Get behind us, Satan: The Devil appears to be named Matthew, and he’s coming down on the Americas in the form of a skeleton-faced hurricane. In a tweet posted Tuesday, Weather Channel meteorologist Stu Astro called attention to the grinning demon face that materialized in an infrared satellite image of the storm, which held, in the socket of its skull, a maniacal, prismatic eye.
As scary as it seems, the undoctored shot, taken from a map released by NASA’s Earth Science Office, is just begging for pareidoliacs to see things that aren’t really there. The “eye” of Hurricane Matthew may appear to be its most terrifying component, but in reality, it’s actually the safest part.
What we’re seeing as an acid-hued iris surrounded by bloodshot sclera is actually a measure of the varying temperatures of the tops of the clouds within it. In infrared satellite imagery, relatively warm clouds are dark and multicolored, the coolest clouds are white, and cloud-free regions are black to dark grey. To understand how temperature is measured in clouds makes the most sense to imagine yourself suspended in space, looking downward. The closer the top of a cloud is to you, the colder its temperature; the further away, the warmer.
In Hurricane Matthew’s evil eye, the yellow, blue, and green flecks represent clouds that are fairly high up but are no longer quite as high as the white and light grey clouds that make up the rest of the skull. The eye’s colorful iris represents air that’s sinking from its cold, high reaches and warming as it approaches the ground, which dries out the storm — the clouds evaporate as they get warmer. So the eye of the storm is visible from space and not obscured by the light-colored clouds seen elsewhere, the Weather Channel’s Matt Sitkowski, Ph.D., explained in 2013.
In contrast, the rim of dark red around the eye, corresponding to the ring of thunderstorms often referred to by meteorologists as the “eyewall,” is made up of tall cumulonimbus clouds (their tops reach into the cold reaches of the upper atmosphere), which are notorious for raining down intense thunderstorms and stirring up violent winds.
The black, sinister-looking areas of the map can be trickier to decipher. In general, they represent warmth, which can be detected in both cloud-free regions above warm ground — like the outskirts of Matthew’s skull — and in low-lying, warm clouds, which could be responsible for forming the evil grin slashed across the hurricane’s face. Here’s hoping it doesn’t turn out to be as diabolical as it looks.