How satellites are helping California's wildfire recovery efforts

By Meghan Bartels
November 21, 2018, 12:08:30 PM EST

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No one in Northern California would question that the Camp Fire, in addition to killing scores of people, destroying thousands of buildings and burning a huge amount of acreage, has made the region's air hard to breathe.

But satellite imagery confirms what Californians are experiencing on the ground — rates of black carbon, an aerosol created by wildfires, have become particularly high in Northern California beginning on Nov. 9.

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Scientists are using satellite data to monitor black carbon produced by wildfires in California this month. The image shows black carbon levels in the air as of Nov. 11.Credit: NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using GEOS data from the Global Modeling and Assimilation Office at NASA GSFC.


Black carbon in a type of fine particulate matter, which is known to cause health problems in the respiratory tract and cardiovascular system. Scientists can monitor black carbon by pulling together data gathered by satellites, airplanes and systems on the ground. They also feed in weather data to understand how factors like wind and precipitation affect the aerosol.

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NASA runs a mapping tool that quickly pulls together different characteristics of a fire in order to help disaster managers respond to the situation.Credit: NASA Earth Observatory maps by Lauren Dauphin using topographic data from the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM) and NASA's Rehabilitation Capability Convergence for Ecosystem Recovery.


Southern California also saw a smaller, more short-lived spike in the pollutant on Nov. 10 and 11 due to the Woolsey Fire that burned west of Los Angeles beginning on Nov. 8. That fire has been almost entirely contained, and the focus is shifting from managing the fire to dealing with its aftermath.

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