The Rim Fire in central California, with its massive footprint trickling into treasured Yosemite National Park, has captured the nation’s attention. The fire covers nearly 180,000 acres (280 square miles) and is 20 percent contained.
Weather imagery offers both close-up and distant views of the fire, helping us better understand the size of the blaze, where its smoke is being transported and its effects on people and the environment.
As University of Washington atmospheric science professor Cliff Mass notes: “The impacts [of the fire] are continental in scale.”
Here’s a tour of the blaze, from space, from the ground, and from the guts of a supercomputer…
Day time images from space
Day time high resolution satellite imagery shows the smoke plume and where it’s heading. It can also isolate where the fire is active by sensing “hot spots” (outlined in red below).
The view from the International Space Station shows the thick envelope of smoke in even greater detail. Notice how well the origins of the stream of smoke line up with the hot spots in the image above it.
A somewhat wider view of the plume shows it extending through northwest Nevada.
The smoke is compromising air quality in Nevada writes NASA:
Dense smoke from the fire has been a serious health threat as well. Health officials in Reno, Nevada report the air quality index in their city is in the “unhealthy” range due to the smoke fallout from the Rim Fire. The smoke has also created visibility problems for air ambulance services in the Reno area as well.
Nighttime satellite images
Some satellites can even sense characteristics of the fire at night. Writes NASA:
The [Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on the Suomi NPP satellite] day-night band is extremely sensitive to low light, making it possible to see the fire front from space. The brightest, most intense parts of the fire glow white, exceeding the brightness of the lights of Reno, Nevada to the north. Pale gray smoke streams north away from the fire…
Below, a NASA-generated sequence of nighttime images help illustrate the growth of the fire and its plume. You can see the northeast ring of the fire cutting into the northwest section of Yosemite.
— Chris Scott (@ChrisScottWx) August 27, 2013
Animated satellite images
This animated image from August 21 to 23 show the growth of the fire’s hot spots.
A more recent high resolution satellite animation from August 25 and 26 offers a close-up illustration of the transport of the fire’s smoke plume. Rim Fire satellite loop created by Jesse Ferrell via YouTube
Radar imagery can detect matter lofted in the air from a fire. In this case, it’s sensing ash suspended in the smoke plume to the blaze’s northeast. Writes meteorologist Mike Smith (an executive Vice President at Accuweather) of Meteorological Musings: While it is not uncommon for meteorologists to be able to see smoke on radar, this is one of the most impressive examples I have seen considering the distance of the Rim Fire from the radar.
Upper level winds can transport chemical matter (combustion products) emitted in a fire long distances, affecting air quality thousands of miles from the source. These model simulations of the transport of carbon monoxide from NASA, offer a clear illustration.
Photos of the fire
Fires can create their own weather, as the hot air they generate rises leading to billowing pyrocumulus clouds.
— DaKingAirDriver (@daKingAirDriver) August 27, 2013
— Darren Peck (@WeatherAnchor) August 22, 2013
Of course, just as fires affect the weather, weather and climate conditions can set the stage for devastating blazes such as this one.
For more information, read Andrew Freedman’s excellent piece at Climate Central: Yosemite Fire Example of How Droughts Amplify Wildfires