Orbital View: Smoke From Fires Stretching Across the Country


Using the OMPS (Ozone Mapping Profiler Suite) instrument aboard NOAA/NASA's Suomi NPP satellite aerosols are detected and measured in terms of thickness and height of the atmospheric aerosol layer. For most atmospheric events involving aerosols, the AI ranges from 0.0 (colorless through light yellow, yellow, orange, and red) to 5.0 (deep red), with 5.0 indicating heavy concentrations of aerosols that could reduce visibilities or impact health. Credits: NOAA/NASA/Worldview

NOAA/NASA's Suomi NPP satellite captured two recent images of the United States and both images show that the winds have changed yet again, blowing the smoke from western fires back to the East and crossing the continental U.S.

Along with the smoke, small particles suspended in the air (aerosols) are also moved along the jet stream and bring hazardous air quality across the country. The image on the left shows the entire United States and the shroud of smoke that hangs over the majority of it. The image to the right shows the aerosols that accompany that smoke. Aerosols are a mixture of small particles and chemicals produced by the incomplete burning of carbon-containing materials such as trees, grasses, peat, brush, etc. All smoke contains carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and particulate matter (PM or soot).

The smaller the particles, the easier they are to be inhaled and absorbed into the lungs. From the EPA website: "The biggest health threat from smoke is from fine particles. These microscopic particles can penetrate deep into your lungs. They can cause a range of health problems, from burning eyes and a runny nose to aggravated chronic heart and lung diseases. Exposure to particle pollution is even linked to premature death."

A study was published in Nature Geoscience in May 2017 which discovered that particle pollution from wildfires, long known for containing soot and other fine particles known to be dangerous to human health, is much worse than previously thought. Naturally burning timber and brush from wildfires release dangerous particles into the air at a rate three times as high as levels known by the EPA, researchers at Georgia Tech found.

The study also found wildfires spew methanol, benzene, ozone and other noxious chemicals. Residents that smell smoke or see haze in the air should take precautions against breathing too much of it and stay tuned to local air quality information. Georgia Tech study (Journal reference: https://www.nature.com/articles/ngeo2960)

NASA's Earth Observing System Data and Information System (EOSDIS) Worldview application provides the capability to interactively browse over 700 global, full-resolution satellite imagery layers and then download the underlying data. Many of the available imagery layers are updated within three hours of observation, essentially showing the entire Earth as it looks "right now."

Actively burning fires, detected by thermal bands, are shown as red points. Image Courtesy: NASA Worldview, Earth Observing System Data and Information System (EOSDIS). Caption: Lynn Jenner with information from the EPA and a Georgia Tech study from 2017.

NASA Monitors Carbon Monoxide From California Wildfires

NASA's Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS), aboard the Aqua satellite, captured carbon monoxide plumes coming from California wildfires last week. There were 28 major wildfires burning across the state as of Sept. 14. This includes the August Complex Fire, which started on Aug. 17 and has since burned over 471,000 acres, making it the largest fire on record in California.

The animation shows three-day averages of carbon monoxide concentrations around 3 miles (5 kilometers) up in the atmosphere between Sept. 6 and Sept. 14. The red and orange areas indicate regions with extremely high carbon monoxide concentrations of greater than 350 parts per billion by volume (ppbv). The more normal, background concentrations of carbon monoxide show up as yellow and green, with amounts between 30 and 50 ppbv.

Released by the fires along with smoke and ash, carbon monoxide is a pollutant that can persist in the atmosphere for about a month and can be transported great distances. At the high altitude mapped in these images, the gas has little effect on the air we breathe; however, strong winds can carry it downwards to where it can significantly impact air quality. Carbon monoxide plays a role in both air pollution and climate change.

The intense heat from the wildfires lofted the carbon monoxide high into the atmosphere, enabling detection by the AIRS instrument. The jet stream then blew the carbon monoxide plume eastward across the U.S. and over the Atlantic Ocean.

AIRS, in conjunction with the Advanced Microwave Sounding Unit (AMSU), senses emitted infrared and microwave radiation from Earth to provide a three-dimensional look at Earth's weather and climate. Working in tandem, the two instruments make simultaneous observations down to Earth's surface. With more than 2,000 channels sensing different regions of the atmosphere, the system creates a global, three-dimensional map of atmospheric temperature and humidity, cloud amounts and heights, greenhouse gas concentrations and many other atmospheric phenomena. Launched into Earth orbit in 2002, the AIRS and AMSU instruments fly onboard NASA's Aqua spacecraft and are managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, under contract to NASA. JPL is a division of Caltech.

The latest carbon monoxide data, as well as other information from NASA Earth-observing missions can be viewed at the fully interactive Eyes on the Earth. With the "Latest Events" feature, you can explore geo-located satellite images of recent Earth events, including algal blooms and wildfires.

More information about AIRS can be found at: https://airs.jpl.nasa.gov

More imagery https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.php?release=2020-175

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