Nature and Biodiversity

Australian bushfires are so huge they're creating thunderstorms that start more fires

Smoke from bushfires shrouds the skyline in Sydney, Australia November 12, 2019.  REUTERS/John Mair - RC2K9D90IBU9

Intense smoke from bushfires has shrouded Sydney. Image: REUTERS/John Mair

Jim Edwards
Founding editor of Business Insider UK, Business Insider UK
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  • The Australian bushfires are generating 'pyrocumulonimbus' clouds, according to the Victorian Bureau of Meterology
  • These clouds can lead to thunderstorms, lightning and severe winds - that can spread existing fires or start new ones.

The bushfires in Australia are now so big that they are generating their own weather, in the form of giant thunderstorms that start more fires, according to the Bureau of Meteorology in Victoria.

"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," the bureau tweeted on Monday.

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Satellite photography shows the intense smoke generating atmospheric clouds:

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Intense fires generate smoke, obviously. But their heat can also create a localized updraft powerful enough to create its own changes in the atmosphere above. As the heat and smoke rise, the cloud plume can cool off, generating a large, puffy cloud full of potential rain. The plume can also scatter embers and hot ash over a wider area.

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Eventually, water droplets in the cloud condense, generating a downburst of rain — maybe. But the "front" between the calm air outside the fire zone and a pyrocumulonimbus storm cloud is so sharp that it also generates lightning — and that can start new fires.

If powerful enough, a pyrocumulonimbus storm can generate a fire tornado, which happened during the Canberra bushfires in 2003.

pyrocumulonimbus clouds weather meterology bushfire climate change crisis australia
A diagram showing how pyrocumulonimbus clouds are formed. Image: Bureau of Meteorology, Victoria

Scientists worry that "pyroCbs" are on the rise around the world, driven by warmer temperatures and more intense fires, Yale E360 reported. Their plumes are so strong that they can even shoot smoke into the stratosphere, 6 to 30 miles above the Earth's surface.

Here is a time lapse of a pyrocumulonimbus storm in action, from a different Australian fire:

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Related topics:
Nature and BiodiversityClimate ActionGlobal RisksGeographies in Depth
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