Satellites Provide Multiple Views of Australia Fires from the Same Day

January 27, 2020

Satellites Provide Multiple Views of Australia Fires from the Same Day

In December 2019 and January 2020 Australia has experienced widespread and severe fires causing extensive damage to the local ecosystem and communities and blanketing the surrounding regions in smoke. By studying data from multiple Earth-observing satellites and different types of sensors, NASA researchers can get a more comprehensive understanding of the extent of the fires and their impact to the surrounding communities.

Photograph of smoke rising from fires on the east coast of Australia, taken by ISS astronauts on January 4th, 2020. Credit: NASA Crew Earth Observations (CEO)

Photograph of smoke rising from fires on the east coast of Australia, taken by ISS astronauts on January 4th, 2020. Credit: NASA Crew Earth Observations (CEO)

On January, 4th 2020, astronauts flying 17,500 miles per hour onboard the International Space Station (ISS), captured several photographs of smoke plumes from fires in New South Wales and Victoria, spreading off the east coast of Australia into the Tasman Sea. On the ground, uncontrolled fires were exacerbated by extremely dangerous wind conditions and temperatures reaching record highs of 45⁰ Celsius (113⁰F). Reporters in Mallacoota, Victoria witnessed smoke so thick that they described it as being “like midnight at 3.30 in the afternoon.”  

Aqua MODIS natural-color imagery of the Australia fires from January 4th, 2020 , with MODIS Thermal Anomaly data in red indicating likely active fires. Credit: NASA Disasters Program, Jean-Paul Vernier  (NIA / NASA LaRC)

Aqua MODIS natural-color imagery of the Australia fires from January 4th, 2020 , with MODIS Thermal Anomaly data in red indicating likely active fires. Credit: NASA Disasters Program, Jean-Paul Vernier  (NIA / NASA LaRC)

Just two hours after the ISS captured these images, NASA’s Aqua satellite flew over the same region, capturing additional data with its Moderate resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instrument. Through the eyes of MODIS the plume covered an area of more than 230,000 km2, there was an Aerosol Optical Depth of more than 5, and there were thousands of thermal anomaly points indicating large areas of active fires throughout the region.  Aerosol Optical Depth is an optical measure of plume thickness, and the level detected here translates to a visibilty of less than 1km. 

An alternate angle of the Aqua MODIS overpass, showing areas where pyrocumulonimbus storms were detected. Credit: NASA Disasters Program, Jean-Paul Vernier (NIA / NASA LaRC)

An alternate angle of the Aqua MODIS overpass, showing areas where pyrocumulonimbus storms were detected. Credit: NASA Disasters Program, Jean-Paul Vernier (NIA / NASA LaRC)

Among the grayish smoke invading the sky, white patches of clouds showed the early development of pyro-storms, also called pyrocumulonimbus (PyroCbs). These are thunderstorms generated by large fires and mid-level moisture, which precipitates ash and can trigger fires 60 miles away from the initial fire perimeter. 
 

An animation of JMA HIMAWARI-8 satellite images of the region from January 4th, 2020 overlaid with Aqua MODIS Thermal Anomalies indicating likely active fires. Credit: NASA, JMA, Jean-Paul Vernier (NIA / NASA LaRC)

A few hours after the Aqua MODIS overpass the geostationary Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) HIMAWARI-8 satellite captured imagery over the region, showing a display of the smoke from the fires developing into massive systems.  Together, these created a gigantic smoke plume that can still be observed today in the stratosphere using other satellite sensors.

By examining data from multiple Earth-observing satellites and different types of sensors, researchers can get a more comprehensive understanding of the extent of the fires and their impact to the surrounding communities. NASA is assisting the Australian Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) to improve air quality forecasts for the fires using Earth-observing data such as this CO data from Aura MLS. The NASA Disasters Program is studying short and long-term impacts and risks from the fires associated with air quality, aviation, wildlife and ecosystems, and climate dynamics.