Huge fires almost always look threatening and overwhelming from the ground, but it’s often difficult to grasp the larger impact of, say, an agricultural fire in China or a series of drought-related fires in Texas. NASA’s just-released visual tour of Earth’s tens of millions fires shows just how large certain fires look from space.
Though the Texas fires dominated the news this summer, they are actually not America’s largest. And agricultural fires in the Southeast and Mississippi River
Valley are more visible from space than the forest fires of the West. While it may seem that the U.S. has recently experienced a proliferation of fires, only two percent of the planet’s burned area each year is in North America–70% is in Africa.
The virtual video tour was made with the satellite data that scientists use to gauge how fire distribution responds to both population growth and climate change. The biggest fires seen between 2002 and 2011–the time period examined in the tour–are in Australia (grassland fires), China (agricultural fires), Western Russia (forest fires and agricultural fires), Africa (grassland fires), South America (pastoral maintenance fires), and of course, the U.S.
NASA’s fire detection satellites are useful beyond just generating pretty pictures. Wildfire observations, for example, are integrated into the EPA’s air quality models. And this month, NASA is launching a satellite that will extend fire data even further in an attempt to improve weather forecasts as well as our knowledge about climate change.