Earth Matters

Tweeting the Extreme Summer Down Under

January 16th, 2020 by Adam Voiland
Credit: NASA/Christina Koch

Baked by heat and drought, deluged by rain and floods, scorched by wildfire, and blanketed by dust, Australia has faced several months of extreme weather.

Some of the latest jaw-dropping images come from NASA astronaut Christina Koch. “Australia. Our hearts and thoughts are with you,” she tweeted, along with images of a massive dust storm making its way across the continent and smoke streaming from bushfires in southeastern Australia.

Meanwhile, Jean-Paul Vernier, a senior scientist at the National Institute of Aerospace at NASA Langley Research Center and the lead of a NASA disasters team responding to the fires, has been using data from the CALIPSO satellite to measure something impossible to discern from an aerial photograph, even one taken from spaceā€”the height of the smoke. As we reported earlier, the fires are so intense that they have lifted smoke all the way to the stratosphere, something wildfires do only occasionally. (Usually, volcanoes lift plumes to such heights.)

On January 6, 2020, the smoke had reached 19 kilometers (12 miles). Interestingly, it kept rising. By January 13, it was up to 21 kilometers.

“The radiative heating from the soot particles within the smoke makes wildfire plumes particularly buoyant, meaning they will reach higher altitudes in the stratosphere and stay there longer than material from a volcanic eruption that reaches the same initial altitude,” Vernier explained.

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