NASA’s Space Station Data Can Help Predict Serious Wildfires

According to the Congressional Research Service, wildfires have burned an average of 7 million acres annually since the year 2000. And while anything from a stray match to a lightning strike can cause them, the severity and outcome of these wildfires vary. But there may be a new tool in play that can lend assistance to wildfire research. According to NASA, an instrument being used at the International Space Station is taking on a new role in assessing when a wildfire is at greater risk of severity. It’s an instrument called ECOSTRESS, and a recent study using the tool demonstrated that there are certain conditions that can serve as predictors of whether one wildfire might be more severe than another — even if they take place in similar geographical regions. ECOSTRESS is derived from the phrase “ECOsystem and Spaceborne Thermal Radiometer Experiment on Space Station.” The device is being used to measure thermal distress in plants, or rather, how they heat up as they run out of water. Plants rely on a process called “evapotranspiration” to regulate their temperature; a plant’s form of sweating. According to NASA’s recent press release, plants cease to utilize this method when they get too dry as a way of avoiding water loss. Once this happens, the plants heat up. A high-resolution thermal radiometer tracks this phenomenon on patches of Earth as small as 130 by 230 feet, giving scientists a highly targeted clue as to where this evapotranspiration is, and isn’t, happening. 

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