Observing wildfire smoke plumes from space

Recent wildfires in Chile had a devastating impact on the country, its people and the environment.

At least 11 people were killed, homes and towns were damaged or destroyed and more than 160,000 hectares of forest was razed.

The fires created a plume of smoke that stretched more than 2,000km out over the Pacific Ocean. That’s about the same distance as from Amsterdam to Moscow.

The image above was made by combining data from the Global Ozone Monitoring Experiment (GOME-2) instruments on EUMETSAT’s Metop-A and –B satellites, overlaid on imagery from the MODIS imager on board NASA’s Terra satellite. This product is called the Absorbing Aerosol Index (AAI).

The Satellite Application Facility on Ozone and Atmospheric Chemistry Monitoring (O3M SAF), is one of eight EUMETSAT SAFs providing operational data and software products to a dedicated user community and application area.

Maurits Kooreman, of the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI) and Junior Scientist working on the project for the SAF, produced the image of the smoke plume from the fires in Chile.

Fires produce soot, as well as water, and the smoke plume consists of a mix of the two.

The image distinguishes soot particles from the water droplet cloud. The red values indicate an AAI of more than 3, when a value of 2 is already considered to indicate that there is a significant aerosol (fine particles in the air) presence.

Kooreman said the O3M SAF has been studying the smoke plume from the first day it was visible on satellite imagery – 20 January – and monitoring its progress and development in terms of the AAI.

“It shows very well that fires cause smoke and water clouds and, in this case, we can see how the smoke and clouds are really mixed together,” Kooreman said

“We use the AAI to distinguish regions where there is smoke and where there are clouds.”

Understanding more about smoke plumes can have benefits for health, society and economies and scientists are using satellite imagery of the Chile smoke plume, and others, to learn more.

Health, land use and climate – why we monitor smoke from space

One of EUMETSAT’s key objectives is to monitor the atmospheric composition, not just smoke from fires but also more generally in terms of pollution, because of the potential, immediate health impacts and the long-term, global effect on the climate.

EUMETSAT Atmospheric Composition Calibration and Instrument Team Leader Dr Rüdiger Lang said if the fires were in the Mediterranean, rather than Chile, and the smoke plume was drifting over heavily populated areas, rather than over the ocean, there would be real implications for human health, not only from the fires themselves but also from the smoke.

The Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service is using information like the AAI and other data from EUMETSAT to help model the behaviour of smoke plumes and pollution, so that how they travel and how they evolve can be forecast, like rain can be forecast, for example. In addition to potential impacts on people, the information has wider importance – for example, the aviation industry needs this information to ensure air safety.

Lang points out that fires are not necessarily bad for vegetation – they can be part of a natural cycle – but more frequent fires, hotter temperatures and more droughts can have a lasting impact on vegetation and land use.

The aerosols created by biomass burning are released into the lower atmosphere, where they have a warming effect by absorbing and storing energy.

In this case, climate change can be both a precondition for, and a result of, changes in the frequency of biomass burning.

Image caption:  This image shows how fires create smoke and water clouds and the satellite imagery helps distinguish between the two

About the Author

Ruth Evans

Ruth Evans

Learning Zone Writer