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Angular Power Spectra

December 29th, 2014

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It’s worth a scramble to get a window seat on a Hawaiian inter-island flight. The views are full of craggy green cliffs, porcelain ocean, and wispy masses of fog and cloud. Sometimes, several islands are visible at once, and it’s not hard to imagine that the archipelago might extend over the entire globe.

That would be a very different planet, and, in fact, a world covered by hotspot volcanoes might have a surface elevation profile somewhat reminiscent of the WMAP image of the temperature fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background. The WMAP image brings to mind a planet covered in Hawaiian islands.

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Any distribution, \(f(\theta,\phi)\), on the surface of a sphere, be it of temperature, or elevation, or the density of IP addresses, can be expressed as a weighted sum of spherical harmonics

$$f(\theta,\phi)=\sum_{l,m} a_{l,m} Y(\theta,\phi)_{l}^{m}\, ,$$
where the coefficients corresponding to the individual weights, \(a_{l,m}\) are given by
$$a_{l,m}=\int_{\Omega}f(\theta,\phi)Y(\theta,\phi)_{l}^{m \star}d\Omega\, ,$$
and the power, \(C_{l}\) at angular scale \(l\) is
$$C_{l}=\frac{1}{2l+1}\sum_{m=-l}^{l}a_{l,m} {a_{l,m}}^{\star}\, .$$

The power spectrum of the CMB anisotropies peaks at \(l\sim 200\), which corresponds to an angular scale on the sky of \(\Delta \theta \sim 1^{\circ}\), which is very close to the solid angle subtended by the Big Island of Hawaii on the surface of the spherical Earth.

Here’s a recent version of the CMB temperature anisotropy spectrum from the Planck Mission website

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The peaks in the spectrum of CMB temperature anisotropies stem from acoustic oscillations and diffusion damping in the early universe, and they encode all sorts of information about the fundamental cosmological parameters. This, of course, is very well-known stuff: a search on all literature in the ADS database published since 2000, and ranked by citations, lists Spergel et al. 2003, First-Year Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) Observations: Determination of Cosmological Parameters at #1, with 7,914 citations and (rapidly) counting.

Given the similarity between the angular scales of the Hawaiian islands and the main CMB peak, it’s interesting to compute the angular power spectrum of Earth’s bedrock elevation profile. A global relief dataset with one arc-minute resolution is available from NOAA as a 4GB (uncompressed) file. Downsampling by a factor of 100, and applying the “terrain” color map yields a familiar scene

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Computing the power in the first 108 angular modes of the relief distribution in the above data set gives a spectrum that is weighted toward continents and ocean basins rather than archipelagos. There is a pronounced peak at \(l=5\) that reflects the typical angular scale of continents and ocean basins.

figureAng_1

Here is the global relief distribution obtained by summing just the \(l=5\) contributions. It’s right for more or less the same reason that Crates of Mallus was right:

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Using all 108 angular mode families to reconstruct the image gives a fairly credible-looking world map. It’s as if the watercolors ran slightly before they dried. Most critically, the \(l=108\) reconstruction fails to capture the highest peaks and the lowest ocean trenches, and hence more of the dynamic range of the color map is distributed across the globe.

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Degree-wide islands like Hawaii are the exception rather than the rule on Earth’s surface. I believe that this was the concept that former US Vice President Dan Qualye was struggling to express in one of his much-ridiculed pronouncements:

Hawaii has always been a very pivotal role in the Pacific. It is IN the Pacific. It is a part of the United States that is an island that is right here.

(See also his comments on Mars.)

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