A break in the clouds off the coast of Ecuador last week set up the perfect conditions for a phenomena that can only be viewed via satellite: sunglint!
The feature in the NOAA satellite loop below appears to be a quick development and dissipation of bright clouds, but it’s just a trick of the light! This is an instant of sunglint, which can only happen if skies are clear and the ocean surface is calm. In this situation the ocean acts as a mirror and reflects the sun’s light back at the satellite!
Sunglint doesn’t happen anytime skies are clear of course, otherwise we would rarely see the ocean on satellite imagery! Sunlight has to hit the water at the exact angle that the satellite is viewing it from for sunglint to occur.
How sunglint impacts scientists: Sunglint isn’t just a cool phenomenon; it can help and hinder scientists.
It can obscure ocean features, making it difficult to get accurate data for scientists studying things like phytoplankton or ocean coloring.
On the other hand, sunglint can help scientists detect oil on the ocean surface, whether it’s from a natural source or a spill. Oil smooths over the ocean surface, increasing the chance of sunglint occuring.