NASA publishes atlas of 13.3M wildfires spotted from space since 2003

"Something is always burning somewhere," said Niels Andela, a scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

By Brooks Hays
The new Global Fire Atlas features 13.3 million fires spotted by NASA’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer instruments between 2003 and 2016. Photo by NASA/MODIS/Goddard<br>
The new Global Fire Atlas features 13.3 million fires spotted by NASA’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer instruments between 2003 and 2016. Photo by NASA/MODIS/Goddard

Aug. 8 (UPI) -- NASA scientists have produced a global wildfire map. Researchers at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center plotted the 13.3 million fires spotted by NASA's Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer instruments, or MODIS, between 2003 and 2016.

"Something is always burning somewhere," Goddard scientist Niels Andela said in a news release.


The newly published interactive map contains details about each fire that burned during the 13-year period: when and where it began, when and where it burned out and which direction and how quickly it spread.

"With the breadth and granularity of data in the Global Fire Atlas, we can start addressing nuanced questions like how fires respond to winds or to year-to-year variability in rainfall," said Douglas Morton, chief of the Biospheric Sciences Laboratory at Goddard. "We know factors like these influence fire behavior, and the atlas is helping give us a clearer view of these impacts."

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The largest fire detailed by the new atlas scorched 15,454 square miles of earth in Australia's Northern Territory in 2007. The fire was 20 times bigger than the largest North American fire.

In North America and Europe, forests and grasslands are more likely to be interrupted by human development, limiting the scale of wildfires. Fire fighters regularly put wildfires out before they get too big. In Australia, fires in remote regions are sometimes allowed to burn themselves out naturally.


The data detailed in the Global Fire Atlas revealed the influence of El Niño and La Niña cycles, an ocean and atmospheric pattern in the Pacific, on wildfires. In 2007, a La Niña pattern brought large amounts of rain to Australia, fueling vegetation growth -- fuel for future wildfires. The precipitation was followed by a prolonged period of hot and dry weather, prime conditions for fire.

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Many of NASA's satellites help scientists study Earth, tracking storms and fires. Recently, the agency's Earth-facing satellites have been helping scientists observe the unusually large number of fires burning in the Arctic. Satellite images have revealed fires burning farther north than ever before.

Several studies suggest wildfires are likely to get bigger and burn more frequently as the planet warms. Last year, scientists claimed global warming explained the especially devastating fire season in California.

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