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Starts With A Bang

NASA Images Show A Record Recovery From History’s Worst National Park Wildfire

Some wildfires will always be unavoidable. But nature, thankfully, recovers relatively quickly.

The past few years have brought some devastating wildfires to large parts of the American west.

A wildfire as seen from near Stevenson Wash., across the Columbia River, burning in the Columbia River Gorge above the Bonneville Dam near Cascade Locks, Oregon. Although this type of disaster can have devastating effects, the ash produced is easily cleaned up and washed away, and forests will recover, naturally, in time. (TRISTAN FORTSCH/KATU-TV VIA AP)

But 30 years after Yellowstone’s most destructive fire ever, a record recovery shows how the land responds.

Lodgepole pine forests are an iconic site in Yellowstone National Park. The great fires of 1988 destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres that were previously forested with these trees. (BOZEMAN DAILY CHRONICLE / FILE PHOTO)

In 1988, 36% of the land in Yellowstone National Park — 793,880 acres — burned in one giant conflagration.

Fire crews attempt to water down buildings as fire quickly approaches the Old Faithful complex during the 1988 Yellowstone fires, the fire is “crowning”, racing along the tree tops and spreading rapidly. Thousands of firefighters were able to prevent the destruction of most of the developed property in the park, limiting damage to just $3 million and preventing all loss of human life within the park. (JEFF HENRY / NATIONAL PARK SERVICE)

A combination of lightning strikes, human-caused fires, and parched conditions created the out-of-control blaze.

Lightning strikes and human activity are the two main causes of wildfires on Earth, which routinely spread to burn thousands of acres every fire season. From space, conditions and fires can be monitored in a far superior fashion to anything we can do terrestrially.(NATIONAL WILDFIRE COORDINATING GROUP)

By time the cool, wet weather arrived in late autumn, tens of millions of trees were destroyed, along with innumerable plants.

Ground fires, like this one outside Grant Village in the 1988 Yellowstone Fire, can climb trees and become crown fires, which spread more quickly and can easily destroy entire forest ecosystems. (JEFF HENRY / NATIONAL PARK SERVICE)

41% of the burned area experienced crown fires, obliterating the forests there.

In the immediate aftermath of the fires, regrowth of the most resilient species, like grasses, began almost instantaneously. This photo from August of 1988 shows the first stages of post-fire regrowth. (NPS PHOTO)

Yet natural regrowth and regeneration began immediately.

Just a year after burning, wildflowers littered the burned forest landscape, one of the first major steps in the regrowth and regeneration of this ecosystem. This photo was taken in Yellowstone in 1989. (JIM PEACO / NPS)

Progress is continuously monitored from space.

The joint NASA-USGS Landsat satellites have provided continuous coverage and monitoring of Earth’s surface from space since 1972. The Landsat program’s images have all been free for public use since the Bush administration, but a proposal earlier this year would charge for use of this critical data. (NASA)

As imaged in false color by USGS-NASA Landsat satellites, burn scars (dark red) peaked in 1988/1989.

In the aftermath of the great fires of 1988, which burned 36% (nearly 800,000 acres) of the interior of Yellowstone National Park, the burn scars reached their peak. (NASA EARTH OBSERVATORY / ROBERT SIMMON / LANDSAT DATA BY USGS)

New vegetation thrives, but recovery remains ongoing.

By 2011, the recovery had progressed so thoroughly that over 80% of the once-burned land appeared indistinguishably green from its pre-burned state in 1988. The video below shows even further progress, minus some natural fires that have created new scars. (NASA EARTH OBSERVATORY / ROBERT SIMMON / LANDSAT DATA BY USGS)

Natural fires, unlike controlled burns, reach intensities required for proper regeneration of tree and plant communities.

New fires emerge multiple times a year in Yellowstone and other parks/forests throughout the American west. The 2013 Druid Complex fires in Yellowstone destroyed a fair bit of acreage, but were carefully monitored and well-managed, and did not become catastrophic. (NPS PHOTO BY MIKE LEWELLING)

Modern fire monitoring, through aerial and space-based reconnaissance, can determine a fire’s origin immediately.

Fires can be captured from a number of Earth-orbiting observatories in incredible detail, such as this photograph of a natural wildfire in Yellowstone in 2009 taken from the International Space Station. (NASA / ISS)

A swift response, allowing fires to burn or controlling/extinguishing them, is essential in forest management.

As seen in true color from Landsat data in 2013, Yellowstone has largely and dramatically recovered from the catastrophe of 1988. This should give hope to those afflicted by recent wildfires over the past few years; left to its own devices, the land can recover quite quickly and thoroughly. (NASA EARTH OBSERVATORY IMAGES BY JOSHUA STEVENS / NPS)

Removing dead and hazardous fuels from forest floors and priority areas is the greatest (but underfunded) fire management preventative measure.

Mostly Mute Monday tells the scientific story of a space-related phenomenon in visuals, images, and no more than 200 words of text. Talk less; smile more.

Ethan Siegel is the author of Beyond the Galaxy and Treknology. You can pre-order his third book, currently in development: the Encyclopaedia Cosmologica.


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