NOAA Image Catches Wildfire Smoke and Dust on Collision Course

The video is mesmerizing: As three whitish-gray geysers gush eastward from the mountains of New Mexico, a sheet of brown spills down from the north like swash on a beach.

What it represents is far more destructive.

The image, a time-lapse captured by a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellite, shows two devastating events happening in the Western United States. The first is a wildfire outbreak in northern New Mexico that started last month and has intensified in the past two weeks, fueled by extreme drought and high winds. The second is a dust storm caused by violent winds in Colorado.

Both are examples of the sorts of natural disasters that are becoming more severe and frequent as a result of climate change.

Seven large fires were burning in New Mexico as of Tuesday, according to the NASA Earth Observatory. The satellite image shows four of them. The westernmost is the Cerro Pelado fire, covering about 27,000 acres near the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The northernmost is the Cooks Peak fire, covering about 59,000 acres near Taos. Just south of that are the Calf Canyon and Hermits Peak fires, which merged around April 22 into one huge, 160,000-acre blaze.

The total land burning in the satellite image is roughly 380 square miles, an area larger than Indianapolis. The Hermits Peak / Calf Canyon fire in particular has forced thousands of people to evacuate their homes, including in Las Vegas, NM, a town of 13,000 about an hour east of Santa Fe.

Wildfires are a natural part of the ecosystems of the West, but human activity has made them far worse. Drought is a major contributor. The past two decades have been the driest in the 12th century in the American Southwest, largely because of climate change, and there are no indications that conditions will improve anytime soon.

The other big factor is wind, which is fueling all of the fires in northern New Mexico right now. In fact, the Hermits Peak Fire started as a prescribed burn – meaning a fire set intentionally, under controlled conditions, to clear out dry vegetation and reduce the risk of larger, uncontrolled fires – but dense, unpredictable winds blew it out of control.

High winds were also responsible for the second phenomenon visible in the image NOAA released: the dust storm in Colorado.

“Visibility is dropping to near zero and winds are gusting to 50-60 mph within this blowing dust,” the National Weather Service in Pueblo, Colo. said on Twitter on Fridaywarning of extremely dangerous conditions for drivers.

The satellite imagery underscores how widespread the effects of such disasters can be. While the “brownout” conditions were relatively localized during the dust storm, winds carried the dust particles across hundreds of miles of southeastern Colorado, western Kansas, and the Oklahoma and Texas Panhandles.

Fine particulate matter degrades air quality and poses health hazards, particularly for people with underlying lung or heart diseases. That applies to dust as well as to smoke, soot and other byproducts of wildfires.

Last summer, wildfires led to air quality warnings across almost the entire country and turned the sun red as far east as New York City. And researchers found in January that dangerous levels of smoke and ozone were increasing over much of the Western United States.

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