Tracking the Smoke from the California Fires

December 12, 2017 0 Comments


The fires this fall in California have been brutal.  You get a sense of how intense and large they are by the smoke plumes seen on satellite imagery.  These plumes extend many miles up and spread out hundreds of miles horizontally.  It would be interesting to see research on how this smoke affects our atmosphere and climate in the short and long terms.

Summary of California fires from NOAA

The fires erupted and spread quickly on Sunday October 8th 2017. The famous winemaking regions of Napa and Sonoma were hit especially hard. Part of the fast paced nature of the fire growth was due to the high-speed winds in the area. California state officials have not yet determined the original cause of the fire, but the strong northeast autumnal ‘Diablo winds’, the pronounced growth of vegetation resulting from last winter’s wet conditions, and the typical dryness of the region’s warm season, which was much warmer and slightly drier than normal, made the area prone to these dangerous fires.


According to the extremely dangerous fire conditions actually began last winter, with near-record precipitation between December 2016-February 2017. The drought-busting amounts of precipitation re-stocked the state’s snowpack, which had been heavily depleted by 6 years of drought.

The wet winter fostered “megablooms” of desert wildflowers and ushered in a lush growing season. Unfortunately, the climate swung to a different extreme. The state’s second-wettest winter on record was followed by its hottest summer. Baked to tinder in the extreme heat, the abundant vegetation of spring became the kindling for these autumn fires.

Researchers think that California and the rest of the U.S. Southwest are likely to face this kind of devastating fire season even more often in the second half of this century.

According to the U.S. National Climate Assessment:
Between 1970 and 2003, warmer and drier conditions increased burned area in western U.S. mid-elevation conifer forests by 650% (Ch. 7: Forests, Key Message 1).…Models project […] up to a 74% increase in burned area in California, with northern California potentially experiencing a doubling under a high emissions scenario toward the end of the century.


The Suomi NPP satellite’s VIIRS instrument took this image of smoke from California’s wildfires being drawn northward into an approaching storm system off the U.S. Pacific Coast on December 11, 2017. The beige-colored smoke is visible in the lower-center portion of this image, while the comma-shaped storm system, known as a mid-latitude cyclone, is seen just to the west. Southerly winds ahead of the storm are pushing wildfire smoke several hundred miles northward, parallel to the coastline.



About the Author:

StormTrak9 Meteorologist with WAOW-TV in Wausau, WI. Also the owner of Great Lakes Weather Service, LLC.

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