A harrowing look at west coast wildfires from space

Satellite imagery is capturing the devastating wildfires from beyond Earth's atmosphere.

It goes without saying that wildfires are always a force to be reckoned with, especially as climate change fuels hotter temperatures and drier conditions.

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The current crop of wildfires in California, Washington, and Oregon is no exception. While scenes from the ground depicting cities like San Francisco shrouded in on orange haze are garnering the most attention, the view from above is equally disturbing.


3M acres

More than three million acres have burned in California alone making this the worst wildfire year on record.

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Satellite images also show entire towns that have been scorched off the map.

A town in Arizona, September 2019Maxar Technologies
September 2020Maxar Technologies

Using a wealth of satellite data, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have also been able to chart a lot of data.

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This map...

from the OMPS (Ozone Mapper and Profiler Suite) on NASA and NOAA's Suomi NPP satellite shows aerosols released from the fires. They traveled eastward across the country.

This map...

from the same NASA satellite shows various fires happening across the US.

NASA's satellites also captured the creation of what's known as a pyrocumulonimbus cloud which are often created by extreme heat like the kind expelled from a volcano after an eruption. This particular cloud is apparently among the biggest ever recorded in the US.

“The pyrocumulonimbus cloud created aerosol index values indicate that this is one of the largest (if not the largest) pyroCb events seen in the United States."

Dr. Colin Seftor, Atmospheric Scientist at Goddard Space Flight Center

NOAA/NASA Suomi NPP satellite image from Sep. 07, 2020

This night time image of the Creek Fire in California helps contextualize just how hot some of the conflagrations can be.

Satellite images may give us the broad strokes, but for those people living in affected areas, the results hit much closer to home. Recent fires have claimed at least 30 lives so far.

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In Oregon, 500,000 people are now under evacuation orders due to the fires' spread.

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What to do...

To help prevent future fires like these from becoming a reality, drastic action on climate change is needed, but if you're looking for something to do in the immediate term, you can donate to California's Wildfire Relief Fund or donate essential goods to United Way of the mid-Willamette Valley.


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