Shocking satellite images have revealed the extent of wildfire damage as a heatwave swept through western Europe this week.
The images were taken by the European Space Agency’s Copernicus Sentinel-3, a satellite that orbits 814.5 km above the Earth’s surface to measure the oceans, land, ice and atmosphere of our planet.
Photos taken in the south of Gironde in France on July 12 and 17 show smoke and patches of scorched earth, highlighting the extent of the damage caused by forest fires due to the heat wave.
ESA has also released a heat map showing land surface temperatures in southern France, Spain and North Africa on the morning of July 17.
“In some places, the surface of the earth has reached 55°C [131°F]’, explains the European Space Agency.
“Since Copernicus Sentinel-3 acquired this data in the morning, the temperature would have increased throughout the afternoon.”
In other side-by-side images taken on July 12 and 17, the burn scar and active hotspots can be seen near La Teste-de Buch, where wildfires reached the beach.
In one image, the land surface temperature in southern France, Spain and North Africa can be seen on the morning of July 17. In the land surface temperature image, the areas shown in dark red have a land surface temperature of up to 55°C [131°F]
Why are wildfires worse during a heat wave?
Heat waves dry up the fuel a wildfire needs to start and spread.
Dry conditions mean that woods, shrubs and other plants are “tinder-dry”, that is, extremely dry and flammable, like the tinder that is needed to start a fire.
In more rural areas, overgrown forests and thick vegetation can fuel a fire and spiral out of control.
The weather can also make the fire worse in other ways – for example, winds can create “fire whirlwinds”, fast and dangerous wildfires like tornadoes that spread easily.
Air temperature is the measurement used for our daily weather forecasts, and is a measure of the heat of the air above the ground.
However, the ground surface temperature is a measure of how hot the actual ground surface would feel to the touch.
“Scientists monitor the temperature of the Earth’s surface because heat from the Earth’s surface influences weather and climate patterns,” ESA explained.
“These measurements are also particularly important for farmers assessing how much water their crops need and for city planners looking to improve heat mitigation strategies, for example.”
In the land surface temperature image, the areas shown in dark red have a land surface temperature of up to 55°C [131°F].
In a series of satellite images taken on July 12 and 17, the scars left by forest fires can be seen around the commune of Guillos and near the town of Cazaux in southwestern France.
“On July 12, 2022, two major forest fires broke out in southwestern France,” the ESA explained.
“The wildfires have heavily affected local communities: more than 16,000 people have been evacuated in total and road closures have been put in place.
“Despite the scale of the fires, no casualties were reported.”
On a set of satellite images taken on July 12 and 17, we can see the scars left by the forest fires around the commune of Guillos and near the town of Cazaux
The Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellite carries an innovative broadband high-resolution multispectral imager with 13 spectral bands.
This offers a new perspective of our land and our vegetation, according to ESA, with its shortwave infrared channel used to highlight the heat of the wildfire.
In other side-by-side images taken on July 12 and 17, the burn scar and active hotspots can be seen near La Teste-de Buch in southwestern France, where wildfires have reached the beach.
“The Copernicus emergency management service has been activated to respond to many of the fires currently raging in Europe, including those affecting Gironde,” explained ESA.
“The service leverages observations from multiple satellites to provide on-demand mapping to assist civil protection authorities and the international humanitarian community in the face of major emergencies.”
An image taken by Copernicus Sentinel-2 on July 18 shows the cloud of smoke and active flames from the Losacio fire as well as the burn scar from that of the Sierra de la Culebra
Besides France, Spain and the UK also experienced severe wildfires amid the heatwave.
On July 17, a fire broke out near Losacio in the province of Zamora in the Spanish autonomous region of Castile and Leon.
An image taken by Copernicus Sentinel-2 on July 18 shows the cloud of smoke and active flames from the Losacio fire and the burn scar from the Sierra de la Culebra fire.
Heat warnings are still in effect in many parts of Europe, while drought warnings are also in place across half of the European Union bloc.
“As the effects of climate change increase, the fear is that these kinds of extreme weather events will also increase,” the ESA concluded.
“Satellites orbiting the planet play an important role in providing data to understand and monitor our changing world – data that is essential for mitigation strategies and policy-making.”
WHAT IS THE EUROPEAN SPACE AGENCY’S SENTINEL 3 SATELLITE AND WHAT DOES IT DO?
Sentinel 3 is above all an ocean study mission, developed by the European Space Agency (ESA) as part of its Copernicus program. However, it is also capable of providing data on the atmosphere and land masses.
Sentinel 3A was launched on February 16, 2016, with a twin, Sentinel 3B, arriving in orbit on April 25, ESA’s seventh Sentinel Earth observation satellite.
The two satellites orbit 815 km above the Earth, on opposite sides of the planet.
The multi-billion Copernicus program aims to help predict weather events such as El Nino and track the progress of global warming.
Sentinel 3 (shown in video footage) is primarily an ocean survey mission, developed by the European Space Agency as part of its Copernicus programme. However, it is also capable of providing data on the atmosphere and land masses
Their data could also help shipping companies plot more efficient routes and could be used to monitor forest fires, water pollution and oil spills.
The Copernicus project is described by ESA as the most ambitious Earth observation program to date. The European Union and ESA have committed more than eight billion euros (£7.12bn/$9.8bn) in funding there until 2020.
The launch of the Copernicus project has become particularly urgent after Europe lost contact with its Earth observation satellite Envisat in 2012 after 10 years.
Sentinel-3 uses several detection instruments to achieve its objectives. These are: Sea and Land Surface Temperature Radiometer (SLSTR), Ocean and Land Color Instrument (OLCI), SAR Altimeter (SRAL), Satellite Integrated Doppler Orbitography and Radiopositioning (DORIS) and a microwave radiometer (MWR).