Devastation from fires in Chile is visible from space •

Devastation from fires in Chile is visible from space

Today’s Image of the Day from NASA Earth Observatory shows the aftermath of fires in the Valparaíso region of Chile, where burn scars are now visible from space. 

“NASA satellites first observed fires in wilderness areas in hills to the south of the two cities on February 2, 2024. During the next two days, fires descended from the hills and tore through stream valleys that run through the cities, at times spreading into residential areas and consuming entire streets and neighborhoods,” said NASA.

“The OLI-2 (Operational Land Imager-2) on Landsat 9 captured this false-color image of the charred landscape left after the fire on February 5, 2024.” 

“With this combination of shortwave infrared, near infrared, and visible observations (bands 6-5-3), lands with unburned forests, brushlands, or grasslands appear green. Developed areas appear pink or gray; developed areas that burned are darker than the unaffected parts of the cities.” 

Elizabeth Wiggins is a research scientist at NASA’s Langley Research Center who works with NASA’s Earth Applied Sciences Disasters program area. She said the wildfires were the result of a “perfect storm of conditions.”

“They occurred during a heatwave, drought, and high-wind event borne from a combination of El Niño and climate change,” said Wiggins. 

For the last 15 years, Chile has endured a devastating drought. These extreme conditions were intensified by a heat wave in early February combined with strong winds. 

Raul Cordero, a climatologist at the University of Santiago, told Reuters that strong summer winds are common in central Chile since air coming down from the Andes mountain range and other elevated areas compresses and heats up.

“What’s different this time is that the temperatures were much higher than before,” said Cordero. 

“The extreme weather – especially the wind – appears to have led to rapid spread and transformed this from an ordinary fire into a firestorm with tragic consequences,” said atmospheric scientist René Garreaud of the University of Chile. A preliminary analysis by Garreaud showed that average wind speeds reached 25 knots (29 miles per hour) at Rodelillo Airfield on February 2.

As of February 8, 2024, authorities had recorded 131 deaths, and hundreds of people were still missing, according to NASA.

“Fast-moving wildfires driven by extreme wind and drier fuels than usual are exceptionally dangerous and almost impossible to fight,” said Wiggins. “It is notable and alarming that we are seeing these types of fires occur more frequently across distinct ecosystems around the globe, from the boreal forest to the chaparral.” 

“Researchers in the fire science community are actively studying this new breed of fire and looking for ways to predict periods of rapid growth and intensification. Learning how to mitigate these fires is going to require an ‘all hands on deck’ approach, with collaboration across agencies and borders.”

Image Credit: NASA Earth Observatory 

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