Smoke billowing from rampaging California wildfires streams across ~1,000 miles of the Pacific Ocean

By Tom Yulsman | December 7, 2017 11:56 pm
In this animation of satellite images, a natural color view of smoke streaming out across the Pacific alternates with a false-color view showing the presence of aerosols from smoke. (Images: NASA Worldview. Animation: Tom Yulsman)

In this animation of satellite images, a natural color view of smoke streaming out across the Pacific alternates with a false-color view showing the presence of aerosols from smoke. (Images: NASA Worldview. Animation: Tom Yulsman)

As I’m writing this post on Thursday night, tens of thousands of homes in Southern California are threatened by raging wildfires. And with a forecast calling for bone dry humidity and gusty winds through Sunday, relief is not yet in sight.

The total acreage burned so far in Southern California is already approaching 150,000 acres. This is equivalent to about 40 percent of the size of the city of Los Angeles.

The fires have prompted authorities to order the evacuation of 200,000 people in Ventura and Los Angeles County.

Whipped up by fierce Santa Ana winds, smoke from the blazes has streamed far out over the Pacific from the coast of California. I created the animation at the top of this post to show just how far the smoke had spread as of Wednesday, Dec. 6th. The animation consists of images from the Suomi-NPP satellite. One is a natural color view; the other shows the concentration of the smoke aerosols.

Using a NASA interactive tool called Worldview to access satellite imagery, I estimate that the smoke traveled at least 1,000 miles out over the Pacific by Wednesday. By now, winds may well have carried it even further. But cloud cover makes it difficult to document this.

Long-range transport of smoke is not a new phenomenon. In fact, in September, smoke from wildfires burning in Montana and other western states was blown all the way across North America, out over Greenland, and across the Atlantic Ocean.

The western United States has seen a long-term trend of increasing wildfire, brought on by a variety of factors — none more significant, according to recent research, than human-caused climate change.

  • Kompani

    While Trump fiddles over Korea, America burns.

    • Chase Morgan

      Like it matters where he is

  • OWilson

    Meanwhile, a little Real News for the folks blaming your new President:

    National Geographic says:

    “Unlike remote parts of the world where natural events like lightning strikes are prime sources of wildfires, in southern California, such fires are almost always started by people. Ninety-five percent have a human cause, according to Cal Fire, the state’s firefighting agency.

    The situation may worsen in the face of expected population growth. Metropolitan San Diego’s population is expected to reach nearly 4.5 million by 2050, over a million more than today. (Pictures: San Diego Wildfires)

    “The probability of fires is increasing because people are increasing,” said the U.S. Geological Survey’s Jon Keeley, who has spent years studying the history of California wildfires”

  • nik

    One of the characteristics of an approaching ice age is widespread forest fires, due to the trees being stressed or weakened by lack of nutrients.
    The smoke produced blocks sunlight, and over time, as the particles in the atmosphere accumulate, this, with other sources like volcanoes, produce cooling, which eventually precipitates the next ice age.
    Volcanic activity also increases, due to tectonic plate movements caused by stresses released by ice removal, exacerbating the problem.



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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