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Germany’s Magic Sparkle

Posted On: March 16, 2015 - By: Curtis Seaman


You may or may not have heard that a small town in Italy received 100 inches (250 cm; 2.5 m; 8⅓ feet; 8 x 10-17 parsecs) of snow in 18 hours just last week (5 March 2015). That’s a lot of snow! It’s more than what fell on İnebolu, Turkey back in the beginning of January. But, something else happened that week that is much more interesting.

All you skiers are asking, “What could be more interesting than 100 inches of fresh powder?” And all you weather-weenies are asking, “What could be more interesting than being buried under a monster snowstorm? I mean, that makes Buffalo look like the Atacama Desert!” The answer: well, you’ll have to read the rest of this post. Besides, VIIRS is incapable of measuring snow depth. (Visible and infrared wavelengths just don’t give you that kind of information.) So, looking at VIIRS imagery of that event isn’t that informative.

This is (or was, until I looked into it in more detail) another mystery. Not a spooky, middle-of-the-night mystery, but one out in broad daylight. (We can thus automatically rule out vampires.)

It started with a comparison between “True Color” and “Natural Color” images over Germany from 9 March 2015:

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 11:54 UTC 9 March 2015

VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 11:54 UTC 9 March 2015.

VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels M-5, M-7 and M-10, taken 11:54 UTC 9 March 2015

VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels M-5, M-7 and M-10, taken 11:54 UTC 9 March 2015.

The point was to show, once again, how the Natural Color RGB composite can be used to differentiate snow from low clouds. That’s when I noticed it. Bright pixels (some white, some orange, some yellow, some peach-colored) in the Natural Color image, mostly over Bavaria. (Remember, you can click on the images, then click again, to see them in full resolution.) Thinking they might be fires, I plotted up our very own Fire Temperature RGB:

VIIRS Fire Temperature RGB composite of channels M-10, M-11 and M-12 from 11:54 UTC 9 March 2015

VIIRS Fire Temperature RGB composite of channels M-10, M-11 and M-12 from 11:54 UTC 9 March 2015.

I’ve gone ahead and drawn a white box around the area of interest. Let’s zoom in on that area for these (and future) images.

VIIRS True Color RGB (11:54 UTC 9 March 2015)

VIIRS True Color RGB (11:54 UTC 9 March 2015). Zoomed in and cropped to highlight the area of interest.

VIIRS Natural Color RGB (11:54 UTC 9 March 2015)

VIIRS Natural Color RGB (11:54 UTC 9 March 2015). Zoomed in and cropped to highlight the area of interest.

VIIRS Fire Temperature RGB (11:54 UTC 9 March 2015)

VIIRS Fire Temperature RGB (11:54 UTC 9 March 2015). Zoomed in and cropped to highlight the area of interest.

Now, these spots really show up. But, they’re not fires! Fires show up red, orange, yellow or white in the Fire Temperature composite (which is one of the benefits of it). They don’t appear pink or pastel blue. What the heck is going on?

Now, wait! Go back to the True Color image and look at it at full resolution. There are white spots right where the pastel pixels show up in the Fire Temperature image. (I didn’t notice initially, because white spots could be cloud, or snow, or sunglint.) This is another piece of evidence that suggests we’re not looking at fires.

For a fire to show up in True Color images, it would have to be about as hot as the surface of the sun and cover a significant portion of a 750-m pixel. Terrestrial fires don’t typically get that big or hot on the scale needed for VIIRS to see them at visible wavelengths. Now, fires don’t have to be that hot to show up in Natural Color images, but even then they appear red. Not white or peach-colored. If a fire was big enough and hot enough to show up in a True Color image, it would certainly show up in the high-resolution infrared (IR) channel (I-05, 11.45 µm), but it doesn’t:

VIIRS high-resolution IR (I-05) image (11:54 UTC 9 March 2015)

VIIRS high-resolution IR (I-05) image (11:54 UTC 9 March 2015).

You might be fooled, however, if you looked at the mid-wave IR (I-04, 3.7 µm) where these do look like hot spots:

VIIRS high-resolution midwave-IR (I-04) image (11:54 UTC 9 March 2015)

VIIRS high-resolution midwave-IR (I-04) image (11:54 UTC 9 March 2015).

What’s more amazing is I was able to see these bright spots all the way down to channel M-1 (0.412 µm), the shortest wavelength channel on VIIRS:

VIIRS "deep blue" visible (M-1) image (11:54 UTC 9 March 2015)

VIIRS “deep blue” visible (M-1) image (11:54 UTC 9 March 2015).

So, what do we know? Bright spots appear in all the bands where solar reflection contributes to the total radiance (except M-6 and M-9). I checked. (They don’t show up in M-6 [0.75 µm], because that channel is designed to saturate under any solar reflection so everything over land looks bright. They don’t show up in M-9 [1.38 µm] because solar radiation in that band is absorbed by water vapor and never makes it to the surface.) Hot spots do not coincide with these bright spots in the longer wavelength IR channels (above 4 µm).

What reflects a lot of radiation in the visible and near-IR but does not emit a lot in the longwave IR? Solar panels. That’s the answer to the mystery. VIIRS was able to see solar radiation reflecting off of a whole bunch of solar panels. That is the source of Germany’s “magic sparkle”.

Don’t believe me? First off, Germany is a world leader when it comes to producing electricity from solar panels. Solar farms (or “solar parks” auf Deutsch) are common – particularly in Bavaria, which produces the most solar power per capita of any German state.

Second: I was able to link specific solar parks with the bright spots in the above images using this website. (Not all of those solar parks show up in VIIRS, though. I’ll get to that.) And these solar parks can get quite big. Let’s take a look at a couple of average-sized solar parks on Google Maps: here and here. The brightest spot in the VIIRS Fire Temperature image (near 49° N, 11° E) matches up with this solar park, which is almost perfectly aligned with the VIIRS scans and perpendicular to the satellite track.

Third: it’s not just solar parks. A lot of people and businesses have solar panels on their roofs. Zoom in on Pfeffenhausen, and try to count the number of solar panels you see on buildings.

One more thing: if you think solar panels don’t reflect a lot of sunlight, you’re wrong. Solar power plants have been known reflect so much light they instantly incinerate birds*. (*This is not exactly true. See the update below.)

Another important detail is that all of the bright spots visible in the VIIRS images are a few degrees (in terms of satellite viewing angle) to the west of nadir. Given where the sun is in the sky this time of year (early March) and this time of day (noon) at this latitude (48° to 50° N), a lot of these solar panels are in the perfect position to reflect sunlight up to the satellite. But, not all of them. Some solar panels track the sun and move throughout the day. Other panels are fixed in place and don’t move. Only the solar panels in the right orientation relative to the satellite and the sun will be visible to VIIRS.

At these latitudes during the day, the sun is always to south and slightly to the west of the satellite. For the most part, solar panels to the east of the satellite will reflect light away from the satellite, which is why you don’t see any of those. If the panel is pointed too close to the horizon, or too close to zenith (or the sun is too high or too low in the sky), the sunlight will be reflected behind or ahead of the satellite and won’t be seen. You could say that this “sparkle” is actually another form of glint, like sun glint or moon glint – only this is “solar panel glint”.

Here’s a Natural Color image from the very next day (10 March 2015), when the satellite was a little bit further east and overhead a little bit earlier in the day:

VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels M-5, M-7 and M-10 from 11:35 UTC 10 March 2015

VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels M-5, M-7 and M-10 from 11:35 UTC 10 March 2015.

Notice the half-dozen-or-so bright spots over the Czech Republic. These are just west of the satellite track and in the same position relative to satellite and sun. (The bright spot near the borders of Austria and Slovakia matches up with this solar farm.) The bright spots over Germany are gone because they no longer line up with the sun and satellite geometry.

As for the pastel colors in the Natural Color and Fire Temperature RGBs, those are related to the proportional surface area of the solar panels relative to the size of each pixel as well as the background reflectivity of the ground surrounding the solar panels. The bright spots do generally appear more white in the high-resolution version of the Natural Color RGB from 9 March:

VIIRS high-resolution Natural Color (I-01, I-02, I-03) RGB image (11:54 UTC 9 March 2015)

VIIRS high-resolution Natural Color (I-01, I-02, I-03) RGB image (11:54 UTC 9 March 2015).

See, we learned something today. Germany sparkles with green electricity and VIIRS can see it!

UPDATES (17 March 2015): Thanks to feedback from Renate B., who grew up in Bavaria and currently owns solar panels, we have this additional information: there is a push to add solar panels onto church roofs throughout Bavaria, since they tend to be the tallest buildings in town (not shaded by anything) and are typically positioned facing east, so the south-facing roof slopes are ideal for collecting sunlight. The hurdle is that churches are protected historical buildings that people don’t want to be damaged. Also, it’s not a coincidence that many solar parks have their solar panels facing southeast (and align with the VIIRS scan direction). They are more efficient at producing electricity in the morning, when the temperatures are lower, than they are in the afternoon when the panels are warmer. They face southeast to better capture the morning sun.

Also, to clarify (as pointed out by Ed S.): the solar power plant that incinerates birds generates electricity from a different mechanism than the photovoltaic (PV) arrays seen in these images from Germany. PV arrays (aka solar parks) convert direct sunlight to electricity. The “bird incinerator” uses a large array of mirrors to focus sunlight on a tower filled with water. The focused sunlight heats the water until it boils, generating steam that powers a turbine. Solar parks and solar panels on houses and churches do not cause birds to burst into flames.


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