From Space and in the Air, NASA Tracks California’s Wildfires

Earth-observing instruments on satellites and
aircraft are mapping the current fires, providing data products to agencies on
the ground that are responding to the emergency.

As California experiences one of the worst wildfire seasons
on record, NASA is leveraging its resources to help. Scientists supporting the agency’s
Applied Sciences Disaster Program in the Earth Sciences Division are generating
maps and
other data products
that track active fires and their smoke plumes while also
identifying areas that may be susceptible to future risks.

“When disasters like this occur, we are able to swiftly
respond to requests from our partners who need images and mapping data,”
said David Green, manager of the Disasters Program at NASA Headquarters in
Washington. “Likewise, in the aftermath of the fires, our researchers will
use orbital and aerial data of the burn areas to help mitigate hazards such as
landslides and mudslides.”

Most of the data comes from the numerous satellite
instruments that pass over the state, such as the MOderate Resolution Imaging
Spectroradiometer (MODIS)
instruments aboard the Aqua and Terra satellites, the Visible Infrared Imaging
Radiometer Suite (VIIRS)
instruments aboard the Suomi-NPP satellite, and the Cloud-Aerosol Lidar with
Orthogonal Polarization (CALIOP) instrument onboard the CALIPSO satellite.

Another such instrument is the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal
Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER)
instrument aboard the Terra satellite. Managed by the Japan Aerospace
Exploration Agency (JAXA) and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern
California, ASTER views Earth’s surface in visible, near-infrared, and thermal-infrared
wavelengths, allowing features such as the smoke and heat of fires to be
identified and mapped. Such orbital data help firefighting agencies to better locate
fires and direct crews there.

The Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer (MISR), another JPL-managed instrument
aboard Terra, is being used to better understand how high and far the smoke
particles travel. MISR data were also used to detect the amount and type of
smoke particles within smoke plumes, using the MISR Research Aerosol retrieval
algorithm developed by researchers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in
Greenbelt, Maryland.

The smoke plumes generated by the California fires have
traveled across vast swaths of western North America in recent weeks, affecting
air quality and visibility. Airborne smoke particles can increase the risk of
cardiovascular and respiratory disease when inhaled, so tracking their spread
provides valuable information for local public health officials.

Researchers from NASA JPL and GSFC were instrumental in
analyzing the satellite data, and the NASA Disasters Program and NASA Health
and Air Quality Applied Sciences Team coordinated directly with stakeholders
from the California National Guard to aid in tracking the impacts of the fires.

In addition to these satellite-based efforts, JPL’s
Uninhabited Aerial Vehicle Synthetic Aperture Radar (UAVSAR)
instrument will fly this week over the River and Carmel fires in Monterey
County, the CZU Lightning Complex fires in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties,
and the LNU Lightning Complex fires in Sonoma, Napa, Solano, and Lake counties.

The UAVSAR instrument is attached to the bottom of a C-20A
aircraft based at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center near Palmdale,
California. When flown repeatedly over a specific area, the instrument can measure
tiny changes in the ground surface with extreme accuracy. Scientists use the
data to map ground elevation and study surface-mass movement (along earthquake
faults, for example).

But UAVSAR can also be highly effective at mapping burn
scars. The instrument’s radar signals bounce off vegetation in a different way
than they do bare, freshly burned ground. Accurately measuring the burn scar
extent is important to assessing the long-term effects of fire damage. A loss
of vegetation on hillsides can put an area at risk of mudslides during

In combination with other science instruments, the findings
of these UAVSAR flyovers can help characterize the spread of active fires while
allowing a better understanding of their longer-term effects. Additional
imaging cameras will be flown with UAVSAR to provide a broader understanding of
the fires.

“We will also fly our short wavelength infrared imager
looking in the same direction as UAVSAR, which will see the fire through the
smoke,” said Andrea Donnellan, a principal research scientist at JPL.
“These combined data can help us better understand how these active fires
are affecting the area.”

Data products are prepared for agencies working on the
ground in California, including the state National Guard, Department of
Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), the Governor’s Office of Emergency
Services, California Geological Survey and the Federal Emergency Management

News Media Contact

Ian J. O’Neill / Jane J. Lee

Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

818-354-2649 / 818-354-0307 /


Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

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