California fires: NASA satellites reveal poor air quality for large swathes of US

NASA is using several instruments to monitor the California fires, which continue to blaze across the southwestern state. One such instrument NASA is using is its Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer (MISR) onboard the Terra satellite.

MISR can highlight how far and high smoke particles are travelling.

By analysing the data, NASA has warned the surrounding states of California, such as Nevada, Oregon and Idaho, are now experiencing poor air quality.

The space agency said: “The smoke plumes generated by the California fires have travelled across vast swaths of western North America in recent weeks, affecting air quality and visibility.

“Airborne smoke particles can increase the risk of cardiovascular and respiratory disease when inhaled, so tracking their spread provides valuable information for local public health officials.”

Fire of all kinds releases smoke containing carbon monoxide carbon dioxide and particulate matter (PM or soot).

If these particles make their way into the lungs, it can lead to serious health problems such as respiratory irritation and shortness of breath.

In severe cases, inhaling smoke from fires can lead to death.

According to data from the Terra satellite, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, parts of San Francisco and into Idaho are where the most smoke is congregating.

NASA’s Worldview site explained: “Aerosols scatter and absorb incoming sunlight, which reduces visibility.

“From an observer on the ground, an AOD of less than 0.1 is ‘clean’ (lightest yellow) – characteristic of clear blue sky, bright sun and maximum visibility.

“As AOD increases to 0.5, 1.0, and greater than 3.0, aerosols become so dense that sun is obscured (ranging from yellow to dark red on the scale).

“Sources of aerosols include pollution from factories, smoke from fires, dust from dust storms, sea salt, and volcanic ash and smog.

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“Aerosols compromise human health when inhaled by people, particularly those with asthma or other respiratory illnesses.

“Aerosols also have an effect on the weather and climate by cooling or warming the Earth, helping or preventing clouds from forming.”

The space agency is also using its Applied Sciences Disaster Program in the Earth Sciences Division which can generate and other data products to help prepare for disasters which could follow the fires.

For example, as forests burn to ash, the land becomes looser and NASA has warned landslides could occur across the rolling hills of California.

Another weapon in NASA’s arsenal against the fires is the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) instrument, also aboard the Terra satellite.

This instrument views the Earth in near-infrared, allowing NASA to track pockets of fires which it can then pass on to emergency response units in California.

David Green, manager of the Disasters Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said: “When disasters like this occur, we are able to swiftly respond to requests from our partners who need images and mapping data.

“Likewise, in the aftermath of the fires, our researchers will use orbital and aerial data of the burn areas to help mitigate hazards such as landslides and mudslides.”

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