Satellites find wildfires on the rise across the globe

Fire towers like the Diamond Butte Lookout in southern Montana have been replaced by satellites.

Government satellites have replaced the fire tower as the main way to spot and track wildfires. Among their discoveries: Fire is on the rise across the globe.

Most of the fire towers on Earth have been retired and turned into museum pieces or vacation rentals, but government fire towers in space have been closely watching the world's hot spots for more than a decade.

Among the discoveries of satellites in orbit: Fire is on the rise across the globe. "Over the last 30 years we have seen an increase in hot and dry conditions that promote fire activity," said Doug Morton, a scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "And across the Western U.S. and Alaska, satellites show an increase in the area that burns each year over that same time period."

Related: Scary Australian wildfires look intense from space

Fire monitoring by satellite traces its origins to 1980, when scientists Jeff Dozier and Michael Matson found themselves mystified by tiny white specks that kept appearing on images of the Persian Gulf that had been taken by a satellite owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The specks turned out to be the thermal signature of gas flares from oil fields — the first actively burning fires detected from space. NASA launched MODIS, the first satellite specifically designed to have fire-monitoring capabilities, in 1999.

Another program, called Landfire, began in 2003, after a particularly wild year of fires in the U.S. highlighted the need for a single, unbiased data set that combined satellite and U.S. Geological Survey data to help decide which fires should receive priority when firefighters and supplies are scarce.

Among the things the satellites have found: Thirty percent of the world’s land surface is affected by fire. When combined with air quality data, they’ve found that 70 percent of the world’s fires occur in Africa, but that those fires contribute less to global emissions because they occur in grasslands, rather than forests. Peat fires, which break out in countries like Russia, Canada and Indonesia, release about 10 times as much methane and five times as much carbon dioxide as savannah fires.

Since they were launched, the satellites have orbited Earth every 99 minutes, detecting thousands of fires per day. The coordinates of active fires are sent by text message to agencies responsible for land management in the area. The data has been used by everyone from scientists to advocacy organizations. This summer, after clouds of smog broke air pollution records in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, the World Resources Institute analyzed NASA’s satellite data and found that nearly half of the fires were emerging from land controlled by logging, and palm oil and pulpwood concessions in Sumatra, an island in western Indonesia.

Related: California man saves his home, local children's camp from wildfire

Overall, NASA reports that 2013 looks so far to be a mild year for American wildfires.  Fires have scorched about 2.5 million acres this year, compared to 4.9 million at this time in 2012. 

But, according to Morton, the future is a hot one.  The wildfires that broke out in 2012, the hottest year on record in American history, are likely to be the new normal by the end of the century, Morton said.


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