Watch as the Smoke Plume From Alaska’s Raging Funny River Fire is Pulled Into an Atmospheric Cyclone

By Tom Yulsman | May 23, 2014 12:56 pm
A cyclonic pattern of air flow in the Gulf Alaska pulls smoke from the Funny River Fire, as seen in this animation of GOES-15 satellite images acquired on May 20, 2014. Click on the image to watch the animation at the website of the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies. (Source: CIMSS Satellite Blog)

A cyclonic pattern of air flow in the Gulf Alaska pulls smoke from the Funny River Fire, as seen in this animation of GOES-15 satellite images acquired on May 20, 2014. Click on the image to watch the animation. (Source: CIMSS Satellite Blog)

As firefighters struggled to contain a wildfire that’s now raging on more than 44,000 acres of Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, the GOES-15 satellite captured this dramatic view.

The animation consists of a series of images acquired by the weather satellite on Tuesday, May 20th. It reveals the smoke plume from the Funny River Fire being sucked into a pattern of cyclonic winds swirling in the Gulf of Alaska south and west of the peninsula.

Here’s another view of the fire as seen from space — this one captured by NASA’s Aqua Satellite on the same day:

Funny River Fire

NASA’s Aqua satellite captured this view of the smoke plume from the Funny River Fire as it was pulled into a cyclonic pattern of atmospheric circulation in the Gulf of Alaska on May 20, 2014. (Source: NASA)

The cloud pattern shows the cyclonic wind flow pretty clearly, with the bluish smoke plume curling in the same direction. The red dots in the image show areas where a sensor on the Aqua satellite detected fire.

Source: Inciweb

Source: Inciweb

The Funny River Fire ignited on May 20th — cause still unknown. As of Thursday, the fire covered 44,423 acres within the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and was only five percent contained, according to the U.S. Incident Information System. Anchorage is about 75 miles to the northeast. (Click on the thumbnail image at right for a photograph of the fire taken from the ground.)

Very low humidity prompted the National Weather Service to issue a red flag warning for the region, in effect until 10 p.m. this evening (Friday).

Funny River Fire

A closer view of Alaska’s Funny River Fire as seen by the Aqua satellite on May 20, 2014. The image reveals what appears to be pyrocumulus clouds, which often form over intense fires. (Source: NASA)

In this view from the Aqua satellite, a thick smoke plume streams to the southwest, away from the fire. If you look closely at the source area you will see the tops of towering clouds popping up above the grayish smoke. To my eye, these look like pyrocumulus clouds, which often form above big, intense fires (and volcanic eruptions as well). Here’s a great explanation from the “Weather Guys” at the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies:

A big fire produces strong upward moving air currents that carry water vapor and ash upward. The water vapor can condense on the ash forming cloud drops. The vigorous upward motions produce these pyrocumulus clouds that look similar to thunderstorm clouds, which also form due to strong upward moving air.

Here’s what a pyrocumulus cloud looks like closer to the ground:

Funny River Fire

An aerial view of a pyrocumulus cloud. (Photograph: Gayle Jones via Wikimedia Commons)

Gayle Jones snapped this photograph of a pyrocumulus cloud billowing upward from the 2009 Station Fire as she was flying out of Los Angeles International Airport on a commercial aircraft.




  • Uncle Al

    Very low humidity” “The water vapor can condense on the ash forming cloud drops.” KLIMATE KAOS! Pay your Carbon Tax on Everything. Only your wallet can support ever more hysterical tests of faith.

    • qcubed

      Or, you could stop being a REPUBLICAN BITCH and admit that the things we humans do CAN affect the planet.

      • Uncle Al

        Given stated “low humidity,” from where does the condensing water source? This is critical thinking. It is the difference between being a fur-bearing animal and the hunter who set the trap. We keep score because the outcome is important:

        “I will get to the bottom of this and punish those responsible.” – Obama on Benghazi death of US Ambassador Stevens
        “I will get to the bottom of this and punish those responsible.” – Obama on IRS political targeting
        “I will get to the bottom of this and punish those responsible.” – Obama on Associated Press scandal
        “I will get to the bottom of this and punish those responsible.” – Obama on Fast & Furious
        “I will get to the bottom of this and punish those responsible.” – Obama on NSA domestic spying
        “I will get to the bottom of this and punish those responsible.” – Obama on Veterans Administration Deaths

        Some people could not get down that list counting on the fingers of one hand. My one-hand fingers count up to 31; 1023 with both hands. How high do your fingers count?

        • Tom Yulsman

          Uncle Al: This is your final warning from me. If you cannot stay focused on the topic at hand, you’ll be banned from commenting here. I really do not want to do that. But I will not have my blog serve as a billboard for political rants. So from now on, you will stick closely to the topic of the post you are commenting on. And you will be serious. Or you will be gone. Period. I’ve said this to you repeatedly, yet you seem incapable of sticking to the rules. This is the last time I will say this.

        • qcubed63

          I guess we have an Obama hater here. Fox News may be a better forum to pursue your scandals, IF you can find a way to post remarks on their ‘stories’.

      • Tom Yulsman

        Qcubed: If you would like to continue commenting here you will refrain from profanity and be serious. Otherwise, take your nastiness somewhere else. It’s not welcome here.

        • qcubed63

          Right, Tom. By the way, I AM SERIOUS. Do you deny that mankind is affecting the climate?

          • Tom Yulsman

            For an answer to your question, you can read my blog, as well as the many hundreds of stories on climate change that I’ve written, starting in 1984.

            And now I’ll ask you a question: Do you think that using profanity in comments on blog postings like this one evinces seriousness?

            Here are the rules of the road for my blog: If you’d like to refute falsehoods and things you disagree with, use logic and clear language — with no profanity and no ad hominem attacks. Also this: I’ll tolerate idiocy up to a point, because it often makes it own revealing point. But I won’t tolerate profanity and ad homs. Period.

          • qcubed63

            That explains the lack of comments on the story.

          • Tom Yulsman

            I am smiling. Perhaps that’s not what you intended. But I am anyway.

          • qcubed63

            Double edged sword. Less work for you deleting, but also less discourse.

  • Robbie Hannawacker

    Wildfire smoke is mostly water, because the fuel that it burns is mostly water, even with “Very low humidity”. Many of Earth’s ecosystems seem no longer suitable for forest, because of drought, too warm of winters and an over-abundance of natural parasites. Fire suppression in the American West hasn’t helped. Things are changing fast.
    Recently boreal forest have had the largest wildfires worldwide.

    • qcubed63

      I honestly don’t see how it escapes people that trees contain a tremendous amount of water. When burned, the water is released.
      I totally agree with you on what you have posted.

  • AlDavisJr

    For those that proclaim worse wildfires of recent times, read this:

    • qcubed63

      It’s not the fact of them being worst ever, as there were much worse when no one was around to notice…it’s the fact that so many people live in areas that burn, threatening property and lives. Part of that blame is from the century of fire suppression that the Forest Service enacted, before they knew better.



ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.


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