Stunning satellite images and animations offer a sobering perspective on California’s raging infernos

By Tom Yulsman | November 10, 2018 2:17 pm
The raging Camp Fire inferno in Northern California

Data from the Landsat 8 satellite were used to create this image of the Camp Fire in Northern California on November 8, 2018, around 10:45 a.m. local time. (Source: NASA Earth Observatory)

In all the many years that I’ve covered wildfire, I don’t believe I’ve encountered anything like what we’ve seen with the Camp Fire blazing in California’s northern Sierra Nevada mountains. What really shocked me was the speed with which this cataclysmic inferno progressed to become what appears to be the most destructive in state history.

In a flash, an estimated 6,713 structures  were destroyed in the town of Paradise. “It’s phenomenal how fast the fire spread,” said Scott McLean, the deputy chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, quoted in the N.Y. Times.

The Landsat 8 satellite image above offers an incredible view of the inferno. It was created using Landsat bands 4-3-2 — visible light — along with shortwave-infrared light to highlight active portions of the fire.

The Camp Fire started around 6:30 a.m. Pacific Standard Time, and by 8:00 p.m., it had already burned 20,000 acres. As I’m writing this on the morning of Saturday, Nov. 10, the fire has consumed 100,000 acres — half the size of New York City — and is about 20 percent contained, according to the latest update from CalFire. (Access the latest CalFire info on the fire here.)

To the south, the Woolsey and Hill fires are burning just west of Los Angeles. They’ve so far consumed about 75,000 acres.  You can see smoke from these blazes, as well as the Camp Fire, in this video:

Smoke from the Woolsey and Hill blazes is visible toward the bottom of the frame. The Camp Fire is toward the top. 

The images making up the animation were acquired by the GOES-16 weather satellite at intervals of five minutes apart on Friday, Nov. 9. I created the animation using the RealEarth data discovery and visualization platform developed by Space Science and Engineering Center and Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Next up: a static image showing all of California:

NASA's Terra satellite captured this natural-color image of California showing multiple infernos.

A satellite view taking in all of California shows smoke plumes from multiple wildfires. Please click on the image to zero in close on areas of interest. (Source: NASA Earth Observatory)

NASA’s Terra satellite captured this natural-color image of a large portion of the western United States on November 9th. Smoke plumes are clearly visible from the three fires — the Camp Fire in the Sierra Nevada to the north, and the infernos near Los Angels to the south. Smoke from another fire is also visible, in the southern Sierra Nevada.

The animation above shows a closer view of the Woolsey and Hill fires. I created it using an interactive tool from NOAA’s Regional and Mesoscale Meteorology Branch. It consists of GOES-16 weather satellite imagery, acquired at intervals of just one minute apart, giving it an almost cinematic quality.

Next, a static view of the fires showing them in greater detail:

The blazing infernos near Los Angeles

Satellite view of wildfires burning near Los Angeles on Nov. 9, 2018. (Source: NASA Worldview)

The image above comes from NASA’s Terra satellite. Smoke from the Woolsey and Hill fires is seen streaming south over the ocean. To get a sense of scale, check out the developed area just to the east (right) of the fires. This is Los Angeles.

Back up to the north again, here’s another view of the Camp Fire:

The Camp Fire inferno

Satellite view of the Camp Fire in Northern California. (Source: NOAA)

Plumes of smoke from the blaze are seen stretching across a large swath of Northern California in this NOAA-20 satellite image acquired on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018 at 8:40 p.m. PT. Here’s how NOAA describes the technical details of the image:

[It] was created by combining three of the high resolution thermal and visible channels from the VIIRS sensor on-board NOAA-20. These channels (known as SVI 4,2,1 RGB) allow us to distinguish different land types and features based on their visual and thermal differences. Areas of land that are hotter in temperature due to an active fire or burn scar appear dark red in the imagery. Smoke from the Camp Fire blowing toward the Pacific appears in shades of gray and white.

Now, another animation:

This one was posted to Twitter by NOAA. It shows smoke streaming to the southwest from the Camp Fire on November 8, as well as the heat signature from the blaze, in orange. The imagery are made up of both visible and infrared data.

Conditions were ripe for these fires. For 2018 through the end of October, California experienced its third warmest conditions in records that go back to 1895, according to NOAA. Conditions have also been quite dry

The final ingredient in the climatological and meteorological stew was an upper level ridge of high pressure over California that triggered very strong Santa Ana winds. Click on the animation above to see what that has looked like.

As Philippe Papin, a PhD student in atmospheric sciences, points out in his Tweet above, things could get worse soon: a stronger ridging event is forecast for next week.

And unless we get a handle on our emissions of greenhouse gases, which continue to warm the planet, over the long run, things will get much worse. As California’s Fourth Climate Change Assessment puts it:

By 2100, if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, one study found that the frequency of extreme wildfires would increase, and the average area burned statewide would increase by 77 percent. In the areas that have the highest fire risk, wildfire insurance is estimated to see costs rise by 18 percent by 2055.

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  • stargene

    In the context of global climate change, it’s clear that increasing drought and resultant holocaust-fires will be injecting enormous amounts of extra material into the atmosphere…ash, other particulates and CO2. Hopefully, these details will be added to the improving climate models.

  • jeme rappel

    Mr. Yulman has found and created some very informative imagery. I’m surprised there is not more good use of satellite images to show the extent, speed and ferocity of these and other fires. I’m still looking for images and video/animation from ten to 100 miles up.

    Yulman’s effort to tie this to “our” emissions of greenhouse gasses is facile, debatable and inappropriate to the forum. Who is “us”? Tesla drivers in California? Free riding Indian and Chinese industrial complexes? If he means humans, isn’t the root problem too many people, coupled with the proportion of people who want a lot of stuff? Lets debate those issues, but somewhere else, where facts and logic are the focus.

    • Mike Richardson

      Facts and logic are provided in abundance here. That they do not support your ideological bias should prompt you to re-examine what you believe, rather than dismiss them.

  • rgrewal

    Come on ya all these are CGI images fakes or composite fakes as sats do not exist

    • Tom Yulsman

      Are you joking or are you being serious?

  • jeme rappel

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I found this article through a search for satellite images, and didn’t perceive this blog to be about climate change. Accordingly, your closing comments about the current and future impacts of “our” greenhouse gasses struck me as gratuitous, and not supported by the images and videos you included.

    I am a climate change skeptic, along the lines of Michael Crichton in State of Fear. It’s clear humans have caused a significant increase in global CO2. Whether that increase has warmed the earth is less clear. Whether a warmer earth would be bad for humans overall is still less clear.

    What disappoints me most about the climate change “debate” — aside from the tendency to insist the issue is not open to debate, and to attack any skeptic as an idiot, heretic or worse — is the persistent refusal to address the role of population growth in CO2 emissions and other environmental changes. To me, unchecked population growth is a bigger threat to humans’ survival as a species than the size of each person’s carbon footprint.

    In summary, I appreciate your images and animations; they convey the size and power of these fires in way that words cannot. On the other hand, I don’t think the images teach us much, if anything, about humans causing climate change.

    • Tom Yulsman

      Thank you Jeme for a thoughtful reply. I think skeptics such as yourself who believe that CO2 has not warmed the planet are wrong. The effect of greenhouse gases on the amount of energy in the climate system is actually a matter of physics first spelled out more than a hundred years ago. And since then, predictions made by one of those early pioneers (Svante Arrhenius) have been borne out by observations. Even scientists who call themselves climate skeptics do not take exception to this. They may question how bad things will get, the pace of change, etc., but they do not question basic physics and their manifestation in our climate system.

      That said, I also do not think that climate change skeptics such as yourself are idiots. Far from it. First, skepticism is a cardinal value for scientists (and journalists too, by the way). But skepticism is not the goal. It is part of the means for getting as close as possible to the truth. More to the point, however, research has shown that our views on climate change are strongly influenced by our cultural values, and depending on those values, more knowledge about climate change can actually make folks more skeptical, not less. Here’s a summary of this research:

      “On the whole, the most scientifically literate and numerate subjects were slightly less likely, not more, to see climate change as a serious threat than the least scientifically literate and numerate ones. More importantly, greater scientific literacy and numeracy were associated with greater cultural polarization: respondents predisposed by their values to dismiss climate change evidence became more dismissive, and those predisposed by their values to credit such evidence more concerned, as science literacy and numeracy increased.”

      The research shows that those with a more individualistic outlook are inclined to become more doubtful of human-caused climate change as their knowledge of the science increases. Those with a more egalitarian outlook have the opposite response.

      In the end, this is about allegiance to social groups, as well as what the author describes as a “polluted science-communication environment that drives people apart.”

      Here’s the original paper: http://www.culturalcognition.net/browse-papers/the-tragedy-of-the-risk-perception-commons-culture-conflict.html And here is a helpful article about it in the journal Nature by Yale’s Dan Kahan, lead author: https://www.nature.com/news/why-we-are-poles-apart-on-climate-change-1.11166

      • John C

        “polluted science-communication environment that drives people apart.”….someone once described that as Fake News. News polluted by ideological bias to the point where it’s credibility is diluted for a large share of the public.

        It’s too bad that an interesting and important branch of science has been hijacked to drive an ideological / political agenda, and used as a cudgel against those who dare deviate from the acceptable belief system. Comparing climate skeptics to Holocaust deniers? Seriously?

        The basic idea behind human driven climate change is simple and probably accepted by the vast majority of people. The conflict starts with the disagreement over the degree to which it will affect the geophysical and biological systems of the planet.

        The “individualists”, aka right wing types, are more sanguine. Hesitant to tie specific weather events to climate change as opposed to…well, just regular quantum climate variability. And they have more faith in the problem, however big or small it actually is, being solved primarily by way of free market capitalism and human ingenuity – see fracking driving down C02 levels.

        The “egalitarian”, aka left wing types, do a lot of wolf crying, Chicken Little-ing, and top it off with personal insults of the most vile type spewed at anyone who doesn’t accept their quasi-religious dogma. Not to mention the tiresome segue from climate catastrophism to a solution that always involves bigger government this and higher taxes that.

        I don’t buy into the catastrophism; we’ll make it through just fine in the end, and a century from now our descendants will look back at the solutions and technologies that solved the problem which we in 2018 could never have envisioned.

        At the turn of the 20th Century it was predicted by all the greatest minds of science and social planning that within a matter of several decades the great, rapidly growing cities of Europe and America would be rendered uninhabitable by the manure produced by the horses required to support these expanding populations. Projecting from that point into the future, with the scientific and technological knowledge at hand, the catastrophic scenario was inevitable. And that’s the problem with making predictions, especially about the future.

        • Tom Yulsman

          John C: It sure would be productive if people could speak with each other rather than at each other. And I appreciate that your tone is mostly respectful. But even you can’t seem to avoid demonizing people with whom you disagree. Not all “left wing types” fling personal insults, and not all “right wing types” are as level-headed as you make it seem. There are level-headed folks of good faith on both sides. Until we start talking to each other, we’re screwed.

          • John C

            I have a serious problem with the unhinged venom, hatred and fascist illiberality manifested by the so-called #Resistance and Left nowdays, which out does anything you see on the right. You don’t see liberal speakers shouted down and hounded by conservative students and faculty on campuses. You don’t see climate skeptics comparing AGW proponents to Holocaust deniers or mass murderers. You don’t see conservatives doxxing liberal journalists and harassing them and their families at their homes. You don’t see liberal Supreme Court nominees subjected to Stalinist kangaroo court treatment like Kavanaugh was.

            Sure, I wish the public discourse was such that left and right could debate respectfully and vigorously. And peaceably. But the Left, and Democrat party, have chosen a route of total war, get what they want by any means necessary, including throwing foundational concepts of civilization like free speech, respectful dialog, innocent until proven guilty, evidence, witnesses, right out the window if they in any way impede their political goals. Haranging AGW skeptics is part and parcel of a much larger and frightening trend, which has never ended well in other places through out history.

          • Mike Richardson

            Actually, you see everything you’ve described from the far right that you’ve ascribed to the left, at least if you remove the partisan blinders. They’ve also killed more people in this country than extremists on the left ever have. And fascism itself is a creation of the far right. Your fear is of something that has been greatly exaggerated by partisan propaganda, while you downplay what you admit is a valid concern about climate change. You should consider reassessing which concern is more valid, based on objective facts instead of partisan rhetoric.

    • DPrty

      idiot

      • jeme rappel

        Not PC, DP. In the 70’s, society decided that the term idiot was demeaning and condescending.

      • John C

        I take it you’re in the aforementioned “egalitarian” camp.

      • Tom Yulsman

        DPrty: If you have something intelligent to say by way of a critique, please do. Otherwise, no ad hominem attacks here please.

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ImaGeo

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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