ESA satellites capture Europe’s wildfires

ESA satellites capture Europe's wildfires

Fires in Southern Europe: Tracking and Managing Blazes with Satellite Data

In recent weeks, devastating wildfires have swept across several countries in Southern Europe, including Greece, Italy, Spain, and Portugal. These fires have caused multiple fatalities, the displacement of thousands of people, and widespread damage to infrastructure. The scale of the destruction is alarming, with more than 260,000 hectares of land across the EU already burnt since January alone – an area equivalent to the size of Luxembourg1.

Amidst this crisis, technology has emerged as a vital tool in combating these wildfires. The European Space Agency (ESA) has released an upgraded version of its World Fire Atlas, harnessing satellite data to track the spread of the blazes2. This innovative platform allows users to compare the frequency of fires between countries and analyze the evolving patterns of fires over time, providing crucial insights for fire prevention and management strategies3.

The World Fire Atlas: A Powerful Dashboard

Launched in 2019, the World Fire Atlas initially supported European civil protection agencies and firefighters in their battle against wildfires4. The recent upgrade utilizes night-time data from the Copernicus Sentinel-3A satellite’s Sea and Land Surface Temperature Radiometer, which functions like a “thermometer in the sky” to measure the thermal infrared radiation emitted by Earth’s land surfaces5. This data is then used to detect fires and monitor their progression6.

The World Fire Atlas dashboard enables users to visualize the cumulative monthly fire occurrence over the past seven years in countries such as Spain, France, Italy, Greece, and Portugal7. A striking image accompanying the dashboard reveals the significant number of fires detected in these regions during this period8:

Cumulative monthly fire occurrence

According to the data, Portugal experienced the highest number of fires during the past seven years, particularly in August 2016 and October 20179. These findings shed light on the urgency of addressing fire prevention measures, considering the increasing frequency and spread of wildfires.

Climate Change and the Rising Threat of Wildfires

While wildfires have always been a natural occurrence, scientists warn that climate change is exacerbating their frequency and severity10. Hotter and drier conditions resulting from climate change create a more conducive environment for fires to ignite and spread in many parts of Europe11. This makes it imperative to leverage technology to mitigate the risks associated with wildfires.

The Copernicus Rapid Mapping Service: Aid in Emergency Response

In July, the Greek island of Rhodes faced a massive blaze that ravaged approximately 50,000 hectares, causing the forced evacuation of nearly 20,000 people12. During this catastrophe, the Copernicus rapid mapping service played a crucial role by providing geospatial information to support authorities and assist firefighters in combating the fire13. The activation of this service demonstrates its effectiveness in emergency response and highlights the importance of satellite data in managing wildfires.

Ongoing blaze on Rhodes island

Leveraging Space Technology for Environmental Challenges

The European Space Agency, in collaboration with Copernicus and the European Union, continues to demonstrate its commitment to providing valuable resources like the World Fire Atlas14. Olivier Arino, head of the ESA’s Earth Observation Projects Section, emphasized the instrumental role of space technology in addressing critical environmental challenges15.

By leveraging satellite data, authorities, researchers, and organizations can gain comprehensive insights into fire occurrence, propagation patterns, and potential preventive measures. The World Fire Atlas serves as a powerful tool in the ongoing battle against wildfires, supporting efforts to safeguard lives, preserve ecosystems, and protect infrastructure.

In conclusion, the increasing threat of wildfires requires innovative solutions to track and manage blazes. The European Space Agency’s upgraded World Fire Atlas, utilizing satellite data, provides a valuable resource for understanding fire occurrence and guiding fire prevention and management strategies. Combined with services like the Copernicus rapid mapping service, these advancements in technology empower authorities, researchers, and organizations to address the critical environmental challenges posed by wildfires.


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