Australian Smoke Plume Sets Records

February 3, 2020

Australian Smoke Plume Sets Records

Carbon monoxide levels measured by the Aura MLS instrument from July 2019 - January 2020. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory 

Carbon monoxide levels measured by the Aura MLS instrument from July 2019 - January 2020. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory 

Bushfires have raged in Victoria and New South Wales since November 2019, yielding startling satellite images of smoke plumes streaming from southeastern Australia on a near daily basis. The images got even more eye-popping in January 2020 when unusually hot weather and strong winds supercharged the fires.

Narrow streams of smoke widened into a thick gray and tan pall that filled the skies on January 4, 2020. Several pyrocumulus clouds rose from the smoke, and the towering clouds functioned like elevators, lifting huge quantities of gas and particles well over 10 kilometers (6 miles) above the surface—high enough to put smoke into the stratosphere.

During the past few weeks, satellite sensors have collected data that is even more stunning than the images. The Microwave Limb Sounder (MLS) on NASA's Aura satellite has collected preliminary data that suggests the Australian fires injected more carbon monoxide into the stratosphere in the month of January than any other event the sensor has observed outside of the tropics during its 15-year mission. The fires appear to have produced about three times as much of the poisonous, colorless gas as major fires in British Columbia in 2017 and Australia in 2009. (Fires in Indonesia in 2015-16 may have delivered as much or more, but those fires happened over a longer period.)