NASA Images Show How Wildfire, Water Have Changed Western Landscapes

Apr 8, 2015

More than 7-million acres have burned in Idaho wildfires since 2004, and NASA satellites have captured how some of those fires have changed the regional landscape. 

In 2013, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell told congressional lawmakers that wildfires are burning, on average, twice as many acres each year compared to fires that burned 40 years ago. “The last two decades have seen fires that are extraordinary in their size, intensity and impacts,” he said.

In NASA's "Images of Change" gallery, you can see how fires, dams, mining activity, and a changing climate have impacted parts of the West.

2006 Crystal Fire

"Lightning ignited the Crystal Fire on August 15, 2006. It began 10 miles west of Aberdeen in southeast Idaho and spread northeast toward Atomic City, consuming about 220,000 acres before being fully contained on August 31. In the August 8 image, taken before the fire, dark blue represents barren areas, including ancient lava flows. Craters of the Moon National Monument is just off the image to the northwest. In the August 24 image, the Crystal Fire has spread to nearly its maximum extent, creating newly barren areas which also appear dark blue." - NASA

"Images taken by the Enhanced Thematic Mapper Plus sensor onboard Landsat 7. Source: U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Landsat Missions Gallery. "Crystal Fire, Atomic City, Idaho, USA."
Credit U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Landsat Missions Gallery. Crystal Fire, Atomic City, Idaho, USA. / U.S. Department of the Interior, USGS and NASA.

2012 Mustang Complex Fire

"The Mustang Complex Fire, sparked by a lightning strike on July 30, 2012, consumed more than 330,000 acres of the Salmon-Challis National Forest in northeastern Idaho. By the end of September, the U.S. Forest Service announced that the fire had been "significantly moderated" and that rehabilitation was beginning. Still, high winds and extreme drought continued to hamper the efforts of those working to extinguish the flames, and many homes were still threatened. The July image shows the area shortly before the fire began. The September image shows the forest when the fire was active." - NASA

"Images taken by the Enhanced Thematic Mapper Plus sensor onboard Landsat 7. Source: U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Landsat Missions Gallery, "Mustang Complex Fire."
Credit U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Landsat Missions Gallery, Mustang Complex Fire. / U.S. Department of the Interior / USGS and NASA.

1988 Yellowstone National Park Fire

"Yellowstone National Park. Left: October 1988. Center: September 1993. Right: August 2007. Lightning strikes in June 1988 sparked wildfires that continued until November, burning 36 percent of the park. The October 1988 image shows deep red scars, but recovery, aided by nutrients from the ash, started as soon as spring returned. Wildflowers were abundant by mid-year. Vegetation including grasses and shrubs are displayed as a rich green in the 1993 and 2007 images." - NASA

"Images taken by the Thematic Mapper sensor aboard Landsat 5."
Credit USGS Landsat Missions Gallery, U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey

Great Salt Lake Shrinkage

"Dramatic change in the area of the Great Salt Lake over the past 25 years. Left: August 1985. Right: September 2010. The lake was filled to near capacity in 1985 because feeder streams were charged with snowmelt and heavy rainfall. In contrast, the 2010 image shows the lake shriveled by drought. The Promontory Peninsula (protruding into the lake from the top) is surrounded by water on three sides in the first image, but is landlocked on its eastern side in the second. Similarly, Antelope Island was encircled by water in 1985, but was connected to marshy areas in 2010. Mosaics of four satellite images were used to illustrate the changes over the full lake area." - NASA

"Images taken by the Thematic Mapper sensor aboard Landsat 5. Source: USGS Landsat Missions Gallery, "Great Salt Lake—1985-2010."
Credit USGS Landsat Missions Gallery, Great Salt Lake—1985-2010 / U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey

Urban Growth In Nevada 1984-2007 

"Left: 1984. Right: 2007. These images show the increasing urban sprawl of Las Vegas, Nevada, and the shrinking of Lake Mead on the border of Nevada and Arizona. Rapid growth in Las Vegas has led to increased demand for water resources, while below-average rainfall has decreased the water levels in Lake Mead, which is the source of 90 percent of southern Nevada's water." - NASA

"Images taken by the Landsat-5 satellite."

2014 Oso, Washington Landslide 

"On March 22, 2014, a rainfall-triggered landslide near Oso, Washington, sent muddy debris spilling across the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River, engulfing numerous homes. At least 14 people died and 176 people remained missing as of March 25. The slide left an earthen dam that blocked the river, forming a barrier lake. As water backed up, the National Weather Service issued a flash flooding watch, which remained in effect for parts of Snohomish county as of March 25. According to Durham University geologist Dave Petley, the landslide was a reactivation of an earlier landslide that caused problems in 1988 and 2006." - NASA

"Images taken by the Operational Land Imager onboard Landsat 8."
Credit NASA Earth Observatory

Volcanic Activity, Mount St. Helens, Washington 

"Mount St. Helens in southeastern Washington state suffered a massive eruption in 1980. It destroyed homes, river channels and heavy forests—the most economically destructive such event in U.S. history. The left-hand image shows the region before the eruption, with snow on the southern slopes and heavy forests surrounding the volcano. In the center picture, lava and ash have engulfed much of the surrounding landscape. As seen in the right-hand image, the region largely recovered by 2011. Forests and grasslands have regrown and the lakes and rivers have been recharged. A small section on the northern slope of the volcano is still dominated by ash, preventing extensive vegetation growth." - NASA

"Images taken by the Multispectral Scanner sensors onboard Landsat 1 and 2, and by the Thematic Mapper sensor onboard Landsat 5."
Credit U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Landsat Missions Gallery, "Mount St. Helens," U.S. Department of the Interior, USGS and NASA

Dam Impact, Washington State

"The Elwha and Glines Canyon dams were built in the 1920s to provide hydroelectric power. But the machinery became outdated over the decades and the reservoirs grew heavily silted. Further, the dams prevented salmon from reaching upstream habitat. The Elwha dam was removed in early 2012 and these images show the results in the Elwha River basin of the Washington State Olympic Peninsula. In the 2012 image, the reservoir behind the dam is gone, the exposed silt deposits are gradually diminishing, and natural river flow is returning. The Glines Canyon dam is scheduled for removal by late 2013." - NASA

"Images taken by the Thematic Mapper sensor onboard Landsat 5 and the Enhanced Thematic Mapper Plus onboard Landsat 7."
Credit U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Landsat Missions Gallery, "Elwha River restoration," U.S. Department of the Interior, USGS and NASA

Oil-Sands Mining Growth, Canada

"Open pit mines near Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada. Left: September 22, 2000. Right: July 31, 2007. The oil sands from these mines provide refinery-ready raw crude oil and diesel fuel." - NASA

"Image taken by NASA's Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER)."
Credit NASA and the US/Japan ASTER Science Team

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