Analyzing Smoke with NASA Satellites
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Text, Earth Watch. Exploring the Blue Planet by Satellite
Analyzing Smoke with NASA satellites. An aerial view of a white, smoky area
Text, plumes of wildfire smoke are visible in satellite photographs like this one of the Camp Fire in northern California, taken in November 2018.
The color of the smoke offers clues about the material burning.
Smoke from high-temperature oil and house fires tends to be black with soot, while smoke from lower-temperature forest fires tends to be gray with lighter-colored organic matter.
But while smoke color is easy to discern in an image like this, other properties--such as height of the smoke plume and size of the smoke particles--are not.
The Multi-Angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer (MISR) aboard NASA's Terra satellite is one tool helping scientists fill in the details.
MISR includes nine cameras that view Earth at different angles. Each time MISR passes over a smoke plume, it takes nine different images of the plume.
Combined with other observations and atmospheric models, the instrument is helping scientists paint a rich picture of what happens after burning begins.
Using mathematical calculations related to the angles of the different photographs, scientists can estimate the height of each plume.
MISR's cameras showed that the plume from the Camp Fire rose 2 to 3 kilometers in altitude near its origin and as far south as Sacramento, enough to loft smoke into the free troposphere where it can spread widely.
The plume then descended to about 1 kilometer as it moved south and west and approached the ocean near San Jose.
MISR data can also give insight into the composition of a smoke plume.
Smoke from the Camp Fire appeared to contain a mix of unusually large and non-spherical particles in the plume right near Paradise, California, likely due to the thousands of buildings burning in the town.
Forest fires, such as those burning in the surrounding area, tend to produce smaller, rounder particles.
By analyzing data from hundreds or even thousands of different smoke plumes, scientists can build models that help them accurately predict the effects of fires.
To learn more, go to: earth observatory dot nasa dot gov