Fires in northern Australia
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Fires in northern Australia

August 21, 2010
Widespread bushfires, marked by bright red hotspots and plumes of blue-gray smoke, blaze across northern Australia on August 12, 2010, when the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) aboard the Aqua satellite captured this true-color image as it passed overhead.

In the eastern section of Northwest Territory, hotspots are arrayed in lines that span hundreds of kilometers. Many of these are accompanied by wide, dense plumes, which blow towards the northwest. To the far west, clusters of fire dot the coastal area near the city of Nemaluk.

In the northwest corner of the image, Melville Island, a land of dense rainforest and cascading waterfalls, is marked by a ring of hotspots, most of which are emitting thin streams of smoke. To the south of the island, across the turquoise waters of the Timor Sea, lies Darwin, the capital city of the Northern Territory, which is currently fire-free.

A very large hotspot can be found due south of Darwin. This marks a blaze at Litchfield National Park, the notable home of the “magnetic” termite, Amitermes meridionalis. This species builds tall, thin, rectangular-shaped nests which are unerringly aligned to a north-south axis. The nest shape is considered an adaptive strategy for seasonal flooding. When migration to an underground refuge is impossible, the high, thin shape creates a relatively dry environment, while the north-south orientation interacts with the sun's motions, allowing for a stable temperature within the nest. On August 12, this fire caused roads leading into the park to be closed as fire crews worked to douse the flames.

In the Northwest Territory, the dry season runs from May until October. Controlled burning is carried out before the season begins, to reduce the burnable material available after the local vegetation have “cured” (dried to a stage ripe for burning). This management strategy has proven effective, but it does not stop the risk of brushfire completely. When the summer is particularly hot and dry, the risk of fire becomes extreme.

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