Sep. 8, 1999 As wildfires ravage the dry California landscape, scientists at the University of Hawai'i have created a new tool to help keep tabs on fires and identify a blaze within minutes of the time it starts, even in extremely remote regions.
The alarm system, developed by Hawai'i Institute of Geophysics and Planetology remote sensing scientists Luke Flynn, Andrew Harris, Eric Pilger, and colleagues, works by using satellite sensors that pick up heat coming from fires on the ground- 22 thousand miles below. Within 15 minutes, the location of a fire shows up in a map on the Internet, and the extent of the blaze is continually updated.
"We hope that this will be a great benefit to the U.S. forest service during the fire season," said Flynn, who has used the system to monitor burning in the Amazon for the past two years.
Last summer, Flynn tested the University of Hawai'i computer system in Southern California, using the satellite system to monitor Los Angeles fires. "There are a number of fires around Los Angeles each season because of the dry conditions and the Santa Ana winds, so that's where we started looking." The system worked well, and this July, Flynn turned his attention to the entire West Coast to monitor fires in all of California, Oregon, and Washington.
The researchers use Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES) operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the same satellites that meteorologists use to track weather. GOES's orbit follows the Earth's rotation, continually monitoring the same region on the Earth. Sensors aboard GOES pick up heat radiating from the Earth's surface, and when a hot spot suddenly shows up in a forested area, the computer fire alarm goes off.
"A great advantage of GOES," said Flynn, "is that it gets data from the same part of the Earth's surface every 15 minutes. But the real advantage is that the data gets out very quickly. Because of the specially developed computer program, you can tell immediately when a fire starts."
Using the same technology and computer software, in May 1998, Flynn and his team were able to see signs of an impending volcanic eruption from space for the first time. Seven days before the eruption, the Guatemalan volcano Pacaya started to heat up-the team saw it coming.
The University of Hawai'i system now monitors 16 active fire and volcano "hot spots" scattered around the Western Hemisphere, but soon will be used to monitor volcanoes and fires around the globe, said Flynn. In addition to the Hawaiian volcanoes Kilauea and Mauna Loa, the University of Hawai'i computer monitors volcanoes in Montserrat, Northern Chile, Guatemala, Central and Western Mexico, and the Galapagos. The University of Hawai'i system has been used to monitor fire seasons in Florida and continually monitors a section of the Amazon Brazilian rainforest where there is on-going burning due to deforestation.
Because of the success of the information system, several local South and Central American authorities are on direct alert from the University of Hawai'i computer. "We email the local authorities using an automated alert if there are signs of volcanoes heating up. That way, an official statement may be made through hazard agencies," said Flynn, who hopes to implement the same system for volcanoes around the globe.
Flynn said that the GOES data need careful interpretation because sometimes GOES sees features that are not related to volcanoes or fires, such as clouds or areas of Sun-heated ground. His team does not issue hazard statements, but rather offers a tool to assist hazard agencies.
The University of Hawai'i computer system was designed for an instrument which will be onboard NASA's Terra satellite, a comprehensive Earth monitoring satellite to be launched this fall. Continually updated fire and volcano information is available at: http://volcano1.pgd.hawaii.edu/goes/index.shtml
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