Fires in the Amazon (author: Gigi Pavur)


Figure 1: MODIS aboard the Aqua satellite captures smoke plumes in imagery from August 13, 2019. Source: NASA Earth Observatory (

Satellite and radar technologies provide a unique and valuable perspective for detecting and monitoring fire events. A satellite-based instrument known as MODIS has captured the abnormal fire activity in the Amazon this month. According to the NASA Earth Observatory, this region is on track to mark 2019 as a record high year for fire activity in the Amazon. By leveraging satellite data in combination with meteorological data, it is possible to better understand, monitor, and evaluate this hot topic.


Located in the tropics and near the equator, the Amazon experiences year-round rainfall events due to the low pressure environment and convergence. A recent GFS model run for South America on 27 August, 2019 shows how the Amazon experiences high 850 hPa Air Temperature readings during this time of year. Cold air from the arctic doesn’t penetrate this central, equatorial region, which allows the area to remain warm and rainy. However, July and August are considered to be the “dry season,” which unfortunately coincides with habitual land clearing practices via burning that have likely initiated the intense fire activity.

Figure 2: GFS 850 hPa air temperature data for South America on 27 August, 2019. Source: Tropical Tidbits (


The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS), an instrument aboard two polar-orbiting satellites called Terra and Aqua, captured the positive fire detections displayed in orange in the image below. Each orange dot represents a square kilometer area with at least one detected thermal anomaly. This data is overlaid on top of the nighttime VIIRS imagery, acquired via a satellite called the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP). The nighttime VIIRS imagery, which highlights cities and populated regions, can be used in combination with the MODIS data to better identify Amazonian communities at risk.

Figure 3:VIIRS Imagery overlaid with MODIS fire detections in South America. Source: NASA Earth Observatory (