If intelligent life beyond Earth (should it exist) could see our planet now, they might be amazed by the great puff of smoke that ripples over the ocean.
It’s a wild sight captured by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) GOES-West satellite. High winds have blown smoke from the historic forest fires to the west over 1,000 miles from the coast into the northern Pacific. The cloud has also traveled east and reached Mexico. (Hazy skies from previous fires were also discovered over Europe.)
Record-breaking heat waves, deep drought to record aridity and high winds have meant that massive forest fires in California, Oregon and Washington were able to spread quickly. In addition, millions of dead trees (those killed by climate-induced drought and bark beetles) and poorly managed, overcrowded forests have further exacerbated these flames.
The resulting smoke has punished western regions and in some places turned the daylight into an eerie, dark orange glow. The winds are now blowing copious amounts of thick smoke across the Pacific.
“The adjectives describing #smoke from wildfires in the western US are running out,”
Out over the open ocean, the smoke now wraps around a cyclone (a generic term for a zone in the atmosphere where winds revolve around an area of low pressure).
You can see the smoke from the west coast forest fires in this photo taken by the DSCOVR spacecraft nearly 1 million miles from Earth. https://t.co/6VSivmvo1L
– Miriam Kramer (@mirikramer), September 11, 2020
Smoke from massive fires can travel around the globe in about a week. Most of the forest fire smoke, however, is invisible. Carbon dioxide (CO2) accounts for around 90 percent of forest fire smoke. It has lived there for hundreds of years. It is crucial that CO2 is a powerful heat storage gas. While in the atmosphere, the newly released gases contribute to the inexorably warming climate.
A warmer climate means drier trees, shrubs, and grasses, which means that vegetation burns much more easily.
“When we talk about how climate enables fire activity, we often talk about how dry fuels are,” John Abatzoglou, a fire scientist at the University of California at Merced, told Mashable about some of the largest fires in California history burned late August. “This year is embedded in a long-term increase towards a warmer, drier and smokier climate.”
Forest fires are not inherently bad. There is good fire. Naturally burns thin, overcrowded forests (which reduce the likelihood of future infernos) and maintains healthy ecosystems. Because of this, California and the US Forest Service are committed to thinning millions of acres of poorly managed forest.
Even so, modern fires burn in hotter climates.
The carbon emissions from California flames are already the highest they have seen in the 18-year Wildfire satellite record. So far, five of the 20 largest fires in the history of the Golden State have burned down in 2020.
WATCH: Where does smoke die in the atmosphere?