Hot stuff – ESA's World fire atlas

Burning peat swamps in Kalimantan, Borneo

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If you were an alien flying past the Earth at night, you would see a planet sparkling with city lights. But you would also see something more disturbing – thousands of forest fires, some covering huge areas.

Since 1995, ESA satellites have been carrying out an orbital survey of the blazes scorching the Earth’s surface. Now ESA is making available online the World Fire Atlas – the first multi-year, global fire atlas ever developed.

The Atlas is based on results from twin sensors on ESA’s Earth-orbiting ERS-2 and Envisat spacecraft. These sensors are like thermometers in the sky, measuring infrared radiation (heat) from the planet's surface. They are best at detecting fires at night, when the land is cooler. Fire maps based on their data are available in near real time – only six hours after a region has been scanned by the satellites.

Global detection of hot spots in 2005

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Each year of the Fire Atlas involves the processing of 80,000 satellite images. The result is highly detailed maps that show all hot spots (including gas flares) with a temperature higher than 39ºC. The atlas also includes the time, date, and precise position of the hot spots.

Why is such an atlas important? 130,000 square km of forest (equal to 13 million football pitches) are burnt each year, mainly in South America and Africa. Not only do these fires destroy ancient forests full of valuable plants and wildlife, but they are a major cause of global air pollution. Billions of tonnes of smoke and greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, are added to the atmosphere.

Last modified 18 October 2012

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