Smoke From Australia Wildfires Has Reached The Stratosphere And Made "Full Circuit" Around Earth


Madison Dapcevich

Staff Writer

clockJan 14 2020, 23:32 UTC

A 3D illustration of the wildfires in Australia. OSORIOartist/Shutterstock

Smoke from Australia’s deadly bushfires has circumnavigated the planet and reached 16 kilometers (10 miles) high into the stratosphere, which could have further implications for global climate conditions.

And it’s not just smoke and fire that are tearing through the southern continent, said NASA officials in a statement. Extreme conditions associated with the devastating bushfires are leading to the formation of an unusually large number of pyrocumulonimbus (PyroCb) events, or fire-induced thunderstorms, the agency describes. PyroCB events are when aerosols – ash, smoke, and other burning material – are uplifted by heat into the atmosphere. As these materials cool, clouds behave like thunderstorms but without the accompanying precipitation. Such occurrences can create pathways for smoke to reach the stratosphere and, once there, it can continue to travel around the world to impact global atmospheric conditions.


“Aerosols absorb and scatter incoming sunlight, which reduces visibility and increases the optical depth. Aerosols have an effect on human health, weather and the climate. Aerosols are produced from many events including pollution from factories, smoke from fires, dust from dust storms, sea salts, and volcanic ash and smog. Aerosols compromise human health when inhaled by people with asthma or other respiratory illnesses,” notes the space agency. As tiny particles make their way into the upper limits of the atmosphere, they can block out or amplify the sun to either cool or warm the planet. This can help or prevent clouds from forming.

A huge area directly above the bushfires is shown spewing extreme amounts of aerosols into the atmosphere, creating a health hazard not only for residents in the area but also for those affected when wind patterns carry that smoke on jet streams. NASA Worldview

Smoke is having severe air quality impacts in the region. Today, tennis player Dalila Jakupovic quit the Australian open after experiencing a coughing fit induced by the smoke-filled air, NBC reported.  

An analysis by NASA released today used a variety of tools and technologies to track aerosols associated with the fires as they make their way around the world, including their Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership. The global initiative utilizes five science instruments to collect climate and weather data critical for global monitoring. This makes it the first satellite mission to measure land, ocean, and atmospheric conditions for Earth in order to address operational requirements for weather forecasting.

“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,” explained the agency.


Since September, Australia’s deadly wildfires have burned at least 9.7 million hectares (24 million acres) and destroyed more than 2,000 homes, resulting in the deaths of dozens of people. More than a billion animals are feared dead in Australia’s bushfires, potentially driving more than 700 animal species to extinction. It comes after 2019 marked the hottest and driest year in Australian history.  

VIIIRS Red-Green-Blue imagery provides a “true-color” view of the smoke. (Note that these images do not represent what a human would see from orbit. In these images, the effect of Rayleigh scattering, which would add “blue haze,” has been taken out.) While useful, it is often hard to distinguish smoke over clouds and, sometimes, over dark ocean surfaces. NASA/Colin Seftor


The UV aerosol index is a qualitative product that can easily detect smoke (and dust) over all types of land surfaces. It also has characteristics that are well-suited for identifying and tracking smoke from pyroCb events: the higher the smoke plume, the larger the aerosol index value. Values over 10 are often associated with such events. The aerosol index values produced by some of the Australian pyroCb events have rivaled that of the largest ever recorded. NASA/Colin Seftor


Combining UV aerosol index with RGB information is one way to enhance both. NASA/Colin Seftor

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