Above the Kármán line at the edge of our atmosphere, at the edge of our atmosphere, orbiting satellites get a prime view of what’s going on down here on our pale blue dot, whether it be a glimpse of beauty or destruction. On Tuesday, NASA announced its instruments had gathered an image that falls into that latter category: A swirling glimpse of Guatemala, revealing a dense dense thumbprint of ash rising from Volcán de Fuego.
The image is breathtaking in scope and perplexing in its misdirection of what’s going on below. Beneath the taupe coil is one of the most violent eruptions to rock Central America. On Sunday, the volcano detonated without warning, an event experts estimate has affected nearly two million people. As of Tuesday, the death count sits at 62 people, but that number is expected to rise. Sitting 25 miles west of Guatemala City, the chaotic pyroclastic flow that surged from Fuego plowed down villages, turning property and persons into ash.
But from space, all all that havoc is obscured by distance and a billowing plume.
This image was captured at 1 p.m. local time on June 3, the day of the eruption, by the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS). That’s a scanning radiometer which collects visible and infrared imagery and radiometric measurements of the land, atmosphere, cryosphere, and oceans. At about 606 pounds, it sits upon the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (Suomi NPP), a weather satellite that helps NASA and NOAA’s National Weather Service study the Earth’s climate.
The Washington Volcanic Ash Advisory Center estimates that Fuego’s plume reached a maximum height of nine miles above the volcano, which has an elevation of 12,342 feet. Geostationary satellite images revealed that the winds were blowing the plume to the east.
NASA also reports that the plume contains “gaseous components invisible to the human eye,,” including [sulfur dioxide, which is also wreaking havoc in Hawaii after spewing forth from the Kilauea Volcano. Data collected via the Ozone Mapping Profiler Suite, a hyper spectral instrument also onboard Suomi NPP, were used to create the map below. Here, a gradient of yellow and brown demonstrates the concentrations of sulfur dioxide sitting in the middle troposphere after Fuego’s eruption.
It’s not yet clear how this eruption will affect the health of local health of local survivors, it’s well known that breathing in sulfur dioxide can irritate the skin and mucous membranes of the eyes, nose, throat, and lungs. Concentrations as high as those shown in the map can also cause inflammation and irritation of the respiratory system.
As rescues and funerals proceed side-by-side today in Guatemala, officials still warn that more eruptions may occur and encourage continued evacuation.