That headline isn’t some sci-fi writing prompt: NASA recently observed a true fire cloud. An image of the odd meteorological phenomenon was shared by NASA after a pilot reportedly flew into it 30,000 feet over Eastern Washington. So, what, exactly, is a fire cloud, and how do they form? Let’s take a closer look.
Fire Cloud Observed Over Washington
Fire clouds, also known as pyrocumulonimbus, are rare and aren’t often sighted on our planet. They form when a wildfire is raging and the heat and moisture from the blaze rise higher into the atmosphere. These smoke-and-heat filled clouds are very similar to thunderclouds, and they are typically spotted sitting high over the blazes of a raging wildfire.
Fire clouds are typically filled with soot and ash, and they can pose a serious threat to air quality by depositing this debris all over the region they hang over.
On August 9th, a NASA scientist named David Peterson snapped some stunning images from a research plane. In the images Peterson captured, one can see how the smoke billowing about the cloud makes it both ominous and beautiful at once.
This particular cloud over Washington was formed due to the William Flats wildfire that began on August 2nd. The wildfire that spawned the cloud was caused by a lightning strike that caused dry brush and short grass to catch fire and begin spreading at a brisk pace. The blaze has burned over 45,000 acres of land.
Fire Cloud Dangers
Fire clouds might be pretty, but they’re as dangerous and disruptive as their names would imply. Since they are caused by rising smoke and heat, they’re full of soot and ash from the blazes that spawn them. These clouds act as “chimneys” of sorts, ejecting debris from the blaze into the lower stratosphere.
The amount of ash and soot that falls from the clouds is comparable to the debris from a volcanic eruption. Much like the aforementioned eruption fallout, fire clouds can play havoc on the air quality of regions they hover over.