Suomi NPP sees Hurricane Maria’s startling effect on Puerto Rico power grid

These side-by-side, before-and-after images of Puerto Rico show the effect of Hurricane Maria on the island’s electrical grid. Credit: NOAA

A scanning instrument aboard NOAA’s Suomi NPP satellite sensitive to city lights, wildfires and volcanic eruptions has returned views of Puerto Rico before and after the passage of Hurricane Maria, showing the island’s electrical grid ravaged in the aftermath of the storm.

The Suomi NPP satellite’s Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite, or VIIRS, instrument has a unique day/night band that can record views in visible and near-infrared light, revealing clouds and weather patterns over urban landscapes.

The VIIRS instrument is one of the first instruments aboard a meteorological satellite able to return images of relatively dim city lights. The U.S. Air Force’s DMSP weather observatories carry a similar linescan instrument capable of detecting illumination from city lights, fires, ships and gas glares, but Suomi NPP’s instrument offers improved resolution.

Millions of people were left without electricity after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico last week. The before-and-after comparison provided by Suomi NPP also shows dimming from artificial lights in the U.S. and British Virgin Islands after Hurricane Maria.

Faked images purporting to show Puerto Rico in total darkness after Hurricane Maria were shared widely on social media in recent days. NOAA released the actual before-and-after view Monday, showing the island noticeably darker, but some electrical infrastructure still intact, especially around San Juan, the territory’s capital.

Launched in 2011, Suomi NPP flies around 512 miles (824 kilometers) above Earth in polar orbit, providing key data inputs for numerical computer models generating medium-range forecasts.

The first in a new generation of polar-orbiting NOAA weather satellites, a spacecraft named JPSS 1 largely based on the Suomi NPP design, is set for launch in November.

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