NASA Animates World Path of Smoke and Aerosols from Australian Fires

January 9, 2020

NASA Animates World Path of Smoke and Aerosols from Australian Fires

Satellite data from the OMPS-NM instrument is used to create an ultraviolet aerosol index to track the aerosols and smoke. Credits: NASA/Colin Seftor

Satellite data from the OMPS-NM instrument is used to create an ultraviolet aerosol index to track the aerosols and smoke. Credits: NASA/Colin Seftor

A fleet of NASA satellites working together has been analyzing the aerosols and smoke from the massive fires burning in Australia.

The fires in Australia are not just causing devastation locally. The unprecedented conditions that include searing heat combined with historic dryness, have led to the formation of an unusually large number of pyrocumulonimbus (pyrCbs) events. PyroCbs are essentially fire-induced thunderstorms. They are triggered by the uplift of ash, smoke, and burning material via super-heated updrafts. As these materials cool, clouds are formed that behave like traditional thunderstorms but without the accompanying precipitation.

PyroCb events provide a pathway for smoke to reach the stratosphere more than 10 miles (16 km) in altitude. Once in the stratosphere, the smoke can travel thousands of miles from its source, affecting atmospheric conditions globally. The effects of those events -- whether the smoke provides a net atmospheric cooling or warming, what happens to underlying clouds, etc.) -- is currently the subject of intense study.

NASA is tracking the movement of smoke from the Australian fires lofted, via pyroCbs events, more than 9.3 miles (15 kilometers) high. The smoke is having a dramatic impact on New Zealand, causing severe air quality issues across the county and visibly darkening mountaintop snow.

Two instruments aboard NASA-NOAA’s Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP) satellite -- VIIRS and OMPS-NM -- provide unique information to characterize and track this smoke cloud. The VIIRS instruments provided a “true-color” view of the smoke with visible imagery. The OMPS series of instruments comprise the next generation of back-scattered UltraViolet (BUV) radiation sensors. OMPS-NM provides unique detection capabilities in cloudy conditions (very common in the South Pacific) that VIIRS does not, so together both instruments track the event globally.