Pyrocumulonimbus cloud in South Africa

October 29th, 2018 |

Meteosat-11 Visible (0.8 µm), Shortwave Infrared (3.92 µm) and Longwave Infrared Window (10.8 µm) images [click to play animation | MP4]

Meteosat-11 Visible (0.8 µm, top), Shortwave Infrared (3.92 µm, center) and Longwave Infrared Window (10.8 µm, bottom) images [click to play animation | MP4]

The Garden Route Fires had been burning since about 24 October 2018 near George along the southern coast of South Africa (media story). On 29 October, EUMETSAT Meteosat-11 High Resolution Visible (0.8 µm), Shortwave Infrared (3.92 µm) and Longwave Infrared Window (10.8 µm) images (above) showed an elongated west-to-east oriented thermal anomaly or fire “hot spot” (red pixels) just northeast of George (station identifier FAGG) on Shortwave Infrared imagery during the hours leading up to the formation of a pyrocumulonimbus (pyroCb) cloud around 1300 UTC. The pyroCb exhibited the characteristic warm (+10 to +15ºC, darker gray enhancement) shortwave infrared cloud-top signature just off the coast at 1315 UTC, — this is due to enhanced solar reflection off ice crystals that are smaller compared to those of conventional thunderstorm tops.

Zooming out a bit to follow the southeastward drift of the pyroCb cloud (below), the coldest cloud-top 10.8 µm infrared brightness temperature (BT) was -61ºC (darker red enhancement) at 1315 UTC — then the cloud tops remained in the -55 to -59ºC range (orange enhancement) for the next 6 hours or so. Leveraging the large difference between cold 10.8 µm and warm 3.92 µm BTs, NRL calculates a pyroCb index, which classified this feature as an “intense pyroCb” (1315 UTC | animation). The coldest 10.8 µm cloud-top BT of -61ºC roughly corresponds to an altitude of 13.5 km based on 12 UTC rawinsonde data from Port Elizabeth (plot | list).

Meteosat-11 Shortwave Infrared (3.92 µm, left) and Longwave Infrared Window (10.8 µm, right) images [click to play animation | MP4]

Meteosat-11 Shortwave Infrared (3.92 µm, left) and Longwave Infrared Window (10.8 µm, right) images [click to play animation | MP4]

Imagery from NOAA-19 at 1420 UTC (courtesy of René Servranckx) also revealed the warm (dark gray) Shortwave Infrared pyroCb signature, along with a minimum cloud-top infrared BT of -58.1ºC (below).

NOAA-19 AVHRR imagery at 1420 UTC [click to enlarge]

NOAA-19 AVHRR imagery at 1420 UTC [click to enlarge]

A Suomi NPP VIIRS True Color Red-Green-Blue (RGB) image at 1230 UTC (below) was about a half hour before the formation of the pyroCb, but it did show a signature of smoke drifting southeastward off the coast.

Suomi NPP VIIRS True Color RGB image [click to enlarge]

Suomi NPP VIIRS True Color RGB image [click to enlarge]

On the following day (30 October), a NOAA-20 VIIRS True Color image (below) showed the classic comma cloud signature of a mid-latitude cyclone south of the coast, with the band of cold-frontal clouds extending northward across Lesotho. Note the thick plume of smoke spreading eastward within the strong post-frontal westerly winds.

NOAA-20 VIIRS True Color RGB image [click to enlarge]

NOAA-20 VIIRS True Color RGB image [click to enlarge]

A time series of of surface observations from George (below) supported the idea of a cold frontal passage: ahead of the front, temperatures rapidly rose to 104ºF/40ºC (with a dew point of 39ºF/4ºC) on 28 October about 1.5 hours prior to the formation of the pyroCb — then strong westerly winds (gusting to 40 knots/21 mps) with rising pressures and falling temperatures followed on 30 October.

Time series plot of of surface observations from George [click to enlarge]

Time series plot of of surface observations from George [click to enlarge]

The pyroCb research community believes that this is the first documented case of a pyroCb on the African continent.

 

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