Quiz Time: What county in the USA has all boundaries visible from satellite?

December 2nd, 2021 |
MODIS-derived BRDF from 1 December 2021 (Click to enlarge)

MODIS-derived (from Terra and Aqua satellites) Bidirectional Reflectance Distribution Function (BRDF), above, (as noted in this blog post), shows the (meager) snow distribution as of early December. How many counties (or parishes) in the United States (out of more than 3000!) are clearly delineated in Satellite Imagery such as what is shown above? Counties that are primarily islands (or peninsulas) — Dare County in North Carolina, for example — show up well (False Color image shown here, in an image taken from VIIRS Today), but the inland borders do not.

For a county to be recognizable from Space, its landcover must differ significantly from adjacent counties. In the zooming-in animation below (from RealEarth, click the image to zoom in), users will note that Menominee County in northeast Wisconsin becomes apparent. Menominee County is almost entirely forest (unlike its neighbors) and as such has a much different signal in the (for example) 0.87 µm channel on VIIRS (or 0.86 µm on GOES-16). When it is zoomed in, the outlines of the County are obvious.

MODIS-derived BRDF from 1 December 2021 at various zoom levels (Click to animate)

The county also shows up well in the VIIRS True Color/False Color toggle below, from 30 November. The southern edge of the snow at that time was just southeast of Menominee County, and the land-use change across the county border is apparent. Snow in the county (cyan in the False Color enhancement) is difficult to view from the imagery — because of the pine forests!

VIIRS True-Color and False-Color imagery over northeastern WI, 1838 UTC on 30 November 2021 (Click to enlarge)

Menominee County has been on this blog before! In 2007, a tornado tracked through Menominee County and left a visible scar in satellite imagery (link). Eight years later (link), the scar was still apparent! November 6 2021 was a clear day over the upper Midwest. Suomi-NPP True Color imagery, below (link to original large image), still shows vestiges of the scar!

Suomi NPP True-Color imagery, 6 November 2021. The outline of Menominee County is apparent, as is the southwest-to-northeast tornado scar

Hole punch clouds over the Upper Midwest

November 7th, 2021 |

On the morning of Sunday, November 7th, numerous elongated hole punch clouds were visible over the Upper Midwest, including parts of Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota. Also called fall streak clouds, these are a relatively rare phenomenon that form because of the unusual properties of cloud droplets.

Photo of a hole punch cloud and the associated fall streaks, taken on the east side of Madison, WI, at 11:20 AM CST on Sunday, November 7th. Photo by the author.

While most people know the freezing temperature of water is 0 °C (32 °F), that’s only true when dealing with a flat surface.  A curved droplet has more energy in it due to surface tension squeezing the droplet together, and so the air temperature has to be colder in order to make the droplet cold enough to freeze.  As a result, clouds of liquid water below freezing are relatively common, especially in the spring and fall when temperatures at cloud level are just below freezing.  These are called supercooled clouds.

Another commonly-known fact about water is if the relative humidity of the air is less than 100%, liquid water will evaporate.  Again, that’s not necessarily true for cloud droplets. What is especially interesting is that the relative humidity required to support growth is bigger for a cloud droplet than it is for an ice crystal.  Given an environment with both cloud droplets and ice crystals, the droplets will evaporate and the ice crystals will grow.  This is known as the Bergeron-Findeisen process and is a key part of forming precipitation from cold clouds. 

Both cloud droplets and ice crystals require a nucleus to form. Dust, pollen, and other aerosols are common nuclei.  While water can condense on many different aerosols, ice crystals are much more selective. Due to the rigid crystal shape of ice, it can only form on aerosols that have a similar structure. This is, in part, why supercooled clouds are relatively common: there’s just not enough ice nuclei around for ice crystals to form.  

That brings us to Sunday morning: a rather large altostratus deck was present across the upper midwest. Even though the surface temperature was approaching 16 °C (60 °F), the clouds were high enough above the surface that their temperature was below freezing.  The morning sounding from Davenport, IA, showed that the freezing level was around 3300 m (11,000 ft) above sea level, but airport observations around the region showed that cloud bases were around 5100 m (17,000 ft). Without a sufficient amount of ice nuclei present, they stayed in the liquid phase and were thus supercooled clouds.

1200 UTC (6 AM CST) sounding from Davenport, IA, showing the freezing level was approximately 3300 m (11,000 ft) above sea level. Image from the University of Wyoming sounding archive.

However, numerous aircraft were flying through those clouds as they ascended from or descended into airports across the region.  The moisture-rich exhaust from the planes was deposited into the low-pressure wake behind the airplane, where it cooled very quickly and formed ice.  Normally, this would form the classic contrails seen behind many aircraft in the sky.  However, in this case the contrail served as a nucleation site within the supercooled cloud.  The droplets near the ice rapidly evaporated and the ice crystals generated by the airplanes grew even larger. In some cases, the crystals grew so large that they could no longer be supported aloft, and they started falling to the ground as snow.  They didn’t reach the ground because the air was warm and dry beneath the cloud, and so the ice crystals either melted and evaporated, or they sublimated (going directly from solid to vapor).  

The Terra polar-orbiting satellite happened to be passing overhead at the right time to capture this phenomenon while it was happening around 10:30 AM CST.  Almost-clear holes are seen in northeastern Iowa and southeastern Minnesota, while in northern Illinois they appear as elongated ice clouds surrounded by a clear region embedded within a larger cloud.  

MODIS True-color image from the 10:30 AM CST overpass showing hole punch clouds, circled in white.

The loop from Band 2 (0.64 micron) from GOES-16 also shows these clouds propagating through the region. This view, over Dane County (Madison) Wisconsin, shows one hour of visible-wavelength satellite imagery. The embedded ice clouds are clearly visible as structures that propagate from the west to the east. While the airplanes that created these structures have long since departed to other locations, their impact remained for some time.

Animation of GOES-16 Band 2 reflectance over south central Wisconsin. Dane County, home of Madison, is outlined.

Other blog posts showing examples of hole punch clouds can be found here.

Persistent region of cool sea-surface temperatures in the tropical Eastern Pacific

April 1st, 2021 |

GOES-16 sea-surface temperatures (a clear-sky level 2 product) with ABI Band 13 overlain in regions of cloudiness. 1500 UTC on 1 April 2021 (Click to enlarge)

GOES-16 sea-surface temperatures on 1 April 2021 show a region of much cooler temperatures — values around 74ºF , green in the color enhancement used) — surrounded by warmer sea-surface temperatures (values in the mid-80sºF, yellows and oranges in the color enhancement) to the southwest of Nicaragua. Why does this cool region exist? Typically, cool ocean surface temperatures can originate via upwelling (Note in the image above cool temperatures along the Equator where persistent upwelling exists). Is the part of the ocean that is cool above affected by upwelling? Cool temperatures are apparent to the northwest as a result of oceanic upwelling from a Tehuano wind through the Chivela mountain pass (similar to this event from 2018). There is a similar gap in the mountains between Costa Rica and Nicaragua (link).  Perhaps a persistent wind through that gap during the past months initiated this cool patch.  As shown below, the cool patch has been quite persistent — it was apparent in mid-January.

GOES-16 sea-surface temperatures at various times between 15 January to 30 March 2021 (click to enlarge)

High-altitude waves over the Arctic

March 27th, 2020 |


GOES-17 “Ozone” (9.61 µm) images, with rawinsonde sites plotted in yellow [click to play animation | MP4]

GOES-17 (GOES-West) “Ozone” (9.61 µm) images (above) revealed waves propagating northwestward over northern Alaska, northern Yukon and the adjacent Beaufort Sea during the pre-dawn hours on 27 March 2020. That area was too illuminated by either aurora borealis or the rising sun — so Suomi NPP VIIRS Day/Night Band (0.7 µm) imagery could not confirm the presence of mesospheric airglow waves (see this blog post for some examples).

A plot of the GOES-17 “Ozone” spectral band weighting function — calculated using 12 UTC rawinsonde data from Fairbanks, Alaska — showed a peak contribution from within the stratosphere at the 39 hPa pressure level, corresponding to an altitude around 21 km (below).

Plot of GOES-17

Plot of GOES-17 “Ozone” (9.61 um) weighting function, calculated using 12 UTC rawinsonde data from Fairbanks, Alaska [click to enlarge]

The curious aspect of these waves was their northwestward propagation — rawinsonde data from 3 sites across the region (below) indicated that the winds aloft within the upper troposphere and throughout the stratosphere were strong northwesterly, which meant the waves were moving against the ambient flow. Lacking a coherent, science-based explanation for these wave features, this blog post earns its place in the “What the heck is this?” category.

Plots of rawinsonde data from Fairbanks, Alaska [click to enlarge]

Plots of rawinsonde data from Fairbanks, Alaska [click to enlarge]

Plots of rawinsonde data from Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow), Alaska [click to enlarge]

Plots of rawinsonde data from Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow), Alaska [click to enlarge]

Plots of rawinsonde data from Inuvik, Northwest Territories [click to enlarge]

Plots of rawinsonde data from Inuvik, Northwest Territories [click to enlarge]