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Map Reveals That Wildfires Release As Much Energy As Nuclear Power Plants

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If we've learned anything from the Waldo Canyon fire in Colorado, it's that major wildfires are devastatingly powerful. They're so intense, in fact, that their energy output can actually be represented in terms of nuclear power plant output. Now, data visualization wizard John Nelson has done exactly that.

Nelson — who's made something of a name for himself in recent months for his jaw-dropping graphical depictions of natural disasters — created the map using data collected by NASA's Moderate-Resolution Imagine Spectroradiometer (or MODIS for short), which has been coursing around the planet in low Earth orbit since 1999. The Agency uses MODIS to capture images of Earth at a variety of wavelengths and spatial resolutions.

"One of the benefits of this is [MODIS's] ability to, with reasonable confidence, pinpoint the location and intensity of a 'thermal anomaly,' or fire," says Nelson. "So, armed with over a decade of these events, you can make a map of literal hot spots."


Each dot on this map [click here for very hi-res] corresponds to an area of extreme heat, picked up by MODIS at a resolution of about one square kilometer. "I only retained fires greater than 100KW and of those only fires that the system was more than 50% confident of," explains Nelson. "They've been colored and scaled by 'units' of the typical American nuclear power plant's summertime capacity [~1,000 Megawatts] to provide some sort of baseline of the fires' magnitude."


I asked Nelson if he had any intentions of visualizing fire incidence throughout the U.S. on a broader temporal scale, perhaps something similar to what he put together for tracking U.S. tornado incidence. He said that an animated version is definitely in the works, and that he's "really interested in seeing if there are any geographic patterns of migrations from year to year. Or just anything really weird."

So are we. Visualizations like these will be crucial in substantiating claims like those made by scientists Michael Oppenheimer and Steven Running in the aftermath of last month's wildfires in Colorado. In a conference call with reporters last month, Running and Oppenheimer described powerful and more frequent wildfires as a logical result of climate change.


"This is really a window into what global warming looks like," said Oppehnheimer. "It looks like heat. It looks like dryness. It looks like this kind of disaster."

Read more about this datavisualization on Nelson's blog.