Carbon Monoxide from California's Wildfires 2008

June 10, 2009

A large number of wildfires, many of them triggered by powerful lightning storms on June 21, erupted around California over the next several weeks. At their peak, more than 2,000 fires were active, from northern California down to Santa Barbara County. Cumulatively the fires have burned nearly 1,480 square miles (more than 978,000 acres) and destroyed well over 100 homes in what officials have called the largest fire event in California history.

In this animation created with data retrieved by NASA's spaceborne instrument called the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder, or AIRS, on NASA's Aqua spacecraft, we visualize the rapid increases in carbon monoxide (CO) emitted by fires burning in California in June and July 2008. Only the largest values of CO detected by AIRS are shown to highlight the impact of the fires. AIRS primarily observes CO in a layer from 2 to 7 kilometers above Earth's surface. Thus, it tends to see where the wind blows the carbon monoxide and not just the smoke directly above the fires. However, many of these intense fires lofted a significant amount of carbon monoxide directly above the fires, making the hotspots also visible to AIRS.

For example, CO appears over a fire in Butte County on June 11-14, and over the Piute Fire in Kern County on June 23. The most intense CO plumes emanated from the fires in Northern California started by dry lightning on June 20 and 21. The activity of these fires flared again from July 8-10. AIRS can even see the large amount of CO from this smoke filling California's Central Valley during both of these episodes and lingering as seen on July 12.

Although the CO amounts seen by AIRS are not directly harmful, CO along with other chemicals in wildfire smoke can lead to the production of dangerous levels of ozone pollution. Smoke from these fires contributed to severe ozone and particulate pollution in portions of California's Central Valleys during June 22-29 and July 7-10.

The Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) in conjunction with the Advanced Microwave Sounding Unit (AMSU) sense emitted infrared and microwave radiation from the Earth to provide a three-dimensional look at Earth's weather and climate. Working in tandem, the two instruments can make simultaneous observations all the way down to the Earth's surface, even in the presence of heavy clouds. With more than 2,000 channels sensing different regions of the atmosphere, the system creates a global, 3-D map of atmospheric temperature and humidity, cloud amounts and heights, greenhouse gas concentrations, and many other atmospheric phenomena. The AIRS and AMSU fly onboard NASA's Aqua spacecraft and are managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, under contract to NASA. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

The AIRS Public Web site can be found at