Australia has been battling scorching bushfires across the continent which have killed at least ten people, including a volunteer firefighter, since September. More than 12 million acres scorched and perished nationwide, it seems that the horror story is not over yet.
According to the Bureau of Meteorology, the wildfires are causing giant thunderstorms that could spark more fires. The bushfires are growing so strong and so massive that they are creating their own thunderstorms, causing a rare and dangerous weather phenomenon. These formations are called “pyrocumulonimbus” clouds and defined as “the fire-breathing clouds” by NASA. And they breathe fire indeed.
Pyro-cumulonimbus clouds have developed to altitudes over 16km in East #Gippsland this afternoon. These fire-induced storms can spread fires through lightning, lofting of embers and generation of severe wind outflows #VicWeather #VicFires pic.twitter.com/gZN6sC7meU— Bureau of Meteorology, Victoria (@BOM_Vic) December 30, 2019
The satellite footage provided by the Japan Meteorological Agency shows the intense smoke generating atmospheric clouds.
What is a pyrocumulonimbus thunderstorm?
Similar to regular thunderstorms, a pyrocumulonimbus thunderstorm is created through rapidly rising air caused by the air column heating. The smoke condenses into dangerous storm clouds because of the amount of heat and moisture. This brings embers falling down from the sky instead of water drops.
Formation of these clouds happens when an updraft generated by the fire's heat sucks smoke, water, and ash up into the sky. The higher this plume goes, the cooler it gets. As a result, it forms a "fire cloud" that looks and behaves like the ones that cause regular thunderstorms.
These pyrocumulonimbus thunderstorms produce lightning frequently. This results in a bigger problem: as the storm sweeps across the land, the bolts of electricity can ignite new conflagrations and spread the wildfires irremediably.
To give you an idea of the potential harm these storms store, let's just say that their plumes are so strong that they can shoot smoke into the stratosphere. This means that the plumes can reach 6 to 30 miles above the Earth’s surface.
You can watch one in action from this video.
Is it possible to fight them?
The scary thing is, they are basically unstoppable. When faced with one, the smart thing would be to not get in the way.
There is only so little emergency crews can do. Depriving the fire of fuel and waiting for it to die down might be the only viable option.
Are they becoming more common?
Once a fairly rare event, pyrocumulonimbus thunderstorms have become much more common in recent years. Australia’s Black Saturday bushfires in 2009 which killed 173 people is an example of such an event.
Also seen during the Canberra fires in 2003, scientists have predicted that climate change will worsen the situation. Conditions such as high temperatures, strong winds, and little moisture will not help either. As the ground warms and dries due to climate change, these storms may become a common occurrence, leading to erratic fire behavior and rapid fire spread.
These sights might make you question whether the Earth is experiencing what Venus endured once. Hopefully, bluer skies are ahead.