The bushfire crisis isn’t limited to Australia – it’s coming for the entire Southern Hemisphere atmosphere, too.
Australia has been ablaze for months with wildlife-killing, town-destroying, unstoppable fires burning throughout the states of Queenslands, New South Wales, and Victoria. Every day seems to bring a new horror story, and the latest is the smoke that has now travelled across the entire Pacific Ocean.
Satellite images released by NASA last week show Australia hidden beneath a blanket of smoke. But new imagery shows the Southern Hemisphere engulfed in smoke. Japan’s Himawari-8 satellite takes a birds-eye view of Earth from more than 22,200 miles away. That whole disk view of Earth shows smoke spewing off the east coast of Australia, drifting past New Zealand.
But the smoke doesn’t just petered out there. The plume extends beyond Himawari-8's view of the western Pacific. To see where it’s landed, you need to look at a whole other satellite sitting nearly the same distance above Earth. You could look at GOES-17, which has the best view of the central Pacific. But the smoke actually goes beyond its view, too.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released imagery on Monday from GOES-16 – a satellite that covers the Americas – showing smoke has arrived on Chile’s doorstep and even made it to parts of Argentina. Yes, you read that right. Smoke has traversed the realm of three satellites and more than 7,000 miles, and it could make it into the Atlantic basin depending on prevailing winds.
SATELLITE SPOTLIGHT: @NOAA's #GOES16 is tracking the #smoke from the #Australia #bushfires as it circumnavigates the #Earth. The #NewSouthWales Rural #Fire Service @NSWRFS last reported that there are 136 #fires which continue to burn across NSW, 69 uncontained. #AustralianFires pic.twitter.com/SXVIFdLQpk
— NOAA Satellites - Public Affairs (@NOAASatellitePA) January 6, 2020
Satellites that circle the Earth rather than sitting far out in space offered another unique view of the impacts the smoke is having on the ground. Soot has essentially acted as fallout, and Landsat-8 images from NASA Earth Observatory show New Zealand’s glaciers are now coated in a dirty brown film. That could hasten the melt of those glaciers by absorbing more energy from the sun and heating up the ice and snow.
Before and after satellite imagery show soot has visibly darkened New Zealand’s glaciers near Mount Edward. GIF: NASA Earth Observatory
What’s happening in Australia – and now a 7,000-mile stretch of the Southern Hemisphere – is the climate crisis in action. Rising temperatures have pushed Australia into an unsteady state, one that’s hotter, drier, and more flammable (and these fires will end up fuelling the crisis to even worse extremes).
There’s been a lot of talk about treating the climate crisis like a war. And it feels like the destruction in Australia and smoky fallout are starting to make that analogy more apt.
Featured image: Colorado State University