensation nuclei which then created narrow lines of glaciated (ice) clouds in their wake. One particularly vivid example of a distrail was oriented from southwest to northeast over central Virginia. Ice clouds appeared as varying shades of red in the RGB image, in contrast to supercooled water droplet clouds which showed up as brighter white features.

Farther to the west, a wide band of higher-altitude ice clouds existed as part of an elongated warm conveyor belt that was approaching the East Coast of the US. A comparison of Suomi NPP VIIRS 3.74 µm shortwave IR channel and 11.45 µm IR channel images at 17:29 UTC (below) revealed the presence of widespread contrails over much of West Virginia into western Virginia. The contrails were nearly as cold as the underlying high-altitude cirrus clouds on the 11.45 µm IR image, making their identification more difficult — however, the contrails were quite evident on the shortwave IR image, since their smaller particles were very efficient reflectors of solar radiation (making them exhibit a warmer, darker gray signature).

Suomi NPP VIIRS 3.74 µm shortwave IR and 11.45 µm IR channel images

Suomi NPP VIIRS 3.74 µm shortwave IR and 11.45 µm IR channel images

Other examples of aircraft distrails can be found in previous blog posts.

Valley fog in Kentucky, and aircraft “distrails” in South Carolina

December 5th, 2012 |
GOES-13 0.63 µm visible channel images (click image to play animation)

GOES-13 0.63 µm visible channel images (click image to play animation)

Two features of interest appeared on McIDAS images of GOES-13 0.63 µm visible channel data (above; click image to play animation) on the morning of 05 December 2012: (1) fingers of valley fog across much of Kentucky, which dissipated as daytime heating and boundary layer mixing increased, and (2) a pair of aircraft dissipation trails (or “distrails”) that first appeared north of Sumter (KSSC) and drifted east-northeastward between Florence (KFLO) and Darlington (KUDG). It is likely that these distrails (highlighted with yellow ‘>’ symbols) formed as aircraft heading to or from Columbia, South Carolina (KCAE) passed through the supercooled water droplet cloud layer, causing glaciation and subsequent fallout of the ice crystals to create the elongated clearing lines.

Hole punch clouds and aircraft distrails over Georgia and South Carolina

February 17th, 2012 |
GOES-13 0.63 µm visible channel images

GOES-13 0.63 µm visible channel images

McIDAS images of 1-km resolution GOES-13 0.63 µm visible channel data (above) showed that there were a number of “hole punch clouds” and long “aircraft dissipation trails” (or “distrails”) drifting east-northeastward over eastern Georgia and the northern half of South Carolina on 17 February 2012. These features occur when aircraft ascend or descend through a cloud layer composed of supercooled water droplets — particles from the jet engine exhaust act as ice nuclei that initiate glaciation. The resulting relatively large ice crystals then begin to fall out of the supercooled water droplet cloud layer, causing the hole punch or aircraft dissipation trail to appear.

A closer view using a 250-meter resolution Terra MODIS true-color Red/Green/Blue (RGB) image from the SSEC MODIS Today site (below; viewed using Google Earth) shows more structural details of some of the hole punch and distrail features at 15:47 UTC (10:47 am local time). The aircraft likely penetrated the supercooled water droplet cloud over Georgia, after which the hole punch and distrail signatures grew as the cloud drifted east-northeastwrad over South Carolina.

MODIS true color Red/Green/Blue (RGB) image (viewed using Google Earth)

MODIS true color Red/Green/Blue (RGB) image (viewed using Google Earth)

A comparison of 250-meter resolution Terra MODIS true-color and false-color Red/Green/Blue (RGB) images (below) helps to verify that the hole punch and distrail features were indeed composed of ice crystals (which appear as cyan on the false-color image, in contrast to the brighter white supercooled water droplet cloud features).

MODIS true-color and false-color Red/Green/Blue (RGB) images

MODIS true-color and false-color Red/Green/Blue (RGB) images

Aircraft “hole punch” and “distrail” cloud features over Texas

February 12th, 2009 |
GOES-13 visible and 3.9 µm shortwave IR images

GOES-13 visible and 3.9 µm shortwave IR images

We received the following in an email from the  National Weather Service forecast office at Fort Worth, Texas:

Some of our forecasters noted an interesting feature on visible satellite imagery on Thursday, Feb 12, 2009. I would like to get an expert opinion on what was causing the observed features. There was a layer of ~ 15kft altocumulus along with some scattered-broken areas of cirrus.

Excellent question…and we appreciate the heads-up on this event. An animation of GOES-13 visible and 3.9 µm “shortwave IR” images (above; QuickTime animation) showed the evolution of two “hole punch” cloud features that were drifting eastward across northern Texas on 12 February 2009. The first hole punch cloud feature moved just to the north of Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) around 14:45 UTC, while the second feature moved just south of DFW about an hour later (around 15:45 UTC). In addition, an elongated aircraft dissipation trail (or “distrail”) could be seen to the west of the first hole punch feature (oriented west-to-east on the 14:15 and 14:32 UTC visible images), with a second distrail forming about an hour later (oriented northwest-to-southeast on the 15:15 and 15:32 UTC visible images).

These aircraft “hole punch” and “distrail” cloud features form when an aircraft ascends or descends through a layer of supercooled water droplet cloud, with the engine exhaust causing the droplets to glaciate — the resulting ice crystals then fall toward the ground, creating a visible hole or trail in the cloud layer. Note that there is a subtle “brighter white” signal evident on the GOES-13 3.9 µm shortwave IR images in the area of the hole punch features — this colder signal confirms the idea that the aircraft engine exhaust was causing the supercooled water droplets to glaciate.

A NOAA-17 false color Red/Green/Blue (RGB) composite image using channels 01/02/04 (below) showed the second hole punch cloud as it was moving to the south of DFW at 15:58 UTC. Similar aircraft hole punch and distrail cloud features have been seen in the past: for example, over the southcentral US and also over Wisconsin.

NOAA-17 false color RGB image

NOAA-17 false color RGB image

GOES-13 visible and 10.7 µm IR images

GOES-13 visible and 10.7 µm IR images

GOES-13 10.7 µm IR data (above) showed cloud top brightness temperatures in the -20 to -30º C range (cyan to dark blue color enhancement) over much of the cloud patch where the initial hole punch feature was seen. Rawinsonde data from both Midland and Fort Worth in Texas (below) displayed a moist layer centered around 425 hPa that corresponded to those temperatures — this indicates that the hole punch and distrail features were at a fairly high altitude (around 20,000 feet or so). Dallas/Fort Worth METAR reports listed cloud bases at 15,000 feet during the period.

Midland TX and Fort Worth TX rawinsonde data

Midland TX and Fort Worth TX rawinsonde data