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Remote Islands VI: Return to Gough

Posted On: February 4, 2020 - By: Curtis Seaman


You youngins are not old enough to remember, but we took a look at Gough Island before. Well, not directly, but as part of the British territory of Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha eight years ago. We also did a special feature on Saint Helena and Ascension four years ago. So, why are we re-visiting a group of tiny islands in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean for a third time? Because of the great view that VIIRS provided earlier this month, and because Gough Island is an interesting place.

For starters, it rhymes with “scoff” and not with “dough” despite the spelling. So now you know. It is also home to one of the more unique jobs in meteorology. It has no permanent residents, but every year a group of 5-10 people are brought in to run the weather station on it for the South African Weather Service and study the biology of the island for the South African National Antarctic Programme (SANAP) even though it is a British island. (At least one member of the team has to be a doctor, since there are no hospitals within 400 km and boats only stop by a couple of times per year.) From the pictures and video, it certainly looks like unique place to spend a year.

Now, on to the interesting satellite imagery. We begin our visit to Gough Island with a loop from Meteosat-11, and its imager, SEVIRI (PDF document):

Note that Meteosat data was provided to NOAA by EUMETSAT and the video above shows their “Enhanced” Natural Color RGB. I can also take this opportunity to promote the fact that we are now allowed to share Meteosat imagery on our ultra-popular website, SLIDER, which is where the above loop came from.

Credits and advertising out of the way, did you see Gough Island? If not, you could try viewing the video in full-screen mode. Or, it might help if I zoomed in on the area, like this:

Meteosat-11 "Enhanced" Natural Color RGB (07-18 UTC, 5 January 2020)

Meteosat-11 “Enhanced” Natural Color RGB (07-18 UTC, 5 January 2020)

The southernmost green dot is Gough Island. The other green dots are Tristan da Cunha, Inaccessible Island, and Nightingale Island. What caught my attention was two things: it’s rare to get such a clear view of these islands and the waves produced by Gough Island clearly impact clouds that never even passed over the island. Of course, having come from SEVIRI, this loop is limited to 3 km resolution (since the HRV band isn’t part of this RGB, and doesn’t normally cover this part of the world).

What if we had 375 m resolution? What would that look like? Well, on VIIRS, it looks like this:

NOAA-20 VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels I-01, I-2 and I-3 (14:38 UTC 5 January 2020)

NOAA-20 VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite of channels I-01, I-2 and I-3 (14:38 UTC 5 January 2020)

Click on the image to view the full resolution. It’s worth it.

It should be noted that I haven’t applied the same “enhanced” version of the Natural Color RGB that removes the cyan color of ice clouds and snow. Another difference is something that you don’t see in the SEVIRI loop: sun glint. That’s because Meteosat-11 isn’t viewing the scene from the same angle as VIIRS.

Look closely downwind (or leeward) of Gough Island and you’ll see from the sun glint that the island is producing waves not only in the atmosphere, but on the surface of the ocean:

Same image as above, only zoomed in on Gough Island

Same image as above, only zoomed in on Gough Island

Of course, if you clicked on the sun glint link, you saw a more extreme example of this, and if you bothered to read the article, you also saw the explanation (written much more succinctly and accurately than I could without plagiarism).

That was only the NOAA-20 view. We also have the Suomi-NPP view, which covered this area before and after NOAA-20. Here are all three views combined:

Animation of VIIRS Natural Color RGB images (5 January 2020)

Animation of VIIRS Natural Color RGB images (5 January 2020)

You have to click on the image above to see the animation play. Now you can see the motion of the clouds, yet the waves are nearly stationary. That’s because they are “tied” to the island that is producing them. This is an example of trapped lee waves. And pilots beware: as this case shows, these waves are present even where there are no clouds to reveal them.

What is perhaps more interesting is that the waves in the ocean show up in the mid-wave infrared (IR) thanks to the sun glint:

S-NPP VIIRS I-04 image (13:46 UTC, 5 January 2020)

S-NPP VIIRS I-04 image (13:46 UTC, 5 January 2020)

This is I-04, the 375 m resolution channel at 3.7 µm, from the first S-NPP overpass (13:46 UTC, 5 January 2020). See the waves on the lee of both Gough Island and Tristan da Cunha? (Tristan da Cunha’s waves aren’t apparent in the clouds. Since these are trapped lee waves, they are occurring below the height of the cirrus clouds to the northwest.) Now, let’s animate the three overpasses:

Animation of VIIRS I-04 images (5 January 2020)

Animation of VIIRS I-04 images (5 January 2020)

The impact of sun glint on the these images, especially the middle one (NOAA-20) is obvious. The last image from S-NPP (15:29 UTC) has no sun glint, so these waves are much harder to spot.

Now check out the high-resolution longwave IR (LWIR) band, I-05 (11.4 µm):

Animation of VIIRS I-05 images (5 January 2020)

Animation of VIIRS I-05 images (5 January 2020)

Pay attention to the change in scaling as revealed by the color table. Three things stand out: with this combination of scaling and color table, you can see structure in the sea surface temperature, the waves downwind of Gough are still visible in the ocean even in the LWIR, and “limb cooling” is something to watch out for.

More detail on the items of note: the sea surface temperature (SST) structure is easier to spot in I-05 because it is not impacted by sun glint. This is because the Earth emits significantly more radiation in the LWIR than what it receives from the sun. In the midwave-IR, the contribution from the sun is significant (as these images show). The waves are still visible in I-05 because the winds on the downward portion of the wave are hitting the ocean surface and modifying the exchange of heat between the atmosphere and the ocean, leading to waves of warmer and cooler SST. And, third, “limb cooling” is the name given to the fact that, at high satellite viewing angles, the path length of the radiation through the atmosphere increases, and more radiation comes from higher up where temperatures are colder. (More on limb cooling may be found on slides 19-21 here.) Look to the clear sky areas on the left edge of the swath on the first I-05 image and compare it to the middle image. Then do the same for the right edge of the swath on the last image. The limb cooling effect is readily apparent.

There’s one more interesting thing from this same scene. Look at the True Color images from these three overpasses:

Animation of VIIRS True Color RGB images (5 January 2020)

Animation of VIIRS True Color RGB images (5 January 2020)

See any variations in the color of the ocean not related to sun glint? That is phytoplankton, a source of life and death in the ocean. In fact, Gough Island’s location, where warmer sub-tropical water mingles with colder mid-latitude water is what makes it such a great nesting site for birds. The fish eat the phytoplankton and the birds eat the fish. Unfortunately, stowaway mice brought to Gough Island by accident are eating the birds.

All that interesting science from one tiny island in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean.


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