(New Scientist) NASA satellites have captured dramatic images of the wildfires ravaging southern California. The images, taken by the Terra and Aqua Earth-observing satellites, show major fires billowing giant plumes of smoke over the Pacific Ocean.
Mystech: Simply stunning in scale. Forgot about seeing the Great Wall of China from orbit, take a look at this…
Major fires are burning from north of Los Angeles (centre) to the Mexican border (Image: Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC)
By Tuesday morning, the fires had claimed at least 15 lives, destroyed 1100 homes and scorched thousands of square kilometres of land. Several counties had declared states of emergencies and firefighters were battling to protect Los Angeles and other heavily populated areas.
The latest satellite image was released on Monday. In the northwest of the region it shows a cluster of red dots representing the Piru, Verdale, and Simi Incident Fires. There are also major fires to the east of Los Angeles (centre of image) and smoke from the massive Cedar Fire completely overshadows the coastal city of San Diego.
The images can be provided to fire fighting authorities within minutes of being taken. This rapid response system was set up in 2001 for the US Forest Service. “It offers the potential for understanding the ‘big picture’ when working on resource allocation decisions,” said Alice Forbes, of the National Interagency Fire Center, at the time.
The images are taken using the MODIS instrument, which records across the visible and infrared spectrum. The latter is particularly important for sensing fires. The resolution of the images provided via the rapid response service is 250 metres.
The satellites’ primary mission is to collect data that will enhance the understanding of the processes on the surface, ocean and atmospheric processes that shape the planet. Their polar orbits are chosen to continually sweep the Earth’s surface, meaning images of specific areas are only collected every day or two.
The severity of the fires – the worst seen in the 45 years service of one fire chief – is being blamed on the concurrence of several factors. There has been no rain in Los Angeles since early May, meaning the region is extremely dry. On top of that, the last five years have seen drought conditions, while budget problems are reported to have led to insufficient clearance of brush.
The current weather has also been key, with gusting winds, high temperatures and low humidity. The infamous Santa Ana winds, which blow of the deserts of Nevada and Utah, have been a particular problem. Finally, at least two of the fires are believed to have been started by people.