Whenever there’s a major news event, there will be an outbreak of fake, misattributed or misleading images that purport to be about that event. That goes for maps as well.
Take the serious situation with Australia’s bushfires at the moment. Social media is jammed with maps showing practically the whole damn continent on fire, or superimposed on another continent to let people there know just how big Australia is (and also on fire). It’s a profoundly serious situation, and as NASA’s Joshua Stevens points out, it’s possible to present an accurate map that shows its seriousness without resorting to hyperbole.
The trouble is, social media thrives on hyperbole, because it thrives on “engagement”—which means outrage and anger and, as Joshua Emmons notes, as we get inured to a certain level of outrage, even more outrage is needed just to get noticed.
Which brings me to this thing, which is showing up all over the social web:
The New York Times maps ongoing wildfires in California—and the state of things is that I have to specify which: in 2019; the Easy, Getty and Kincade fires in Ventura, Los Angeles and Sonoma counties, respectively. The page also maps where PG&E engaged in preventative power outages to inhibit the spread of fires.
Other raw data sources include the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS), fire activity data from which can be viewed here; and MODIS data from NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites. For a live feed of MODIS data on the Amazon fires, see the MODIS Wildfire Dashboard.
Meanwhile, NASA’s Earth Observatory posted MODIS imagery of several Amazon fires, and had this curious statement that seemed to minimize the scale of the problem: “As of August 16, 2019, an analysis of NASA satellite data indicated that total fire activity across the Amazon basin this year has been close to the average in comparison to the past 15 years. […] Though activity appears to be above average in the states of Amazonas and Rondônia, it has so far appeared below average in Mato Grosso and Pará, according to estimates from the Global Fire Emissions Database, a research project that compiles and analyzes NASA data.”
A subsequent NASA Earth Observatory post seems to contradict the one I mentioned earlier, pointing to “a noticeable increase in large, intense, and persistent fires burning along major roads in the central Brazilian Amazon” which “are more consistent with land clearing than with regional drought” and noted fire detections “higher across the Brazilian Amazon” since 2010.
Contextualizing the amount of fires seems to be a recurring theme in the reporting: the number of fires are up sharply over last year, but close to the average when taking a longer view. It’s helped a lot of bad and insincere actors make it harder to get to the heart of what’s going on over there. They can’t, after all, deny the satellite imagery or the remote sensing: we can see the fires. We can detect the emissions of smoke, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide (1, 2, 3). We can map them. And those maps can help us understand what’s going on.
On the NGO front, InfoAmazonia has produced the above map comparing fires over the last 24 hours with historical fire data. (They have other maps on this subject as well.)
The Washington Post maps disasters in the United States, with a page that shows maps of flood warnings, tornadoes and hurricanes, extreme heat and cold (see above), wildfires, lightning, and earthquakes and volcanoes. In the wake of a natural disaster there’s usually someone suggesting that the victims are at fault for living in a disaster zone. The WaPost’s maps have an answer to that: “It turns out there is nowhere in the United States that is particularly insulated from everything.”
The San Francisco Chronicle’s 2018 California Fire Tracker is an interactive map of ongoing and contained wildfires—notably, at this moment, the Camp and Woolsey fires. It includes fire perimeter and air quality data. (Note: it’s glitchy on desktop Safari.)
Smoke from the British Columbia wildfires (previously) has blanketed the Canadian prairie provinces and can be seen from space, CBC News reports. The above image was taken by the Suomi NPP satellite on 15 August.
Carbon monoxide released into the atmosphere by the California wildfires is drifting across North America in concentrations sufficient to turn up on the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite. A series of maps showing CO concentrations in the United States between 30 July and 7 August, using AIRS data, have been combined into the animation above.
British Columbia isn’t having a very good year either, forest fire wise. For maps of the wildfires burning in the province, see the B.C. Wildfire Service’s interactive map, which shows active wildfires, fire perimeters, and evacuation areas. Evacuation maps are frequently tweeted by Emergency Info BC. Data journalist Tara Carman has posted maps of wildfires and evacuation zones, but they haven’t been updated in a couple of weeks and are now out of date, I fear.
The highest and lowest ranked causes are highlighted when the chart loads. These represent the cumulative ranking across all years. Lightning, a natural cause, often floats to the top, but that’s only because on the human side, the vote is split between more than twenty options. Lightning doesn’t predominate in all states, though. In Alabama, the number one cause is pyromania. In Indiana, it’s brakeshoes. In Minnesota, it’s field burning. There are a couple of overall trends, too. Smoking is going down as a cause, and powerlines are going up.