15 November 2019
By Adam Vaughan
Smoke particles from bushfires in Australia have reached South America, in a striking illustration of the intensity of the unprecedented blazes.
Satellites show atmospheric pollution created by the fires across New South Wales and Queensland has travelled more than 10,000 kilometres to Chile and Argentina. Researchers at the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) in Reading, UK, found a plume of carbon monoxide and aerosols trailing across the Pacific Ocean to South America.
More pollution will follow, judging from the situation in Australia, says Mark Parrington at ECMWF. “From satellite imagery there’s still thick smoke coming out of New South Wales, so more will be being pumped out, meaning a train of pollution going across the south Pacific, following the jet stream,” he says.
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While it is relatively unusual for pollution to travel so far, studies have shown Australia’s deadly 2009 “Black Saturday” fires released materials that travelled a similar distance. Only trace amounts of Australian pollution hitting South America have been recorded today by satellites, with Parrington reporting carbon monoxide levels of 80 to 100 parts per billion. Anything above 110ppb is considered polluted air.
However, it is unlikely the pollution will affect local air quality in South America – which has experienced its own serious forest fires this year – since the material is around 5 kilometres up in the atmosphere and likely to stay there. Still, says Parrington: “If the air comes down and reaches the surface it could add an extra bit on top of local air quality issues.”
Instead, the significance of the pollution reaching so far is what it tells us about the power of the fires in Australia. “It’s reflecting the sheer intensity of the fires, particularly in New South Wales,” says Parrington.
Australian fire chiefs have warned that with little rainfall expected imminently, the fires could continue for weeks. More than 1 million hectares has already burned in New South Wales.
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