If you’ve been closely following coverage of Hurricane Michael, you’ve probably seen breathless tweets and headlines about a “spooky,” “ominous-looking,” “spine-chilling” skull appearing in the storm’s satellite images.
An article by the Sun, a British tabloid, even conjured an image of “a HAUNTING apparition” looming near the Florida Panhandle.
There it is, gray with a red eye.
But what you probably have not seen or heard is that this “creepy skull” (as AccuWeather described it) means absolutely nothing.
Because these are moving, color-enhanced infrared images, people are bound to see patterns from the cloud formations if oriented a certain way.
Things that resemble something recognizable usually appear for a few minutes before they disappear, said Dan Lindsey, a scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s satellite program.
“It’s just completely by chance,” Lindsey said. “It’s kind of like looking at a cloud, and people see an elephant or something.”
The colors we see on infrared satellite images correspond to the temperature of the cloud tops. The colder the cloud top, the higher it is in the atmosphere and the deeper the cloud. The deeper the cloud, the stronger the storm, Lindsey said.
But exactly what colors are used in satellite images depends entirely on the person creating the animation.
“You can put really whatever enhancement you want to,” Lindsey said.
The appearance of something skull-like in satellite images of a major storm is hardly unprecedented. During Hurricane Matthew in 2016, a skull-like face with a toothy grin spooked the Internet.
This angry face is from Hurricane Maria’s satellite.
And this baffling thing is from Hurricane Irma. (Is it a pig? An elephant?)
“People will make a big deal out of anything on social media,” Lindsey said Wednesday. “If there’s a good thing about it, it’s the fact that people are paying attention to the storm.”
“On the other hand,” he added, “we don’t want false narratives being created by, ‘Oh, there’s a skull. The storm must be one intensity or the other.’ ”
Hurricane Michael made landfall Wednesday afternoon in the Florida Panhandle, just north of Mexico Beach, as a Category 4 storm. It’s the strongest hurricane on record to strike the area.