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Tropical Cyclone Idai: Before, During and After

Posted On: March 28, 2019 - By: Curtis Seaman


As of the time of this writing, there is currently a humanitarian crisis in Mozambique caused by what was Tropical Cyclone Idai. Here’s the situation as of 25 March 2019.

Wikipedia actually has a pretty detailed history of Idai. Long story short, one of the worst (“worst” meaning large negative impact on humans) tropical cyclones in recorded history for the Southern Hemisphere formed just off the coast of Mozambique on 4 March 2019. It quickly headed inland as a tropical storm, where it dropped heavy rains on northern Mozambique and Malawi. Then, it turned back into the Mozambique Channel, headed for Madagascar, stopped, turned around, rapidly intensified, and then hit Mozambique a second time as a Category 2 cyclone. After making it on land a second time, it stalled out and dissipated, dropping more heavy rain in the process on central Mozambique and eastern Zimbabwe. Here is a long loop from Meteosat-8 showing much of the life cycle of Cyclone Idai as it appeared in the longwave infrared (IR).

Here’s a visible (True Color) loop from VIIRS that covers most of the month of March:

Animation of VIIRS True Color images from both S-NPP and NOAA-20 (1-25 March 2019)

Animation of VIIRS True Color images from both S-NPP and NOAA-20 (1-25 March 2019)

This loop has been reduced in resolution to half of its original size to save on file size. Even with only 2-3 images per day (since we combined both S-NPP and NOAA-20 images), you can still clearly see the cyclone over Mozambique early in the loop head out to sea and then turn around and hit Mozambique again, where it dumped heavy rain for several days.

But, I want to draw your attention to several of the images in that loop: the beginning, the middle, and the end. On 1 March 2019, NOAA-20 got a pretty clear view of central Mozambique:

NOAA-20 VIIRS True Color composite image (11:32 UTC, 1 March 2019)

NOAA-20 VIIRS True Color composite image (11:32 UTC, 1 March 2019)

We’ll call this the “Before” image – and this one is full resolution (750 m). (NOTE: You have to click on it show it at full resolution.) We can also look at the Natural Color RGB (also known as the Day Land Cloud RGB and about a dozen other names), which we can make with the high resolution imagery bands I-1, I-2 and I-3:

NOAA-20 VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite image (11:32 UTC, 1 March 2019)

NOAA-20 VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite image (11:32 UTC, 1 March 2019)

This is also at full resolution (375 m). (Again, only if you click on it.)

The worst of the flooding occurred with Idai’s second landfall on 14 March 2019, and both VIIRS got great views of Idai prior to landfall:

NOAA-20 Natural Color RGB composite image (10:47 UTC, 14 March 2019)

NOAA-20 Natural Color RGB composite image (10:47 UTC, 14 March 2019)

S-NPP Natural Color RGB composite image (11:38 UTC, 14 March 2019)

S-NPP Natural Color RGB composite image (11:38 UTC, 14 March 2019)

These images were taken ~50 min. apart. And, if you couldn’t already tell, they’re the high resolution Natural Color images. This is for two reasons: 1) who doesn’t want to see tropical cyclones at the highest resolution possible? and 2) the Natural Color RGB brings out details in the cloud structure you can’t see in True Color. As we’ve discussed before, Natural Color highlights ice clouds in a cyan color, while liquid clouds are nearly white. But, if you look closely in the above images, you will see lighter and darker cyan regions in the clouds above (or at the top of) the eyewall. This is due to differences in particle size. Larger ice particles appear more cyan, while smaller ice particles appear more white. (Of course, there is also some shadowing going on, which accounts for the darkest regions.)

Another thing to note is the first image comes from NOAA-20, which was to the east of Idai. This provides a great view of the sloped structure of the west side of the eyewall. (And, not much information on the east side of the eyewall.) The second image comes from Suomi-NPP, which was to the west of Idai, looking at the east side of the eyewall. The two satellites in tandem provide an almost 3D view of the clouds in the eyewall (separated by 50 minutes, of course).

Also, see that peninsula that is just to the west of the eyewall in the last two images? (Hint: you won’t see it unless you bring up the full resolution versions.) That’s where the city of Beira is (or was). Beira was home to half a million people, and was one of the major ports in Mozambique. It took a direct hit from the eyewall of Idai, which destroyed approximately 90% of the buildings there. Beira was also ground zero for the resulting flooding, and the pictures coming out are not pretty.

This is a good segue to talk about the images from the end of the loop. NOAA-20 captured a relatively cloud-free view of Mozambique on 25 March 2019:

NOAA-20 VIIRS True Color composite image (10:42 UTC, 25 March 2019)

NOAA-20 VIIRS True Color composite image (10:42 UTC, 25 March 2019)

NOAA-20 VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite image (10:47 UTC, 25 March 2019)

NOAA-20 VIIRS Natural Color RGB composite image (10:47 UTC, 25 March 2019)

These images were collected 10 days after landfall, and the flooding is still evident. Don’t believe me? Compare these “After” images with the “Before” images shown earlier (zoomed in on Beira):

Animation comparing NOAA-20 True Color RGB composite images from 1 March 2019 and 25 March 2019

Animation comparing NOAA-20 True Color RGB composite images from 1 March 2019 and 25 March 2019

Notice the fertile, green agricultural land surrounding Beira in the “before” image that is covered by brown floodwater in the “after” image. Just like what we saw in the pictures from Beira.

But, there’s a lot flooding that is not so easy to see in the True Color that shows up better in the Natural Color RGB:

Animation comparing NOAA-20 Natural Color RGB images from 1 March 2019 and 25 March 2019

Animation comparing NOAA-20 Natural Color RGB images from 1 March 2019 and 25 March 2019

Since this VIIRS Natural Color imagery has twice the resolution of True Color, this animation is too large for WordPress to play it automatically. You have to click on it to see the animation play.

We’ve talked before about differences between True Color and Natural Color when it comes to flooding, and this example shows it quite well. You see, True Color can miss flooding, because water is pretty transparent at visible wavelengths. If the water is clear, you can see through it and, from the perspective of VIIRS, you see the ground underneath the water (as long as the water is relatively shallow). If the water is muddy, like most of this flooding, it’s easier to see (since radiation reflects off the particles in the water), but it can look the same as the mud (or bare ground) that isn’t covered by water.

Natural Color uses longer wavelengths, where water is much more absorbing, so water appears nearly black. That’s why it is typically easier to see flooding against a background of non-flooded land in Natural Color than True Color. But, the flooding around Beira is so muddy, the high reflectivity in the visible channel (which is the blue component of the RGB) starts to win out, and the floodwater appears more blue than black.

We can prove it by looking at the individual bands that make up these RGB composites. Remember to click to play the animations for the I-bands:

Comparison of NOAA-20 channel I-1 images from 1 March and 25 March 2019

Comparison of NOAA-20 VIIRS channel I-1 (0.64 µm) images from 1 March and 25 March 2019

Comparison of NOAA-20 channel I-2 images from 1 March and 25 March 2019

Comparison of NOAA-20 VIIRS channel I-2 (0.87 µm) images from 1 March and 25 March 2019

Comparison of NOAA-20 channel I-3 images from 1 March and 25 March 2019

Comparison of NOAA-20 VIIRS channel I-3 (1.61 µm) images from 1 March and 25 March 2019

Note that the flooded areas look brighter in I-1 (thanks to the dirty water) and look darker in I-2 and I-3 (because they are less sensitive to the dirt in the water and more sensitive to the water itself).

The individual M-bands that comprise the True Color RGB, shown below, have been corrected for Rayleigh scattering and scaled the same as in the True Color images above:

Comparison of NOAA-20 channel M-3 images from 1 March and 25 March 2019

Comparison of NOAA-20 VIIRS channel M-3 (0.48 µm) images from 1 March and 25 March 2019

Comparison of NOAA-20 channel M-4 images from 1 March and 25 March 2019

Comparison of NOAA-20 VIIRS channel M-4 (0.55 µm) images from 1 March and 25 March 2019

Comparison of NOAA-20 channel M-5 images from 1 March and 25 March 2019

Comparison of NOAA-20 VIIRS channel M-5 (0.67 µm) images from 1 March and 25 March 2019

It is quite difficult to detect the flooding using the visible channels (M-3, M-4, M-5 and I-1) alone. But, the flooded areas are generally brighter in the “after” images. However, the water is easy to see in the shortwave IR channels (I-2, and I-3 along with M-7 and M-10, which were not shown).

Of course, this was a very long-winded way of looking at the flooding. We could have just used the JPSS Program’s official Flood Product made with VIIRS, created by researchers at George Mason University. Here is a three day composite image (composited to reduce the impact of clouds), covering 19-22 March 2019:

NOAA-20 VIIRS Flood Detection Product using a 3-day cloud-free composite (19-22 March 2019)

NOAA-20 VIIRS Flood Detection Product using a 3-day cloud-free composite (19-22 March 2019). Image courtesy S. Li (GMU).

Red and yellow areas show where flooding is detected. Gray areas are areas that were cloudy all three days. As an interesting side note, this product is validated against the Natural Color RGB. For more on this product, click here. If you want to know how much precipitation actually fell, here is a loop provided by NASA made with observations from GPM (Global Precipitation Measurement Mission):

You get bonus points if you can read the scale below the images. But, even without a magnifying glass, you can probably guess: it’s a lot of rain!


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