Australia was hit by a catastrophic fire season with massive wildfires torching the country from September 2019 to February 2020. The devastating fires posed severe safety and environmental problems, killing at least 33 people and an estimated 1 billion animals, and destroyed thousands of buildings and millions of hectares of land. Besides damages on the ground, the wildfire emitted important quantity of particles in the atmosphere, which caused widespread air quality issues for extended periods. The smoke was so abundant that it reached unusual heights in the atmosphere and even traveled around the world.

The international science community used satellite data from polar orbiting and geostationary satellites to monitor the evolution of the fires on the ground (numbers and extent of fires) and the evolution of the pollutants in the air. Satellite images helped understand the scope of the disaster. The model analyses (see below), combining near-real-time satellite observations and modelization, are a valuable complementary tool to understand aerosol transport, as they estimate aerosol load and properties everywhere and every 3 hours.

Wildfires in Southeast Australia observed by the VIIRS instrument aboard the Suomi-NPP satellite on January 3, 2020. The red dots show the locations where VIIRS detected active fires. The greyish smoke plume is spreading 2500 km across the Tasman Sea all the way to New Zealand and beyond. Credit: NASA/Worldview/ICARE.

Aerosol Optical Depth at 550 nm from CAMS (Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service) analysis on January 11, 2020. Massive amounts of smoke (in red) emitted from Australian wildfires almost continuously during the preceding 2 weeks are transported 10,000 km across the Pacific Ocean to South America. Credit: ECMWF/CAMS/ICARE.
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Animation of Aerosol Optical Depth at 550 nm from CAMS (Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service) analysis from January 3-13, 2020. Credit: ECMWF/CAMS/ICARE.