Australia Fires Predicted, Was Anyone Listening?

This satellite image was collected by NOAA-NASA’s Suomi NPP satellite using the VIIRS (Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite) instrument on January 1, 2020. Actively burning fires, detected by thermal bands, are shown as red points. Credit: NASA Worldview, Earth Observing System Data and Information System (EOSDIS)

The New Year started with more grim news on the outlook for the bush fire situation in Australia. These huge and disastrous fires continue to burn ferociously and with abandon, and reports have come out that the fires have actually intensified in the last 12 hours. The consequences of these fires are enormous from many aspects including  human, economic, and ecological.

One tragedy is that these fires were predicted using data from satellites. Hopefully in the future the use of satellite monitoring will be seriously considered for mitigating the starting of fires worldwide.

According to the Bushfires and Natural Hazards CRC website the 2019/2020 outlook for the fire season was showing: “above normal bushfire potential for large fires to take hold based on recent and predicted weather, the dryness of the land and forests, recent fire history and local firefighting resources.” This prediction has come to pass and exceed the outlook for the year.  And no end is currently in sight.

The map below taken from the New South Wales Rural Fire Service website shows the areas currently on fire.  There is almost no area that has not been affected to date. I traveled to the Gold Coast are of Australia enjoying the food and wine in the region. I am saddened to see all this destroyed.

NSW Fires

Credit: New South Wales Rural Fire Service webpage

NASA’s satellite instruments are often the first to detect wildfires burning in remote regions, and the locations of new fires are sent directly to land managers worldwide within hours of the satellite overpass. Together, NASA instruments detect actively burning fires, track the transport of smoke from fires, provide information for fire management, and map the extent of changes to ecosystems, based on the extent and severity of burn scars. NASA has a fleet of Earth-observing instruments, many of which contribute to our understanding of fire in the Earth system. Satellites in orbit around the poles provide observations of the entire planet several times per day, whereas satellites in a geostationary orbit provide coarse-resolution imagery of fires, smoke and clouds every five to 15 minutes.

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.” This satellite image was collected by NOAA-NASA’s Suomi NPP satellite using the VIIRS (Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite) instrument on January 1, 2020. Actively burning fires, detected by thermal bands, are shown as red points.

The active and precise satellite technology provides key risk management information to decision makers worldwide. Can we afford more fires that devastate civilization, economies, ecology and, by the way, emit a whole lot of carbon dioxide? With such great data, why is mitigating action not taken?

Summer is coming in Canada with its annual forest fires especially in British Columbia. Let us hope there are some lessons learned from the Australian fires to help prevent such a disaster from spreading in Canada.

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