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Smoke from Australia’s fires will circle the world, NASA data suggests

NASA’s CALIPSO satellite animation captures smoke from Australian bushfires
WATCH: NASA satellite animation captures smoke from Australian bushfires

Smoke from Australia’s raging bushfires is expected to make a full trip around the world, according to NASA data, stirring concerns about air quality in the process.

The space agency has been analyzing the smoke plumes billowing from the fires using a fleet of satellites.

By Jan. 8, the smoke had already travelled halfway around the globe, “turning skies hazy and causing colourful sunrises and sunsets,” NASA said.

This image from the Suomi NPP satellite shows the smoke all the way to south of western Australia (data from Jan. 13, 2020). After the black line, the data is from Jan. 12, 2020. The circled area, also from Jan. 12, shows the smoke from western Australia. The aerosol index signal in central Australia (at the left of the image) is not from smoke but an intense dust storm.
This image from the Suomi NPP satellite shows the smoke all the way to south of western Australia (data from Jan. 13, 2020). After the black line, the data is from Jan. 12, 2020. The circled area, also from Jan. 12, shows the smoke from western Australia. The aerosol index signal in central Australia (at the left of the image) is not from smoke but an intense dust storm. NASA/Colin Seftor/Handout via REUTERS

The smoke is expected to make at least “one full circuit” around the Earth before returning once again to the skies over Australia.

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“Once in the stratosphere, the smoke can travel thousands of miles from its source, affecting atmospheric conditions globally,” the report reads. “The effects of those events — whether the smoke provides a net atmospheric cooling or warming, or what happens to underlying clouds, etc. — is currently the subject of intense study.”

READ MORE: Experts say 'no doubt whatsoever' climate change causing Australia to burn

The fires have claimed at least 28 lives since September, killed countless animals, destroyed more than 3,000 homes and decimated more than seven million hectares of land across the country, mostly in the state of New South Wales.

Firefighters are still struggling to contain the blazes.

Where else has the smoke reached?

NASA says the fires have created “unprecedented conditions,” spurring an “unusually large number” of pyrocumulonimbus events — essentially, fire-induced thunderstorms.

These storms send smoke and ash high into the stratosphere, eventually drifting across the planet.

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The smoke is having a “dramatic impact” on New Zealand, NASA said, “causing severe air quality issues across the country and visibly darkening mountaintop snow.”

New Zealand’s Met Service released satellite images showing a “significant” cloud of smoke blowing over the Northland region on Jan. 5.

Beyond New Zealand, the smoke has also been recorded crossing South America.

Australian wildfires cause orange skies 2000 km away in New Zealand
Australian wildfires cause orange skies 2000 km away in New Zealand

In Australia, the Australian Open has not been spared the impact of hazy air.

Players have been struggling with the heat, humidity and air quality caused by the wildfires.

Canadian tennis star Eugenie Bouchard required medical attention Tuesday during a qualifying match in Melbourne due to the smoke. Another player, Dalila Jakupovic of Slovenia, was forced to retire in the second set of her match. Another player required a ventilator.

At least one other match was called off.

What are the health implications?

Australia wildfires continue to spread, blanket cities in hazardous smoke
Australia wildfires continue to spread, blanket cities in hazardous smoke

Those living under the smoggy skies in Australia fear the long-term health consequences of prolonged exposure, especially if the unprecedented summer of fires is the new norm.

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Australia’s two largest cities, Sydney and Melbourne, as well as Canberra, have been rated as the most polluted cities in the world in recent weeks.

The danger prompted shops to shutter, and workplaces urged employees to stay home.

Australia’s chief medical officer has been in discussions with the government to launch a study about the long-term health implications of wildfire smoke, but the effects are already being felt.

READ MORE: Australia PM says some things on wildfire crisis ‘could have handled much better’

Hospital admissions have spiked in smoke-stricken Australian cities. The government has responded by distributing approximately 3.5 million particle-excluding masks free of charge in affected areas.

An estimated 20,000 premature deaths in the U.S. occur annually because of chronic exposure to wildfire smoke. As tens of millions of people are exposed to smoke waves emanating from blazes in western states like California, that number could double by the end of the century, according to NASA-funded scientists.

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As for the impact the travelling smoke may have on North America — if it does, in fact, drift by — one expert believes it will be minimal.

“The smoke from Australia has to travel to North America over a distance of more than 6,000 miles,” Heath Hockenberry, fire weather program manager with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told Global News.

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“This distance and the fact that most of the smoke transport is through elevations of more than 40,000 feet results, I suspect, in minimal impact over North America at the surface.”

Lesley Ott, a research meteorologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, says the health impact is centered on Australia.

“The fire that are burning now and over the past few days will have the greatest impact on air quality in Australia because those particles are closest to the surface where we breathe,” Ott told Global News.

While these particles can stay in the atmosphere longer, Ott said they’re more likely to impact weather and climate outside of Australia, over air quality.

“We shouldn’t worry too much,” Ott said.

— With files from the Associated Press