Nighttime view of Russian wildfires from space

By Phil Plait | August 7, 2012 10:11 am

Wildfires are burning across the United States right now, but we have some very unwelcome company: for months there have been raging fires in Russia as well, conflagrations burning up vast swaths of the forests there.

The Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership satellite has a camera on board that can detect very low levels of visible and infrared red light. It’s sensitive enough to be able to see wildfires at night, and took this eerie image on August 3, 2012:

The fires are the bright curved lines, and you can also see milky smoke to the right. To give you a sense of scale, the largest of these fires is over 50 km (30 miles) across! That’s so huge I have a hard time comprehending it; the large High Park fire in Colorado earlier this year was far smaller.

Cameras like this one on Suomi-NPP help gauge the size and location of fires, and after the worst is over they can show the extent of the damage (especially when coupled with other satellite imagery). These are critical tools in our understanding of natural disasters, and can help save lives in the future.

I want to show you another picture, too. Last week when I was flying home from a wonderful visit to Portland, Oregon to give a talk, I noticed something odd out my airplane window. After a minute or two, it became clear that what I was seeing was a big wildfire:

There were several small fires generating smoke (to the left of the big plume), and then a very big pyrocumulus (fire-generated) cloud. The plume from the combined fires blew for dozens of kilometers downwind; you can see ripples in the plume as it flowed over the local topography.

I wasn’t sure where we were exactly when I took the picture, so when I got home I looked up wildfires in Oregon, Idaho, and Wyoming. I was amazed to see that there were so many fires I couldn’t pin down which one I was seeing. That’s how bad this summer is; it’s been so hot and dry in the US that fires are common enough to become hard to identify from the air. If you do happen to know which one I saw, please let me know.

I generally say that it’s hard to pin specific weather events on global warming, but that what we’re seeing these days is consistent with what we expect of a planet getting hotter. That’s true, but it’s becoming more clear that many of these events are at the very least helped along by our changing climate. I’ll be writing more about that very soon. Stay tuned.

Image credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon.

Related Posts:

New satellite gets INSANELY hi-res view of the Earth
Pyrocumulus cloud
The scars of a Colorado fire
Huge glacier calves off Greenland
Boulder wildfire

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Piece of mind, Pretty pictures

Comments (17)

  1. oldebabe

    Most (all?) of these fires are occurring in the Siberia/Far East areas of Russia, and some more centrally? The pic is good, but it would be nice to have a map for location, i.e. info is hard to get, and Siberia is huge… which isn’t your bailiwick, I know, but…

    Anyway, TXS.

  2. Pasander

    Looks a bit worrysome, that first picture. Perhaps not a big deal but these spreading circles of fire on the surface of the Earth don’t ease my mind a lot.

  3. Wzrd1

    One thing that helps the Russian fire be larger is the sparse population of the region. Sparsely populated regions tend to be less conserved (in forestry terms, that would be fighting every fire, as has long been done in the US. To judge by the pattern of fires, it looks like one humdinger of a thunderstorm hit!
    The upside is, the large scale fires in Russia would tend to be less injurious to the forest than those in the US, as the excessive conservation against ALL fires permitted massive mat growth and foliage overgrowth.

  4. Chris

    Phil, if you use
    you should be able to narrow down the possibilities. Enter your flight number and it’ll tell you where your plane was. also has a nice fire layer on their maps.

  5. Kai

    We’ve been dealing with some nasty fires in SD over the past four to six weeks, but I don’t recognize that landscape. has links and images of some of the bigger wildfires..
    Eastern Washington:

  6. James

    If you guys come over to England you’ll see why we don’t have to worry about forest fires. It’s been bucketing down with rain for months! This is probably also due to global warming, a warmer Atlantic evaporates more after all. We have dreams about it being dry enough for wildfires, but it doesn’t seem very likely…

  7. Arthur Maruyama

    @ oldebabe:

    My guess is that BA’s original source for that pic of the Russian fires was here:
    which also has more information locating the picture in far eastern Siberia northwest of the island of Sakhalin

  8. Joseph G

    Uh oh, Phil said those two magical words.

    *Popping some popcorms and donning flame-proof suit*
    Now we wait…

  9. Blargh

    This is… really cool and frightening at the same time.

    (BTW, I can’t be alone in reading “Suomi NPP” and thinking “what, a Finnish nuclear power plant?”, can I?)

    @ Joseph G
    What, you think someone will come here within a day or so and post a bunch of AGW denial copypasta just because Phil mentioned climate change? Nah, never happened before. ūüėČ

  10. Mick

    On a recent flight from Newcastle to the Gold Coast, I spotted maybe 20 small fires in bushland areas up the NSW coast. Another flight last year between Brisbane and Mackay saw a lot up the Qld coast, and judging by the time of year (it was September) a lot of them would have been the result of planned hazard reduction burns by the Fire Service in the lead up to the summer fire season.

    It’s amazing to see how even a very small fire can fill a valley with thick, grey, choking smoke as it lifts up and follows the wind. As it disperses further it turns the horison into a hazy mess. Good for beautiful sunsets but not so good for air quality.

  11. VinceRN

    Seem like from the time stamp on the picture, the flight path and the angle out the window you ought to be able to pin it down. But really exactly which fire it was doesn’t really matter. The point is the volume of fires being experienced this summer.

    This is not the worst fire season ever, and there is no way to definitively pin this on climate change, but as you say it is consistent with the predictions made by climate change and that at least ought to be one of the top things considered when thinking about these fires.

    That Russian fire is one of the most impressive pictures I’ve seen of a wild fire. I’ve been on the edge of huge fires in Southern California and even driven through Angeles National Forest when it was on fire, but seeing these in person or even on a map doesn’t really communicate the scale the way this picture does.

    This is tens of thousands of hectares, imagine what one of the few historical million plus hectare fires would look like from space. Let’s hope we never find out.

  12. reidh

    Fires like that are common in Oregon, like lesbians.

  13. Robin

    It’s been crazy in the Canaries as well. In July, fires started to appear everywhere at once (within a few days); Tenerife, La Palma, Gomorra, El Hierro.

  14. Nigel Depledge

    @ Reidh (12) –
    Hey, dude, just ‘cos a woman rejects you doesn’t make her a lesbian.


  15. oldebabe

    @7 Murayama. TXS much.

  16. Allen Thomson

    And if I could recommend it, I got a Casio Exilim GPS point’n’shoot camera for the last birthday, which I just love. The built-in GPS writes to the EXIF file attached to each picture and includes the geographic coordinates of where the picture was shot. Accuracy is generally within a few tens of meters.

    As an extra, you can get the freeware IrfanView viewer and, with the EXIF plugin installed, it will zoom you to the GoogleEarth position where the picture was taken.


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