Environment Smoke of genius

Smoke of genius

Skies shrouded in smoke: for many of us it’s the defining image of last summer.

However, unpleasant as it may be to live with, smoke haze is an even bigger problem for those fighting bushfires like those which ravaged so much of Australia in the summer of 2019-20.

Now researchers at Monash University and The Australian National University have found a way to penetrate the gloom.

They’re using satellite mapping to provide an unprecedented level of detail about moisture content, vegetation structure and fuel load, together with information about the severity of damage in areas that have already burnt.

All in real time.

Aside from the hazards smoke haze creates on the ground, it also makes a broader fire-front more difficult to track and predict, reducing the ability of commanders to plan ahead and commit resources where they will be most effective.

Modern fire-fighting services have a range of high-tech tools at their disposal to overcome this, including satellite imaging.

However, current techniques for producing so-called Normalised Burn Ratio (NBR) maps rely on data from the near-infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, close to the red end of visible light.

Unfortunately, this method requires smoke and cloud-free conditions to produce a useful image: not much use during an actual bushfire, in other words.

So the team created a tool that provides NBR information from another part of the spectrum that is not affected by smoke or cloud.

Researcher Christoph Rudigar said the tool uses data provided free of charge from the Landsat and Sentinel-2 satellites, operated by NASA and the European Space Agency.

“Since our tool is essentially a vegetation condition index, we can also use it to track regrowth and recovery of trees and plants following a fire, and offer operational agencies new capabilities in deciding where best to plan and undertake preventative burn-offs in areas of highest need, more efficiently and effectively than before.

“With the capacity to observe the overall progression of the fire front, critical fire-spread models can be validated, and we can recommend and support other predictive and preventative tasks during active fires,” he said.

“Since our tool is essentially a vegetation condition index, we can also use it to track regrowth and recovery of trees and plants following a fire, and offer operational agencies new capabilities in deciding where best to plan and undertake preventative burn-offs in areas of highest need, more efficiently and effectively than before.”

Australian university researchers are there for us in times of crisis. To show your support for them, please sign the petition below.