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Record Russian Spring Snowmelt

Posted On: May 7, 2013 - By: Curtis Seaman


It seems that last year’s posts were all about fires. Fires in Colorado (multiple fires, in fact), the Canary Islands, Siberia, Australia – there was even that 40-year-old pit of burning natural gas that has been called the “Gates of Hell“. (It’s still burning, by the way.) Maybe this year’s theme will be all about flooding. We just looked at flooding in the U.S. Midwest. And now, we return back to Russia – the western part this time – where massive flooding has occurred this spring.

Moscow had 65 cm of snow on the ground on 1 April 2013. (That’s roughly 26 inches for any American readers.) That’s the most snow they’ve ever had on the ground that late in the spring, and it was all thanks to record snowfall during the month of March. This article from 26 March 2013 says they got 70 cm (28 inches) in a two day period, and forecasters were predicting another 8-10 cm by the end of the month.

What happens when record amounts of snow melt? It causes flooding. In this case, flooding that makes the Illinois River look like a creek you can hop across. The watershed of the Volga River has been hit especially hard. Here’s a picture that our resident Russian, Galina C., tells me is from near the city of Ryazan, so I assume it is the Oka River. (Refer back to the Volga River map I linked to.) There are more pictures here.

To bring this all together with VIIRS, here is what VIIRS saw on 28 March 2012, right after the region got 70 cm of snow:

False color RGB composite of VIIRS channels I-01, I-02 and I-03, taken 10:38 UTC 28 March 2013

False color RGB composite of VIIRS channels I-01, I-02 and I-03, taken 10:38 UTC 28 March 2013

Again, to see the full resolution image, click on it and then click on the “1793×2036 ” link below the banner. This is the false color combination that EUMETSAT refers to as “Natural Color“, where snow and ice appear cyan and liquid clouds appear white. The whole scene is snow, except for a few small clouds north of Moscow and anywhere there are trees sticking out above the snow, which appear green.

Notice that you can’t see any rivers. They’re all frozen over and covered with snow.

Here’s what VIIRS saw (same false color combination) a month later (29 April 2013):

False color composite of VIIRS channels I-01, I-02 and I-03, taken 10:39 UTC 29 April 2013

False color composite of VIIRS channels I-01, I-02 and I-03, taken 10:39 UTC 29 April 2013

All the snow is gone. Plus, look at all the rivers you can see. The problem is that you shouldn’t normally be able to see all of these rivers. The flooding makes them visible.

What I think is more impressive is seeing a time-lapse loop of VIIRS images over this period:

Animation of false color composites of VIIRS channels I-01, I-02 and I-03 from 28 March 2013 to 2 May 2013.

Animation of false color composites of VIIRS channels I-01, I-02 and I-03 from 28 March 2013 to 2 May 2013.

Make sure you look at it in full resolution mode. Note that the time period between frames in the animation varies. Some days it was too cloudy to see anything, one or two days had missing data, etc., so this isn’t always one image per day.

The city of Ryazan is identified in the animation (remember the photo linked to earlier). To put it into perspective, check out the Google Maps satellite view of the city. The Oka River is normally ~200 m wide near the city. In the last two frames of the animation, the Oka River is over 10 km wide at its widest point near Ryazan! The same goes for a lot of the rivers visible at the end of the loop – rivers that are normally a few tens or hundreds of meters wide are up to a few kilometers wide.

The city of Tambov at 52°43′N, 41°26′E, which is outside of the domain of the animation, but in the southeastern portion of the larger static images, experienced its worst flooding in 130 years in early April. (That corner of the domain was the first to experience snowmelt.) One of the contributing factors at Tambov, according to that article, was that the ground below the snow was still frozen. The snowmelt occurred before the ground thawed. This meant that the meltwater couldn’t be absorbed into the ground – it simply collected in the low-lying areas or ran off into the rivers, which quickly filled as you can see.

Our resident Russian was also able to grab this plot of the Oka River stage at Novinky, just upstream of where the Oka empties into the Volga. The information comes from this website. This plot covers the time period from 7 April to 7 May 2013.

River stage of the Oka River at Novinky, Russia for April 2013

River stage of the Oka River at Novinky, Russia for April 2013. Data comes from gis.waterinfo.ru, with help from Galina Chirokova (CIRA).

The Oka River looks like it peaked at about 2.5 m above normal. (8 ft. for you Americans.)

All that water is going to end up in the Caspian Sea, whose water level is largely based on inflow from the Volga River’s watershed. Variations of sea level in the Caspian have been +/-3 m over the last century and, with this influx of snowmelt, it is sure to go up.


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