Alaskan Sunshine Doesn’t Burn the 24-hour Microphysics Product

In collaboration with the Geographic Information Network of Alaska (GINA) at the University of Alaska, NASA/SPoRT generates two VIIRS and MODIS microphysics satellite products for use by the National Weather Service in Alaska in assessing the presence of low stratus clouds: the RGB Night-Time Microphysics product, or simply NT Micro, and the 24-hour Microphysics product, or 24hr Micro. Being RGBs, these two products result from combining a number of satellite channels. Both RGBs use the 12.0-10.8 micron difference as the red channel, and both use the 10.8 micron signal as the blue channel. But the NT and 24hr Micro products diverge in what they use for the green channel: the NT Micro uses the classic 10.8-3.9 micron difference (the legacy “fog product” that has been employed by meteorologists for years), while the 24hr Micro uses a 10.8-8.7 micron difference. The motivation behind this divergence in approach is that the 8.7 micron channel is not affected by solar reflectance, while the 3.9 micron channel definitely is affected by solar reflectance. As a consequence, the NT Micro changes its appearance as night gives way to day and is not usable once the sun comes up, while the 24hr Micro provides a consistent depiction of the clouds both day and night.

Patchy low stratus clouds covered parts of southwestern Alaska on December 17, 2014. What follows are two animations taken from AWIPS at the NWS office in Fairbanks, Alaska that toggle images from around 15Z and 21Z, with the image near 15Z occurring during darkness and the image near 21Z occurring during the light of day. While there isn’t much sunshine in southwestern Alaska in December, there is still enough to cause trouble for the NT Micro with its reliance on the 3.9 micron wavelength in the green channel.

toggle NT Micro

The top animation is a toggle of the NT Micro. Note how at 15Z, in darkness, the green-yellow colors indicate the low stratus in southwest Alaska. But at 21Z, in daylight, these same clouds appear pink despite the continued presence of the low clouds. Observations from the village of Sleetmute (METAR identifier PASL), Alaska are a case in point. The ceiling and visibility plots at a number of METAR sites are overlaid in light blue text, with Sleetmute plotted just northwest of the yellow zone number “152” at the center of the image. At 15Z Sleetmute has good visibility but a ceiling down at 500ft overcast. At 21Z Sleetmute still has good visibility, and the ceiling remains low, in this case at 400ft broken 1100ft overcast. That’s not much of a change in the METAR over this span of time despite the huge change in the appearance of the NT Micro product between 15Z and 21Z.

The bottom animation toggles the 24hr Micro over the same span of time, from 15Z to 21Z, and there isn’t much change in the appearance of the 24hr product from darkness to daylight. The deck of low clouds over southwest Alaska appears bright yellow in this product, day or night.

toggle 24hr Micro

Every product has its strengths and weaknesses. At night the NT Micro shows more details and is perhaps preferable to the coarser looking 24hr Micro. But during the transition from darkness to daylight the NT Micro is not usable, while the 24hr Micro provides consistent imagery. The 24hr Micro product may prove increasingly useful in Alaska as the months progress and the long dark Alaskan winter gives way to a summer of almost continual daylight.

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