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VIIRS and the Greenland Ice Melt

Posted On: August 2, 2012 - By: Curtis Seaman


First, a preface: The purpose of this blog (and this blog post) is not to ignite some debate about global warming. This is about what one new satellite instrument has observed and the information it is providing to the scientific community.

With that out of the way, we can begin.

You may have heard on the news a story about the rapid ice melt that occurred in Greenland a couple weeks ago. Over a period of four days, the percentage of the surface of Greenland’s ice sheet that showed evidence that the ice was melting went from 40% to 97%. NASA’s Thomas Wagner does a good job explaining it in this interview. You’ll notice in the first link (from the Earth Times) that the rapid melt was first noticed by someone analyzing data from Oceansat-2. The ice melt was detected by its microwave scatterometer and was later confirmed by MODIS. Well, if MODIS can see this ice melt, surely VIIRS can see it, too. Let’s see.

First, let’s look at the false color RGB composite made from channels I-01 (0.64 µm, blue), I-02 (0.865 µm, green) and I-03 (1.61 µm, red). These images are comprised of 5 VIIRS granules stitched together and cropped slightly to get them in under the 15 MB limit for attachments to this blog. You really need to see them zoomed in to full resolution to see the kind of detail that the VIIRS bands provide. This isn’t even the full resolution of the satellite – these two images have been shrunk by a factor of 2 to get in under the file size limit, so it’s actually more like the resolution of the M-bands. (Click on the image, then click on the “2350 x 3372” link below the banner to see the full resolution image.)

Here’s what VIIRS saw on 8 July 2012, at 14:35 UTC:

False color RGB composite of VIIRS channels I-01, I-02 and I-03, taken 14:35 UTC 8 July 2012

False color RGB composite of VIIRS channels I-01, I-02 and I-03, taken 14:35 UTC 8 July 2012

And here’s what VIIRS saw five days later (14:42 UTC, 13 July 2012):

False color RGB composite of VIIRS channels I-01, I-02 and I-03, taken 14:42 UTC, 13 July 2012

False color RGB composite of VIIRS channels I-01, I-02 and I-03, taken 14:42 UTC, 13 July 2012

First thing to notice is that the low liquid clouds over Greenland really stand out in this composite above the ice sheet. As discussed before, this is one of the advantages of this kind of RGB composite. The second thing to notice, which is easier to see in the 13 July image, is that Iceland is the island that’s green, and Greenland is the island that is almost entirely ice. (Those silly Vikings and their misnomers!)

What is relevant here, though, is more subtle. The ice sheet appears to be a significantly darker blue over much of Greenland on 13 July than it does on 8 July. Notice also in these composites that large bodies of liquid water appear black. Now, there’s a lot going on here.

Small, liquid droplets (which are nearly spherical) that make up many of the clouds in the scene are very good at reflecting the solar radiation at all three wavelengths (0.64 µm, 0.865 µm, and 1.61 µm). When you combine high (and nearly equal) levels of red, green and blue on a computer monitor, you get something close to white. This is why the liquid clouds appear whitish.

The small ice particles (found in some of the clouds in these two images) are very good at reflecting radiation at 0.64 µm and 0.865 µm, but not as good at reflecting radiation at 1.61 µm. That means, for this RGB composite, we have high levels of blue and green, but low levels of red. This gives the pale bluish color known as cyan. Snow and ice on the ground are even worse at reflecting radiation at 1.61 µm (they absorb it), so you have a more pure color of cyan. (Although, snow and ice do reflect more than water at this wavelength.)

Liquid water (not in tiny spherical droplets) is not a good reflector at any of these wavelengths. Therefore, the low (and nearly equal) levels of red, green and blue give you black. As snow and ice melt, the reflectivity changes at each of these wavelengths (as the ice becomes more water-like), so the cyan color becomes darker.

It should be said that the primary purpose of the 1.61 µm channel is to aid in snow and ice detection. VIIRS actually has two of these channels: I-03 and M-10. In fact, you can see the effect of the melting ice a bit easier when looking at this channel alone. Here are the M-10 images of Greenland from 8 July and 13 July 2012:

VIIRS channel M-10 reflectance image of Greenland, taken 14:35 UTC 8 July 2012

VIIRS channel M-10 reflectance image of Greenland, taken 14:35 UTC 8 July 2012

VIIRS M-10 reflectance image of Greenland, taken 14:42 UTC 13 July 2012

VIIRS M-10 reflectance image of Greenland, taken 14:42 UTC 13 July 2012

In the first image from 8 July 2012, you can see that the clouds stand out as being bright (highly reflective) and the area of still-frozen ice is visible (a medium to dark gray, meaning somewhat reflective) over the most of the center of Greenland. On 13 July 2012, Greenland shows up as black – just like the surrounding ocean – except for small patches of land along the coast that are not underneath the massive ice sheet (and the clouds, of course). It is particularly noticeable in south-central Greenland. This decrease in reflectivity at 1.61 µm over this period of time is due to the snow and ice becoming more water-like as it is melting. So VIIRS can say a thing or two about the ice melt event.


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