The observations from Earth orbit show high-altitude concentrations of the gas that are more than 10 times typical amounts.
NASA’s Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS), aboard the Aqua satellite, captured carbon monoxide plumes coming from California wildfires last week. There were 28 major wildfires burning across the state as of September 14, 2020. This includes the August Complex Fire, which started on August 17 and has since burned over 471,000 acres, making it the largest fire on record in California.
The animation shows three-day averages of carbon monoxide concentrations around 3 miles (5 kilometers) up in the atmosphere between September 6 and September 14. The red and orange areas indicate regions with extremely high carbon monoxide concentrations of greater than 350 parts per billion by volume (ppbv). The more normal, background concentrations of carbon monoxide show up as yellow and green, with amounts between 30 and 50 ppbv.
Released by the fires along with smoke and ash, carbon monoxide is a pollutant that can persist in the atmosphere for about a month and can be transported great distances. At the high altitude mapped in these images, the gas has little effect on the air we breathe; however, strong winds can carry it downwards to where it can significantly impact air quality. Carbon monoxide plays a role in both air pollution and climate change.
The intense heat from the wildfires lofted the carbon monoxide high into the atmosphere, enabling detection by the AIRS instrument. The jet stream then blew the carbon monoxide plume eastward across the U.S. and over the Atlantic Ocean.
AIRS, in conjunction with the Advanced Microwave Sounding Unit (AMSU), senses emitted infrared and microwave radiation from Earth to provide a three-dimensional look at Earth’s weather and climate. Working in tandem, the two instruments make simultaneous observations down to Earth’s surface. With more than 2,000 channels sensing different regions of the atmosphere, the system creates a global, three-dimensional map of atmospheric temperature and humidity, cloud amounts and heights, greenhouse gas concentrations and many other atmospheric phenomena. Launched into Earth orbit in 2002, the AIRS and AMSU instruments fly onboard NASA’s Aqua spacecraft and are managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, under contract to NASA. JPL is a division of Caltech.
The latest carbon monoxide data, as well as other information from NASA Earth-observing missions can be viewed at the fully interactive Eyes on the Earth. With the “Latest Events” feature, you can explore geo-located satellite images of recent Earth events, including algal blooms and wildfires.