11 Aug 2021 | 08:07 AM

Is 2021 The Year of Wildfires?
Climate Action
Life on Land

Fuel-air explosive, now banned by military powers, combines the combustibility of a nitromethane gel with the fluidity of a suspended solution to create a devastating wall of fire that incinerates everything within a hundred-foot radius. While a bomb detonates on impact, a fuel-air explosive sprays an aerosol containing an explosive material like ammonium nitrate into the air. Then, a spark ignites it, giving birth to a fire cloud that is thousands of degrees hotter than the air around it. The cloud spreads, consuming air and all life around it until all the aerosol is used up.  

What’s left behind is a charred, broken piece of land that was once full of life.  

Also called a thermobaric bomb, a fuel-air explosive has no known countermeasure. But despite it being banned by countries around the world, we’re seeing a natural phenomenon that comes close.  

Enter the pyrocumulonimbus or pyroCB.  

Using state-of-the-art imaging techniques, a team of NASA scientists has created a ‘fire map’ showing the spread of heavy, soot-filled clouds taking over North American skies. The cloud system is built of several pyrocumulonimbi — Latin for ‘fire clouds’.  

The clouds are a result of the increasingly frequent wildfires in the Western United States and Canada. Smoke from these fires rises to an altitude of up to 32,000 feet, blanketing skies and creating a thick, grey haze filled with carbon particles. This is a yearly occurrence, but in July 2021, the fire clouds are much heavier and have been spotted much closer to ground zero — down to 6.000 feet in some areas.  

The Causes  

The formation of massive wildfires has been linked to the formation of a heat dome, excessive droughts, and rising ambient air pollution. A wildfire rises when several forest blazes come up within a very small area. Because of the nearly endless supply of fuel (wood) and air, these blazes go unchecked, throwing up huge quantities of fine particulate matter. The ambient air temperatures rise and moisture reduces, creating a unique weather system. That’s why fires like the Bootleg Fire in Oregon have to, lead to severe weather. Nearly a month after it roared to life, the Bootleg fire is 74% contained, according to reports.  

More Than Hazy Skies  

A slew of forest fires has been raging across the United States and Canada. Apart from the two-week-long blaze in Oregon last month, more than 80 active wildfires decimated 1.3 million acres of land across 13 states in June and July. A cluster of fires just north of Minnesota, along the Canadian border and in the provinces of Manitoba and Ontario also contributed to the smoky haze detected by NASA satellites. Some of the blazes released as much particulate matter as running 40 million cars on idle for an entire year.  

The giant smoke plume detected over North American skies has resulted in a spike in Air Quality Index scores in cities like Philadelphia and New York City. Some news outlets reported that the AQI rose to a deadly 170 in New York City, with Philadelphia not too far behind at 172. These numbers are nine times what they should be, according to World Health Organization stats.  

Black Carbon

Black carbon is probably the single most harmful by-product of a wildfire. Also called soot, a cloud of carbon big enough can block out the sun. And cause severe respiratory problems while at it. If COVID-19 wasn’t enough, the increase in carbon levels might very soon force all of us to wear rebreathers whenever we step out. Since it’s black, carbon absorbs radiation and increases atmospheric temperature — further accelerating global warming. At this rate, the COP26 target of bringing global warming to under 2 degrees Celsius annually will become a joke. 

Satellites Provide Overwatch   

The fires were reported using the Advanced Baseline Imager or ABI. The ABI is the primary sensor on NASA’s GOES-R series of satellites that have been put in orbit specifically to measure atmospheric conditions and predict natural calamities like tornados and snowstorms. The ABI can scan the entire Western Hemisphere in under 15 minutes. The ABI is used to study cloud formation, surface temperature, ocean dynamics, water current flow, ash plumes resulting from either man-made or natural air pollution, air quality, and vegetable health. NASA also uses the Micro-Pulse Lidar Network (MPLNET) and Aerosol Robotic Network (AERONET) in such cases to further add to the data generated by the ABI 

NASA isn’t the only scientific organization looking to revolutionize wildfire detection. Ororatech, a German company is looking to replicate NASA’s efforts on a global scale. Using tiny microsatellites the size of a laptop, they’re planning to create a space-based weather prediction network. The idea is catching on because OroraTech has already raised $7 million in its first funding round. OroraTech is looking to build 100 such satellites. Their sensors will be sensitive enough to detect any fire that grows larger than 10 meters, or 33 feet. The German company is also looking to add a lightning strike layer to predict how far a fire will spread. 

China recently announced the launch of 11 weather satellites specifically designed to combat freak weather phenomena like the bush fires of Australia and the Bootleg blaze in the U.S. The Fengyun-3E(FY-3E) will also monitor snow cover, tidal wave currents, and oceanic thermodynamics to better combat climate change.  

Around the World  

The first time such a massive smoke plume was detected was in 2000 by scientists at the United States Naval Research Laboratory. They were surprised on seeing that wildfire smoke particles could rise to a height of up to 30,000 feet. This height was previously characteristic of volcanic eruptions.  

More recently, countries in the European Union have been at the receiving end of Nature’s fury. Several hundred wildfires have been reported across Turkey, Russia, Italy, and other European nations. Turkey has been the worst affected with over 100 smaller blazes erupting all along her picturesque coast, severely damaging beach resorts. Tourists were seen fleeing in boats. Blazes were reported as far away as Syria and Lebanon. All the fires were chalked up to searing summers, parched forests, and strong winds.  

Wildfires like the ones we discussed are often a yearly occurrence but are becoming increasingly destructive because of the excessive heat, falling rainfall numbers, deforestation, and the lack of preventive measures.  

We may very well be in the process of creating our own Pompeii if we don’t slow down the rate of global warming.  

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BY Adreesh Ghoshal