“Seeing the surface” on water vapor imagery

July 8th, 2010 |
MODIS 6.7 µm water vapor image (with and without map overlay)

MODIS 6.7 µm water vapor image (with and without map overlay)

Under normal atmospheric conditions, the weighting function of most water vapor channels tends to peak at altitudes within the 500-300 hPa pressure range, allowing features within the middle to upper troposphere to be viewed on the water vapor imagery. However, under special conditions — for example, either a very dry or a very cold air mass — the altitude of the water vapor weighting function is shifted downward such that we are able to “see the surface” on water vapor imagery. Such was the case with the MODIS 6.7 µm water vapor image over the Baja California region on 08 July 2010 (above), where the outline of the coast was very obvious on the image.

Even though the water vapor channel was not “seeing the surface” per se, a signal of the strong surface thermal contrast (between the very warm land and the much cooler water) was able to override the weak signal from what little middle-tropospheric water vapor was present. Other cases of strong land/water temperature contrasts have been seen on water vapor imagery, such as with very cold and very dry arctic air masses back in February 2007, December 2006, and January 2004.

However, in this case, the signal of the land/water thermal contrast was not evident on the corresponding GOES-11 6.7 µm / GOES-13 6.5 µm water vapor composite image. Because of the large viewing angle of the geostationary satellites (around 40 degrees for GOES-11 and around 55 degrees for GOES-13 for the Baja California region), the water vapor weighting function was apparently shifted upward to a high enough altitude to preclude detection of the surface land/water thermal signal.

GOES-11 6.7 µm + GOES-13 6.5 µm water vapor composite (with and without map overlay)

GOES-11 6.7 µm + GOES-13 6.5 µm water vapor composite (with and without map overlay)

Surprisingly, not even the GOES-11 sounder 7.4 µm water vapor channel image (below) was able to detect the strong surface thermal signal — the weighting function of this channel often peaks much lower in the troposphere (usually around 850-700 hPa). Again, perhaps the large geostationary satellite viewing angle was a factor. With the MODIS instrument flying directly overhead, there was no corresponding upward shift in the water vapor channel weighting function.

GOES-11 sounder 7.4 µm water vapor image (with and without map overlay)

GOES-11 sounder 7.4 µm water vapor image (with and without map overlay)

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