Scientists at NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) were investigating the effects of the Williams Flats wildfires in Washington when they noticed ‘fire clouds’. The Williams Flats wildfires have now spread across 44,000 acres across Washington State, but they have offered NASA a unique perspective. This is because fire clouds began to form over North America.
Fire clouds – properly known in scientific quarters as pyrocumulonimbus (pyroCb) or sometimes cumulonimbus flammagenitus – form when fires on the ground lift enough heat into the atmosphere.
The heat then take the form of smoke-filled thunderclouds which sit on top of the fire’s plumes on the ground.
Despite looking beautiful as they create an orange haze atop of normal clouds which is created when smoke reflects the Sun’s light, they can be harmful.
Thunderstorms can create more wildfires, triggering a vicious cycle, while NASA said fire clouds can also act as a chimney, funnelling smoke into the lower atmosphere.
The space agency’s experts believe the impact on the environment is similar to that of an erupting volcano.
David Peterson, lead forecaster for FIREX-AQ, was in the cockpit of NASA’s DC-8 – otherwise known as its flying laboratory – when it flew through the clouds, said: “PyroCb are like large chimneys, transporting a large quantity of smoke into the lower stratosphere.”
When smoke reaches the stratosphere, they can stay there for months, and according to NASA “can even lift quantities of smoke aerosols into the lower stratosphere that are comparable to a moderate-sized volcanic eruption.”
The space agency added: “The flight was the most detailed sampling of a pyrocumulonimbus in history.
“A second research aircraft flew over the plume a few hours earlier in the day, and mobile labs on the ground also made detailed measurements.”
However, despite their powerful nature, scientists were mesmerised by their appearance.
Mr Peterson said: “The views were absolutely stunning. Very few photographs of large pyroCbs are available, especially from the air.”
Joshua Schwarz, a scientist with the NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado, co-author of the research, said: “It’s extremely exciting to have the chance to improve our understanding of how these clouds transport material into the atmosphere, where it can survive for a long time.
“We’re also gathering information about how fires spread, where a fire will go next and how to fight it.
“We’re trying to make life better for firefighters and people who suffer from bad air quality.”