NASA satellite spots weird fire in the middle of the Atlantic

The cause? A strange radiation anomaly over the Atlantic ocean.

The Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on the Suomi NPP satellite captured this night image of the South Atlantic. The red dot several hundred kilometers off the coast of Brazil is a thermal anomaly—an area of Earth’s surface flagged by the satellite as being unusually warm. Of the thousands of thermal anomalies that VIIRS detects each night, the vast majority are caused by fires.

“But obviously a fire isn’t burning in the middle of the ocean,” said Patricia Oliva, a scientist at Universidad Mayor who helped develop a fire detection algorithm for VIIRS when she was at the University of Maryland.

Large image without annotation is here Image date: July 14, 2017

Natural gas flares also trigger thermal anomalies, but they are only found in shallow waters near the coast. Volcanic activity can light up the satellite as well, but there are no volcanoes anywhere near this area.

“It is almost certainly SAMA,” Oliva said, using an acronym for the South Atlantic Magnetic Anomaly. This weakness in Earth’s magnetic field, centered over South America and the South Atlantic, allows one of Earth’s Van Allen radiation belts—zones of energetic particles trapped by the magnetic field—to dip closer to the atmosphere. As a result, much of South America and part of the South Atlantic Ocean get an extra dose of radiation.

While the atmosphere blocks most high-energy particles, and they do not cause problems at the surface, there are enough of them in the space close to Earth to cause issues for the electronics systems of spacecraft. The International Space Station has extra shielding because of SAMA, and the Hubble Space Telescope powers down its science instruments when it passes through the region.

In the case of VIIRS, there are enough energetic particles zipping around in the atmosphere around South America that the highly-sensitive radiometer detects some of them. In fact, the team developing the VIIRS active fire data product was surprised at how often the particles showed up as fires when they first began to process the data.

“Each night, the sensor was detecting several dozen thermal anomalies over the Atlantic Ocean in places that didn’t make sense,” said Wilfrid Schroeder, the principal investigator for the VIIRS active fire product. The scientists were aware of this type of anomaly because researchers working with NASA’s MODIS sensor and the European Space Agency’s Advanced Along Track Scanning Radiometer (ATSR) satellite had encountered it. But the VIIRS team did not anticipate picking up on so many spurious fire signals.

Their response was to build a series of filters into their active fire algorithm and remove false signals in this region. Suspicious thermal anomalies that are especially weak, over the ocean, and short-lived—all signs that they were caused by SAMA instead of a real fire—get removed by the algorithm.

But occasionally a stray SAMA pixel still slips through the filters. “We see probably one or two of these spurious fire detections a night, but remember that is in comparison to the thousands of real thermal anomalies satellite detects each night,” said Schroeder. “False fires detections are quite rare.”

“In developing an algorithm like this for a global data product, we had to find a balance. If we are too aggressive with our filtering, there is a risk that we will remove real fires from the data record,” said Oliva. “I don’t think people realize that most satellite data products go through a whole battery of calibration and validation tests to address issues like this.”

NASA Earth Observatory image by Lauren Dauphin, using VIIRS day-night band data from the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership. Story by Adam Voiland.

h/t to WUWT reader “macusn”

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43 thoughts on “NASA satellite spots weird fire in the middle of the Atlantic

  1. … much of South America and part of the South Atlantic Ocean get an extra dose of radiation.

    That means the satellites get an extra dose as they orbit above those regions. That affects the instruments and causes false alarms.

    The folks who build the satellites are really expert at what they do. They are aware of most of the instrument errors and have ways to compensate. What this story highlights is that there are errors that are hard to get around. That’s why you always take instrument readings with a grain of salt … always.

    • Its a common problem in astrophotography, especially with shitty DSLR, to end up creating or removing details that are easy to capture correctly with film or SSD chipped cameras just because you have to do so much color “balancing” and combine so many images with so much noise in them to get a bright clear signal with DSLR.

      The START of making satellites requires great expertise in even the basic ways that the hardware can go wrong, googly or even imagine things. It literally defines what we can and can’t build to put into space from the start.

      Since we’re dealing with electrical/electronic systems on satellites like the article you have to also be aware of the background energy state being able to overload the settings and range filtration simply by “warming” the satellite more than normal.

      This input from space itself can be detected by telemetry on more than a third of functioning satellites in orbit and creates an entire weather “biome” to study above our atmosphere. One advantage those studying this field have is that all the satellites are placed where satellites go.

      So we end up with energy bias maps for aerospace which are used to calibrate science and communications.

      Shame nobody thought to do that to the ground weather stations.

    • In the 70’s DMSP ( Defense Meteorological Satellite Program) primary sensor the OLS (Operationa Line Scan ) used Gallium Arsenide shaft detector for the oscillating telescope. This also was the primary power load and often going through the SAMA would cause a glitch in the shaft detector and shut it down. We would use our network of tracking stations to supplement the two DMSP stations and reset the OLS.

      In University, our physics class used GA detectors for charged particle detection. Sometimes little things slip by that cause bigger issues.

    • In a century or so the USA may have same problem
      Here are trends in the decline of MF in central USA since 1800
      http://www.vukcevic.co.uk/USA-MF.gif
      At the current rate the field will loose 50% of its strength in 100 to 150 years time, equalling current strength in the central area of the South Atlantic Magnetic Anomaly

  2. So if I were on a boat at a strong SAMA point in the southern Atlantic Ocean, would I personally be able to feel anything? — i.e. Would the temperature actually become warmer in that area compared to surrounding areas, or are the energetic particles trapped by the magnetic field at an elevation higher than the surface of the ocean?

    • No…. It’s effecting the equipment on the Satellite as it passes through the extra radiation in orbit… None of it is reaching the surface.

    • Nope, only sensitive equipment meant to be looking for energized radiation can detect theses spurious signals. They are essentially false positive returns.

      You, on the surface would be complete unaware and unaffected by this “noise”.

      If however, this phenomena is hyped and exaggerated to where “secret police” get involved your wallet WILL be adversely effected.

    • I think it means the increased level of radiation in the vicinity of the satellite causes the sensor readings to be higher than anticipated for the actual temperatures.

    • The article confuses the reader by claiming that the particles are “in the atmosphere”:

      In the case of VIIRS, there are enough energetic particles zipping around in the atmosphere around South America that the highly-sensitive radiometer detects some of them.

      To put this in a metric perspective, the NPP satellite is in a sun-synchronous polar orbit, about 518 miles above the Earth. Technically, this is inside the Earth’s ionosphere (max 600 miles), so one could indeed claim that it is “zipping about in the atmosphere”, since the ionosphere happens to be one the upper layers of the atmosphere.

      But that would be very misleading, because the atmosphere in this region is exceedingly thin, virtually a vacuum, and is “home” to a lot of artificial satellites. The ISS, for example, orbits at 250 miles above the Earth, and is in no (immediate) danger from atmospheric friction.

      The main point is that the inner van Allen radiation belts, which are usually above 600 miles, dip down to less than 200 miles at this magnetic anomaly. So the NPP satellite can be exposed to highly energetic electrons and photons in this region. (And also the ISS is exposed, but has additional shielding to protect the astronauts)

      Bottom line: it is unwanted signal received by NPP/VIIRS in the IR spectrum. Noise.

  3. The red dot several hundred kilometers off the coast of Brazil is a thermal anomaly—an area of Earth’s surface flagged by the satellite as being unusually warm.

    they’ve finally found the missing heat that’s hidden in the oceans

    But occasionally a stray SAMA pixel still slips through the filters. “We see probably one or two of these spurious fire detections a night, but remember that is in comparison to the thousands of real thermal anomalies satellite detects each night,” said Schroeder. “False fires detections are quite rare.”

    Oh,that’s very different. Never mind! (with apologies to Gilda Radner/Emily Litella).

    • Let’s apply the KISS principle…
      …it’s ET’s communications laser: he’s trying to phone home again. 🙂

  4. URGENT OFF TOPIC TO MODERATORS!
    All day this site is generating highly disruptive phishing viruses.
    Please check if an advertiser is actually trying to damage this site.

    • I second this report… It happens on both IOS and Android and makes reading WWUT impossible on smart devices.

      • I get no indication that anything being served from WUWT is a problem. No issues on Windows for any browser, no issues on Android in phone or tablet. I don’t own any iOS devices.

        Likely, the problem is malware in your device, .or… places you’ve visited have put you into a ad pigeonhole for serving specific ads that tend to cause the issue.

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    • Depending on the app you use to read the page, or your ISP/cell provider, you may be receiving ads served by an app store, or service provider. Verizon and Google are particularly egrious in the type of ads they will happily pass along. It can ber really irritating.

  5. I figured satellites like this would find castaways like Tom Hanks or Gilligan’s Island, if they lit a fire.

    Maybe there are people stuck on small islands out there, and they need rescuing, and we’re just dismissing it as instrument error!

    That’s horrible.

  6. http://idioknowledge.blogspot.com/2014/12/what-is-haarp.html
    “Two Stanford University radio scientists offer evidence of what technology can do to affect the sky by making waves on earth; they showed that very low frequency radio waves can vibrate the magnetosphere and cause high-energy particles to cascade into Earth’s atmosphere. By turning the signal on or off, they could stop the flow of energetic particles.

    Weather Control
    Avalanches of energy dislodged by such radio waves could hit us hard. Their work suggests that technicians could control global weather by sending relatively small ‘signals’ into the Van Allen belts (radiation belts around Earth). Thus Tesla’s resonance effects can control enormous energies by tiny triggering signals. The Begich/ Manning book asks whether that knowledge will be used by war-oriented or biosphere-oriented scientists.””

    So close to Brazil… hmm…

    • I think they should rename UHI to Regional Infrastructure Caused Heating – RICH.
      This would also include roads and solar farms, etc.

  7. Why don’t the geostationary imaging satellites (33,000 km) have this same problem? Maybe the polar satellite designs need to be a bit more robust.

  8. There are numerous recent sub-salt discoveries in the ultra-deepwater in the brazil offshore in the Santos basin, which are more than 200 km offshore. (Tupi, Franco, Libra, Jupiter etc) It is not beyond the realm that this could be a gas flare.

  9. The mid Atlantic ridge runs (as the name suggests) down the middle of the Atlantic and is the location of geologic upwelling. It is more than likely that volcanic activity could occur at any location along the ridge.

  10. You design your algorithms according to the hardware specs and theory on what kind of data you will receive. Then you test in the real world where there is plenty of unexpected noise and unanticipated results. I work on radar tracking software and even after being in the field for years, we still find cases where our algorithms don’t produce optimal results. So we add filters, tweak scoring and weighting rules, and whatever else we can think of to make sense of the sometimes crazy data the radars give us. It’s interesting work, but very exacting as the air traffic controllers depend on the data we present to them on the displays.

  11. Come on, it’s OBVIOUSLY a previously unknown great plastic garbage patch in the Atlantic Ocean which has caught fire! RUN AWAY!!

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