Forest Fire in Patagonia

Forest Fire in Patagonia

In the last week of February 2008, a forest fire broke out in the Alerces National Park in Argentina’s Patagonia region, initially raising concerns about the fate of the park’s famous—and endangered—cypress trees, among the oldest trees in the world. Fanned by strong winds, the fire grew explosively in just a few hours. The blaze spread eastward and scorched more than 7,000 acres of woodland in the foothills of the Andres Mountains, but the ancient trees were spared. According to news reports, park officials believe the fire was the result of arson.

This image from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite shows the fire on the afternoon of February 27. The area in which MODIS detected actively burning fire is outlined in red. Several plumes of smoke rise from the spot, coalescing into a thick cloud that spreads eastward across the southern half of the tourist town of Esquel. The smoke plume has the same type of ripples that are often seen in the clouds that form in the area. Air masses usually move from west to east across Patagonia, and mountains jostle the air into a wavelike flow. Clouds make these wave patterns visible. In this case, the air was too hot and dry for clouds, but the waves are visible in the smoke.

According to Wikipedia, alerce is the South American Spanish name for the cypress tree whose scientific name is Fitzroya cupressoides. The tree is the largest species in South America, growing up to 60 meters (almost 200 feet) high and up to 5 meters (16.4 feet) in diameter. These giants are also among the oldest trees on Earth, with one individual having been dated at 3,622 years old. Alerces National Park is the largest remaining area of alerce forest. Logging of these highly prized trees since the seventeenth century has reduced the area of alerce forest to about 15 percent of its original extent.

NASA image created by Jesse Allen, using data provided courtesy of the MODIS Rapid Response team.

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