Snowpocalypse 2011 from space!

By Phil Plait | February 3, 2011 12:15 pm

Just in case you haven’t seen enough snow this week, NASA and NOAA have released an amazing video made from GOES 13 weather satellite images. I present to you Snowpocalypse 2011:

[Set the resolution to 480p to see it best.]

The animation goes from January 31 to February 2, and you can really see how the wet air from the ocean and Gulf of Mexico gets slammed by incredibly cold arctic air that had screamed south, creating this enormous storm front that swept across the nation. I was in Nebraska when this hit; the night before it had been unseasonably warm, but then temperatures dropped a lot — like 40°C (65°F) — by the next day. Nebraska looked like another planet. Boulder didn’t get much snow (you can see from the animation that snow was mostly east of Colorado) but the temperatures were so cold they had to cancel schools; the fuel mix used in school buses wasn’t rich enough to start the engines!

The GOES satellites (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites, just so’s you know) orbit the Earth over the Equator at a height of about 40,000 km (24,000 miles) above the surface. This makes their orbital period 24 hours, so they orbit once for every time the Earth rotates once. From their point of view, it’s as if they are hovering over one spot on the Earth — which is why this is called a geostationary orbit* — making this a very useful orbit for weather and communication satellites.

In the animation, the Earth’s surface doesn’t move, but you can see the weather flowing over it. You can also see the day/night line, called the terminator, sweeping across as well. In the winter, with the Earth’s north pole tipped away from the Sun, the dawn terminator is tilted southwest to northeast (lower left to upper right in the animation)… and the dusk terminator is the other way (upper left to lower right). Confused? Yeah, three dimensional spinning balls get that way. I had to use an apple and a lamp to make sure I was getting this right.

As I write this, more snow is likely today, and we can predict this pretty well in large part because of satellite data like these. Think of how much money is saved, how many lives are saved, because of technology like this. The next time someone asks what NASA or NOAA or just the government in general) has done for them, remind them of this.


Tip o’ the parka hoodie to NASA’s Twitter feed.

* Geostationary orbits are a class of geosynchronous orbits, which is any orbit that lasts 24 hours — well, to be more precise, it’s actually Earth’s sidereal rotation period of 23 hours 56 minutes 4 seconds. However, such an orbit can be tilted, or non-circular, so the satellite may appear to wander as it speeds up and slows down in its orbit… though it generally hangs over the same area of the Earth’s surface. This is actually pretty cool stuff, and you might like reading about it more. I am endlessly fascinated by such things!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Pretty pictures

Comments (43)

  1. David

    A 40° C change is a 72° F change.

  2. orest

    That’s incredible!

    Question: why doesn’t the Earth get totally dark when night falls? Is there some other type of camera on the GOES13 that picks up more than visible light?

  3. ERK_in_AK

    Great video. This is a storm worthy of all the news coverage, unlike some other ones over the years. I have never completely understood the tendency to make a little bit of snow in New York or Washington DC into national news.

    So Phil, as a Coloradan, do you have the same bemusement I have as an Alaskan when the national news goes wild over three snowflakes in Washington DC?

  4. DrFlimmer

    Holy crap! Good luck everyone affected!

  5. My area’s only had 70.5″ so far this year. Granted, the average is a little over half that…

  6. Daniel

    I have one word for that…BRRRRRRRRRR

  7. Björn

    Geosynchronous orbits are amazing to me. I can’t imagine how you can put something in such a precise orbit using something so violent as a rocket. Interplanetary travel using gravity assists is even more amazing; how can you aim something that precisely over such huge distances – on a moving target, no less! Maybe it’s an argument for the existence of Go- NO WAIT, just kidding, don’t hit me! :-)

  8. Right now, the best investment I made last year was the Toro Snowblower… The only problem I seem to be having now is getting the snow to go over the monstrous snowbanks on either side of my driveway!

  9. Chris G

    This is why, we, who live in the Great White North, know that block heaters are your close personal friends™ during the winter!

  10. Kolya

    One correction: School buses run on diesel fuel, and running them in cold weather is a challenge not because of the fuel mix being rich enough, but because the fuel gels and becomes too thick.

    Additives like this are used in cold climes:
    Probably the school district forgot or was too cheap to use the additive.

  11. Larian LeQuella:

    The only problem I seem to be having now is getting the snow to go over the monstrous snowbanks on either side of my driveway!

    Obviously, you need to use the snowblower on the snowbanks first.

    Either that, or turbocharge your snowblower, so it can reach over the snowbanks.

    Or perhaps a homemade flame thrower to melt the whole thing.

  12. Keith Hearn

    Björn: You mean something like “Earth goes around, satellite goes around, never a miscommunication.” ?

  13. Ken B:
    – Snowbanks have piled up too much. It would be like trying to dig a tunnel with a snowblower.
    – You mean like this?
    – That’s an interesting idea actually. I shall ponder on that more. 😀

    Keith Hearn, you win +2 Internets! :)

  14. WJM

    Snowverblown is more like it in this corner of the Canada.

  15. thetentman

    We are over 5ft in northern NJ. Yes it’s a pain throwing snow over the piles and what fell yesterday was mostly ice. I want it to be SPRING.

  16. Quiet Desperation

    And here in Southern cal it’s clear, sunny and warm. :-)

    I can’t imagine how you can put something in such a precise orbit using something so violent as a rocket.

    Ah! This is my professional field. It’s sort of precise, I guess, but it isn’t like there’s some perfect orbit and it just stays there. The satellites have station keeping thrusters to make corrections for solar radiation pressure, perturbations from the Sun and Moon, even the fact that the Earth’s equator isn’t a perfect circle. When your bird is close to running out of thruster fuel, it must be decommissioned and the last of the fuel used to booost it to a higher level called, I kid you not, the graveyard orbit. It takes a lot less fuel to do that than trying to de-orbit burn all the way from GEO.

  17. Personally, I like all the snow. I just want time to finish sculpting it into a decent snow fort.

  18. Mike

    It took four hours to dig out my driveway in Madison, WI. Five foot drifts.

  19. Scott B

    @2. orest

    “Question: why doesn’t the Earth get totally dark when night falls? Is there some other type of camera on the GOES13 that picks up more than visible light?”

    Yeah, its radiometer covers infrared wavelengths.

  20. The reason that national News makes a big deal over bad Northeast weather is two-fold: Nearly half of Americans life in the megalopolis that stretches from Boston to Wash. DC and soon Richmond, and their considerably densely populated suburbs, and most of the national news media is headquartered in NYC. Also, even though we’re not assaulted continuously by lousy weather like Alaska or Buffalo NY are in the winter, Boston is the intellectual heart of America, New York City its financial heart, and Wash. D.C. its political heart. So when the weather is so bad that stepping outside is the equivalent of taking your life in your hands, i.e., ice rain in 1″ to 3″ chunks falling from 90 foot oak trees such that these places shut down along with the politico-economic repercussions that entails, then yeah, that’s newsworthy.

  21. I’m sorry Phil, clicking on my name in my last post sends one to a BibleStudy “Rapture” site which I would never endorse. If you can remove my website info from that reply it would be appreciated (and then of course this one too). It seems forgetting to type the “s” in blogspot sends one to strange places, I am sorry.

  22. #2 orest & #19 Scott B.:

    Scott’s right, but there’s more to it than that. The animation is a composite of three types of data. The dynamic part is reflected visible light during the day, and emitted thermal infrared (heat) radiation at night. These are both black and white, and they’re combined with a full-color composite of the Earth’s surface (the Blue Marble) created with data from another NASA instrument called MODIS. (Which stands for Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer–Catchy, I know.)

    You can download similar images in near real time, plus a week or so of archived data, from the NASA GOES site:

  23. Wayne on the Plains

    I haven’t left my house since Monday, all local schools canceled Tuesday-Friday. Temperatures haven’t gotten above the mid 20’s. This may be unprecedented in West Texas.

  24. Gonçalo Aguiar

    I’m 22 (almost 23) year old, and I don’t remember of a winter this cold. Last year was very cold too… Talk about climate change eh?? But global warming?? Really?

    Anyways aren’t we in a minimum solar (more sunspots) 11 year cycle? Does it have anything to do with these “cold waves”? I’d like some scientific theories on this one 😀

  25. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ Gonçalo Aguiar – see : &


    & also :

    Incidentally, we are starting to come out of a prolonged solar minimum which may have acted to reduce temperatures – and yet we’ve still had, yet again, a decade of record warmth. Go figure ..

    Thanks be to GOES (& the BA) for that great clip. :-)

  26. T-storm

    Also as humans we tend to think of the most extreme thing we’ve experienced the worst or best ever.
    Most people probably consider hurricane Katrina the worst ever but in fact it was that movie by Denzel Washington.

  27. Björn

    @12 Keith: exactly! :-)

  28. molybdenumfist

    Cyclones here in oz… this is what Yasi would look like if you put it in various places around the world:

    Thoughts are with everyone who is having crazy weather – stay safe!

  29. Wx-Man

    Give credit where it’s due though. NOAA operates GOES satellites, not NASA.

  30. I think there’s been 2 or 3 snowpocalypse events this year. Hmm. Time for a new term? I still like the whole “STORMWATCH [insert year]” That we always get down here in Georgia. :)

  31. OmegaBaby

    Yea…the acronyms are getting kind of ridiculous. Back when I was a youngster, we had fancy names for these kinds of storms too. We called them “blizzards”. Ah the good old says when you could refer to “the Blizzard of 88” or “the Blizzard of 93”. Good times…

    But Snowpocalypse? Really? Did “Storms of the Century” lose it’s impact from overuse already? And how the heck are we going to top Snowpocalypse? What’s worse than the end of the world? The end of the Universe?

    Get ready for the “Heat Death of the Universe storm of 2012”!!!

  32. We got two snow storms back to back here. The first dumped about 4 inches and then the “snowpocalype” storm hit dumping about 20 inches. Raking my roof (needed to prevent ice dams) was quite interesting in some spots where the snow would fall right onto my head. The latest post on my blog has some videos of this. Yes, I asked my wife to video it for blog posting!

    And now we’re supposed to get more snow tomorrow and possibly even more next week. I think this pretty much sums up my position on the white stuff:

  33. dcsohl

    Well, it’s been a hell of a year. Boston, between December 1 and January 31, received three times the amount of snow it usually gets in those two months. And this most recent storm was mostly on February 1 and 2, so I’m not even counting that!

    As for “snowpocalypse”… it’s actually a misunderstanding that “apocalypse” means “end of the world”. It actually means “unveiling” or “revelation”. The Biblical apocalypse, laid out in the Book of Revelation, is not what John sees and writes about therein. The apocalypse (or revelation) is actually the very vision itself, the vision of Armageddon (and yes, that term does mean the end of the world). Given this, “snowpocalypse” makes even less sense. I mean, what’s being revealed? That we have snow?

    I like SNOMG (as in snow-OMG) myself…

  34. Gonçalo Aguiar

    Thank you Messier Tidy Upper .

  35. OmegaBaby

    dcsohl: So you’re saying that a better term would be “Snowmageddon”? That’s probably next I guess. Although I still prefer my “Heat Death of the Universe storm of X”. That’s kinda catchy.

  36. Theotherguy

    I thought it was funny that we here in Pittsburgh didn’t get a single inch of snow! Last year’s snowpocalypse dropped about 3 feet on us though, and college was cancelled for four days (which was completely unprecedented).

  37. Messier Tidy Upper

    @34. Gonçalo Aguiar : No worries! :-)

  38. Ben O.

    Hi Phil- This is a great resource. I flew back from Tucson to the Netherlands via Atlanta on Feb. 1st (getting in the 2nd). We had quite some tailwinds on both flights, especially from ATL-AMS, and it’s not hard to see why. But, now in Leiden, we have been having some incredibly windy days these past 3 days (Feb. 4-6) from the southwest, and I’m trying to find out if this is the same weather system. Actually, what would be helpful is a worldwide satellite movie over several days, but I haven’t found anything yet. Do you know of any sites?


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