The video is mesmerizing: As three whitish-gray geysers erupt eastward from the mountains of New Mexico, a brown sheet spills from the north like a splash on a beach.
What it represents is far more destructive.
The image, a time-lapse captured by a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellite, shows two devastating events occurring in the western United States. The first is an outbreak of wildfires in northern New Mexico that began last month and has intensified in the past two weeks, fueled by extreme drought and high winds. The second is a dust storm caused by violent winds in Colorado.
Both are examples of the type of natural disasters that are becoming more severe and frequent as a result of climate change.
Seven major fires were burning in New Mexico as of Tuesday, according to NASA’s Earth Observatory. The satellite image shows four of them. The westernmost is the Cerro Pelado fire, which covers about 27,000 acres near the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The furthest north is the Cooks Peak Fire, which covers about 59,000 acres near Taos. Just to the south are the Calf Canyon and Hermits Peak fires, which merged around April 22 into a massive 160,000-acre fire.
The total land burned in the satellite image is about 380 square miles, an area larger than Indianapolis. The Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire in particular has forced thousands to evacuate their homes, including in Las Vegas, NM, a city of 13,000 about an hour east of Santa Fe.
Wildfires are a natural part of Western ecosystems, but human activity has made them much worse. Drought is a major contributor. The past two decades have been the driest in 12 centuries in the American Southwest, largely due to climate change, and there is no sign that conditions will improve any time soon.
The other big factor is the wind, which is fueling all the fires in northern New Mexico right now. In fact, the Hermits Peak fire started out as a prescribed burn—that is, a fire started intentionally, under controlled conditions, to remove dry vegetation and reduce the risk of larger, uncontrolled fires—but gusty and unpredictable winds blew it out. of control.
Strong winds were also responsible for the second phenomenon visible in the image released by NOAA: the Colorado dust storm.
“Visibility is dropping to near zero and wind gusts are reaching 50 to 60 mph within this blowing dust,” the National Weather Service in Pueblo, Colorado said. he said on Twitter on Fridaywarning of extremely dangerous conditions for drivers.
Satellite images underscore how extensive the effects of such disasters can be. While “blackout” conditions were relatively localized during the dust storm, winds carried dust particles across hundreds of miles of southeastern Colorado, western Kansas, and the Oklahoma and Texas Panhandles.
Fine particles degrade air quality and pose health risks, particularly to people with underlying lung or heart disease. That goes for dust as well as smoke, soot, and other byproducts of wildfires.
Last summer, wildfires prompted air quality warnings across nearly the entire country and turned the sun red as far east as New York City. And researchers found in January that dangerous levels of smoke and ozone were rising across much of the western United States.