Most of us think of carbon monoxide as the dangerous gas that comes from car exhaust, central heaters, and smoking, but it’s also produced by all sorts of combustion processes, including forest fires.
For most of August, a record number of wildfires have burned in the Amazon Rainforest, started mostly by farmers practicing “slash-and-burn” agriculture — a phenomenon that the international community has blamed on Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro’s loosening of environmental regulations.
In addition to the problems on the ground, as these fires continue to blaze, they’re emitting massive quantities of carbon monoxide into Earth’s atmosphere.
While this natural disaster unfolded, the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite captured two weeks of the carbon monoxide emissions, translating CO concentrations into colors, with green indicating relatively low concentrations, yellow slightly higher, and red indicating high levels. There is a lot of red.
As seen in the time lapse below, the illustration evokes a pool of blood blooming from a wound, like the chest of a fallen hero in a movie. Except in this case, it’s real, and the wound is the Amazon Rainforest.
Specifically, the green indicates 100 parts per billion by volume (ppbv), which is normal for the lower atmosphere. Yellow indicates 120 ppbv, and red means 160 ppbv. Needless to say, the Earth does not usually look like this.
Carbon monoxide associated with fires from the Amazon region in Brazil from August 8-22, 2019.
Carbon monoxide is the second most abundant pollutant in the lower atmosphere, surpassed only by carbon dioxide. Its reputation for being toxic stems from the fact that it binds strongly to hemoglobin, the protein in our blood that carries oxygen. CO binds so strongly to hemoglobin, in fact, that it keeps oxygen from being carried in our blood altogether.
Prolonged exposure to carbon monoxide can cause respiratory depression and cardiac arrhythmias — the latter being the primary cause of death from CO poisoning.
And while the CO concentrations shown in the NASA map are at an altitude of about 18,000 feet, they’re almost certainly much higher down near the fires.
“It must be noted that local values can be significantly higher,” noted NASA officials in an announcement.
“A pollutant that can travel large distances, carbon monoxide can persist in the atmosphere for about a month,” NASA officials wrote.
“At the high altitude mapped in these images, the gas has little effect on the air we breathe; however, strong winds can carry it downward to where it can significantly impact air quality.”