Sentinel-3 'sees' black smoke from ship fire

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In early March 2018 Sentinel-3 'saw' black smoke from a container ship fire, thanks to sunglint from the ocean surface.

Sentinel-3 'sees' black smoke from ship fire
Date & Time
07 March 2018 02:00–13:00 UTC
Meteosat-8, Sentinel-3
High Resolution Visible (HRV), True Colour RGB

By HansPeter Roesli (Switzerland)

On 6 March a fire broke out on the large container ship Maersk Honam, as it was in the Arabian Sea, around 900 nautical miles southeast of Salalah, Oman. Fire crews were still tackling the blaze and its aftermath days later. At least four of the crew were killed and one was reported missing. See full report with location and route maps on the Maritime Bulletin website.

Often fires can be seen in satellite imagery as hotspots (see explanatory video on YouTube), but looking at Meteosat-8 imagery, no hot-spot or smoke signals were detected in the full-disc bands.

However, on 7 March on the HRV band a south-southwest-travelling feature, led by a white plume, could be clearly identified, circled in red on Figure 1 (above right, click to expand).

Figure 2: Meteosat-8 HRV, 7 March 02:00–13:00 UTC

Following the 'rocking' animation (Figure 2), between 02:00 UTC and 13:00 UTC, it exhibited a somewhat different track and pattern compared to the surrounding maritime cumulus clouds.

The start and end positions are close to those seen in the VIIRS imagery features on the CIMSS Blog entry Arabian Sea Ship Fire in the VIIRS Day Night Band.

The STSRL instrument on Sentinel-3A also got a good view of the scene around 05:57 UTC on the same day.

It happened that the ship was positioned in the sunglint part of the imager swath, i.e. where the ocean surface appeared very bright.

Figure 3
Figure 3: Sentinel-3 SLSTR True Colour RGB, 7 March 05:57 UTC

The strongly enhanced True Colour RGB (Figure 3) convincingly shows a blackish smoke streak pointing north-northwest-wards (red arrow) and even darker coloured blotch (blue arrow), partially hidden by cloud and probably indicating the position of the ship. Note that under normal lighting conditions the water surface is a bad reflector and black smoke is hardly detectable against such a dark background.

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