Using Satellites to Map Air Pollution from Wildfires

Elizabeth Borneman

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Wildfires are raging around the globe, burning the forests that produce vital oxygen for the entire planet. These forests provide valuable habitat for plants and animals that otherwise wouldn’t exist; unfortunately, as the forests burn, these species are threatened with extinction. Humans are also feeling the impacts of the fires, as air quality decreases in areas near and far.

In addition to the devastation to habitat, these fires also have an atmospheric impact. Air quality is diminished and the global climate can be changed because of the particles that are released into the atmosphere when the forests burn.

Global Wildfire Impact

Wildfires in the Amazon and those burning in Indonesia are massive versions of smaller fires that affect different corners of the world every day.

There Were 79,000 Fires Around the World in August 2019

There were 79,000 fires detected in August 2019 compared to 16,632 fires in August of 2018.


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The European Space Agency’s satellites, Sentinel-3A and Sentinel-3B contain SLSTR sensors which can monitor active fires around the world.  

Data collected from the Sentinel-3 World Fire Atlas, showed a nearly five-fold increase in fires in August 2019 as compared to August 2019.   The satellites recorded 79,000 fires this August while only 16,000 fires were recorded globally last August.

The trend of wildfires detected in 2019 are shown in red, while fires detected in 2018 can be seen in green. Source: ESA
The trend of wildfires detected in 2019 are shown in red, while fires detected in 2018 can be seen in green. Source: ESA

Almost half of the fires (49%) were detected in Asia. Around 28% were detected in South America, 16% in Africa, and the remaining were recorded in North America, Europe and Oceania.

Compare Maps of Global Fires: August 2018 and August 2019

Drag the white slider on the map below to compare locations of fires around the world.

These forests are carbon sinks, which means they absorb more carbon than they release. When they burn, they release an excessive amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which amplifies the effects of the climate changes already occurring. The carbon they stored that once helped cool the earth is now causing it to heat up as the trees and other vegetation burns.

Using Satellites to Collect Wildfire Data

Satellites are being used to detect wildfires and analyze the impacts they have on the global climate. The Copernicus Sentinel-5P mission is designed to monitor the pollutants entering the atmosphere because of major forest fires. This satellite can monitor changes to air quality using a Tropomi instrument to detect trace gases like nitrogen dioxide, ozone, formaldehyde, sulphur dioxide, methane, carbon monoxide, and aerosols. A partner satellite, Sentinel-3, is tasked with identifying forest fires.

Map showing carbon monoxide from Amazon fires.  Source: contains modified Copernicus data (2019), processed by SRON
Map showing carbon monoxide from Amazon fires. Source: contains modified Copernicus data (2019), processed by SRON

Carbon monoxide levels can be traced to industrial emissions, but atmospheric levels have increased as the fires have burned as well. Formaldehyde can also be released in trace amounts, but reacts chemically with other environmental chemicals to become carbon monoxide.

Satellites play an important role in monitoring chemicals and particles in the atmosphere (related: Mapping Out Ammonia Hotspots With Satellite Data). This data can be used to monitor fires in addition to helping create environmental policies to help curb additional damage to the earth.

The Human Impact on Fires and Air Pollution

Pollutants released into the atmosphere because of industrial activities and fires decrease the amount of oxygen that can be absorbed by human bodies, which decreases our overall quality of life.

Smoke and aerosols in the atmosphere have been shown to cause cardiovascular conditions and lung problems. Pollutants like aerosols scatter and absorb the light from the sun and trap long wave radiation, warming the planet even further.

More

European Space Agency. Monitoring Air Pollution from Fires. 9 September, 2019. Retrieved from http://www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Observing_the_Earth/Copernicus/Sentinel-5P/Monitoring_air_pollution_from_fires

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About the author
Elizabeth Borneman
My name is Elizabeth Borneman and I am a freelance writer, reader, and coffee drinker. I live on a small island in Alaska, which gives me plenty of time to fish, hike, kayak, and be inspired by nature. I enjoy writing about the natural world and find lots of ways to flex my creative muscles on the beach, in the forest, or down at the local coffee shop.