Landsat 7 Reveals Large-scale Fractal Motion of Clouds

Landsat 7 Reveals Large-scale Fractal Motion of Clouds
  • Credit:

    Image and caption courtesy Bob Cahalan, NASA GSFC

This Landsat 7 image of clouds off the Chilean coast near the Juan Fernandez Islands (also known as the Robinson Crusoe Islands) on September 15, 1999, shows a unique pattern called a “von Karman vortex street.” This pattern has long been studied in the laboratory, where the vortices are created by oil flowing past a cylindrical obstacle, making a string of vortices only several tens of centimeters long. Study of this classic “flow past a circular cylinder” has been very important in the understanding of laminar and turbulent fluid flow that controls a wide variety of phenomena, from the lift under an aircraft wing to Earth’s weather.

Here, the cylinder is replaced by Alejandro Selkirk Island (named after the true “Robinson Crusoe,” who was stranded here for many months in the early 1700s). The island is about 1.5 km in diameter, and rises 1.6 km into a layer of marine stratocumulus clouds. This type of cloud is important for its strong cooling of the Earth’s surface, partially counteracting the Greenhouse warming. An extended, steady equatorward wind creates vortices with clockwise flow off the eastern edge and counterclockwise flow off the western edge of the island. The vortices grow as they advect hundreds of kilometers downwind, making a street 10,000 times longer than those made in the laboratory. Observing the same phenomenon extended over such a wide range of sizes dramatizes the “fractal” nature of atmospheric convection and clouds. Fractals are characteristic of fluid flow and other dynamic systems that exhibit “chaotic” motions.

Both clockwise and counter-clockwise vortices are generated by flow around the island. As the flow separates from the island’s leeward (away from the source of the wind) side, the vortices “swallow” some of the clear air over the island. (Much of the island air is cloudless due to a local “land breeze” circulation set up by the larger heat capacity of the waters surrounding the island.) The “swallowed” gulps of clear island air get carried along within the vortices, but these are soon mixed into the surrounding clouds.

Landsat is unique in its ability to image both the small-scale eddies that mix clear and cloudy air, down to the 30 meter pixel size of Landsat, but also having a wide enough field-of-view, 180 km, to reveal the connection of the turbulence to large-scale flows such as the subtropical oceanic gyres. Landsat 7, with its new onboard digital recorder, has extended this capability away from the few Landsat ground stations to remote areas such as Alejandro Island, and thus is gradually providing a global dynamic picture of evolving human-scale phenomena.

For more details on von Karman vortices, refer to

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  • Data Date:

    September 15, 1999
  • Visualization Date:

    May 30, 2000
  • Sensor(s):

    Landsat 7 - ETM+


NASA - National Aeronautics and Space Administration