A cold and dry arctic air mass (morning minimum temperatures) was in place over the Great Lakes region on 23 February 2015. This arctic air mass was sufficiently cold and dry throughout the atmospheric column to allow the outlines of portions of the surface geography of the Great Lakes to be seen on GOES-13 (GOES-East) 6.5 µm water vapor channel images (above; click image to play animation).
In addition to the commonly-used 4-km resolution 6.5 µm water vapor channel on the GOES Imager instrument, there are also three 10-km resolution water vapor channels on the GOES Sounder instrument (centered at 6.5 µm, 7.0 µm, and 7.4 µm). A 4-panel comparison of these water vapor channel images (below; click image to play animation) provides the visual indication that each water vapor channel is sensing radiation from different layers at different altitudes — for example, the surface geographical outlines of the Great Lakes are best seen with the Sounder 7.4 µm (bottom left panels) and the Imager 6.5 µm (bottom right panels) water vapor channels.
An inspection of GOES Sounder and Imager water vapor channel weighting function plots (below) helps to diagnose the altitude and depth of the layers being sensed by each of the individual water vapor channels at a variety of locations. For example, the air mass over Green Bay, Wisconsin was cold and very dry (with a Total Precipitable Water value of 0.87 mm or 0.03 inch), which shifted the altitude of the various water vapor channel weighting functions to very low altitudes; this allowed surface radiation from the contrasting land/water boundaries to “bleed up” through what little water vapor was present in the atmosphere, and be sensed by the GOES-13 water vapor detectors. In contrast, the air mass farther to the south over Lincoln, Illinois was a bit more more moist, especially in the middle/upper troposphere (with a Total Precipitable Water value of 4.20 mm or 0.17 inch) — this shifted the altitude of the water vapor channel weighting functions to much higher altitudes (to heights that were closer to those calculated using a temperature/moisture profile based on the US Standard Atmosphere).
In addition to the temperature and/or moisture profile of the atmospheric column, the other factor which controls the altitude and depth of the layer(s) being detected by a specific water vapor channel is the satellite viewing angle (or “zenith angle”); a larger satellite viewing angle will shift the altitude of the weighting function to higher levels in the atmosphere. Recall that the water vapor channel is essentially an Infrared (IR) channel — it generally senses the mean temperature of a layer of moisture or clouds located within the middle to upper troposphere. In this case, the sharp thermal contrast between the cold land surfaces surrounding the warmer Great Lakes was able to be seen, due to the lack of sufficient water vapor at higher levels of the atmosphere to attenuate or block the surface thermal signature.
The new generation of geostationary satellite Imager instruments (for example, the AHI on Himawari-8 and the ABI on GOES-R) feature 3 water vapor channels which are similar to those on the current GOES Sounder, but at much higher spatial and temporal resolutions.
On a separate — but equally interesting — topic: successive intrusions of arctic air over the region allowed a rapid growth of ice in the waters of Lake Michigan. A 15-meter resolution Landsat-8 0.59 µm panochromatic visible image viewed using the SSEC RealEarth web map server (below) showed a very detailed picture of ice floes along the western portion of the lake, as well as a patch of land-fast ice in the far southern end of the lake.
The motion of the band of ice floes along the western edge of Lake Michigan was evident in 1-km resolution GOES-13 0.63 µm visible channel images (below; click image to play animation) — along the east coast of Wisconsin, southwesterly winds gusting to around 20 knots were acting to move the ice floes away from the western shoreline of Lake Michigan.