Skip to Navigation Skip to content

Regional and Mesoscale Meteorology Branch

Search the RAMMB website

Polar Opposites

Posted On: August 15, 2019 - By: Curtis Seaman


As we all know, the furthest south you can travel is to the South Pole – the Geographic South Pole, not the Magnetic South Pole or the Geomagnetic South Pole. When you get there, try to face east if you can. (This is easier to do at the “Ceremonial South Pole” than it is at the actual South Pole.)

The furthest south you can get by boat is an island off the coast* of Antarctica, called Ross Island. (*The term “coast” is used loosely here, since Ross Island is usually connected to Antarctica by the Ross Ice Shelf.) At the southern tip of Ross Island is the largest “city” in Antarctica: McMurdo Station. McMurdo is the port-of-entry for most visitors to Antarctica. It is also home to a ground station that receives data from NOAA-20 (and many other satellites). So, if you love the lower latency that comes with NOAA-20 VIIRS data, you have McMurdo Station to thank. (S-NPP data is only downlinked at Svalbard – once per orbit – while NOAA-20 is downlinked at both Svalbard and McMurdo.) This is the location of today’s resolved mystery.

The mystery began with the development of a new website for viewing global VIIRS imagery: Polar SLIDER*. (*Shameless self-promotion: I helped develop that website.) If you click on that link, choose “Southern Hemisphere” from the Sector menu to view Antarctica. With every product, you can zoom in anywhere on the globe* to view the full resolution data. (*Claim is void near the Equator.) Under the Product menu, you can choose between all 22 VIIRS channels (16 M-bands, 5 I-bands, and the Day/Night Band), or from a list of imagery products and cloud products. (And we are always working to add new products.) Since it’s perpetual night down there right now, you’ll notice that the visible and near-IR bands don’t give you much information – except the Day/Night Band, of course, which can provide images like this:

NOAA-20 VIIRS DNB image (14:25 UTC, 14 August 2019)

NOAA-20 VIIRS DNB image (14:25 UTC, 14 August 2019)

Ross Island is in the center of that image. That bright light at the southern tip of Ross Island is McMurdo Station. The second bright light south of that is the “airport“. Here’s an annotated image with the map plotted on it:

NOAA-20 VIIRS DNB image of Ross Island and surroundings (14:25 UTC, 14 August 2019)

NOAA-20 VIIRS DNB image of Ross Island and surroundings (14:25 UTC, 14 August 2019)

As always, click on an image to see it in full resolution. Now that we have our bearings, let’s look at the high resolution mid-wave IR band (I-4/3.74 µm):

NOAA-20 VIIRS channel I-4 (14:25 UTC, 14 August 2019)

NOAA-20 VIIRS channel I-4 (14:25 UTC, 14 August 2019)

See that white dot in the middle of Ross Island? What is that? (Hint: it’s not part of the map.)

To make some sense of this, look at the color table plotted on the bottom of the image. White pixels on this scale (not counting the map) are +100°C (+373 K). In contrast, the dark turquoise color surrounding it is in the -25°C to -30°C range (243-248 K). What could be over 100°C in Antarctica in the winter? Did something catch on fire?

It turns out, it is a semi-permanent feature according to this animation collected from Polar SLIDER. (You have to click on the animation to see it play.)

Animation of VIIRS channel I-4 images (13 August 2019)

Animation of VIIRS channel I-4 images (13 August 2019)

Looking at Day/Night Band images over the same time period, it also shows up as a bright spot:

Animation of VIIRS DNB images (13 August 2019)

Animation of VIIRS DNB images (13 August 2019)

Maybe it’s a nuclear reactor that powers all of McMurdo Station? (Nope. There was a nuclear power plant, but that was de-commissioned in 1972.) Maybe the fact that this bright (in the DNB), hot spot (mid-IR) is on top of a mountain has something to do with it? (Bingo!)

Ross Island is made up of volcanoes, the most prominent of which are Mt. Erebus and Mt. Terror (named for the ships on the original expedition that discovered them). Mt. Terror (the one on the right) is inactive. Mt. Erebus, on the other (left) hand, is the southernmost active volcano in the world. And, what’s relevant here is the fact that it is home to one of only five known lava lakes in the world. So, molten-hot liquid rock exists in an ice-covered environment where temperatures regularly dip down to -50°C or -60°C. And, it’s right next to the largest settlement in Antarctica. Sleep tight. (Since we’re less than a week away from the first sunrise of the spring, get your sleep while you can down there!)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *