Life

This NASA image shows how California's wildfires are affecting the atmosphere

A visualization of the particles and droplets in the air from the NASA Earth Observatory. 
NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using GEOS data from the Global Modeling and Assimilation Office at NASA GSFC
A visualization of the particles and droplets in the air from the NASA Earth Observatory. 

As wildfires continue to burn in California, NASA has released a visualization that illustrates one of the ways in which the fires are affecting the atmosphere.

NASA's Earth Observatory, the arm of the space agency that shares with the public images of the Earth and its climate, created the map (embedded above, and below with captions) which shows aerosols in the atmosphere. Aerosols are the solid particles and liquid droplets in the air.

A visualization of the particles and droplets in the air from the NASA Earth Observatory. 
NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using GEOS data from the Global Modeling and Assimilation Office at NASA GSFC. 
A visualization of the particles and droplets in the air from the NASA Earth Observatory. 

"If you have ever watched smoke billowing from a wildfire, ash erupting from a volcano, or dust blowing in the wind, you have seen aerosols," says a blog post accompanying the image.

Indeed: In the top left corner of the visualization, which represents the particles of the Earth's atmosphere on Thursday, August 23, the smoke from the California wildfire is visible.

"On that day, huge plumes of smoke drifted over North America...," explains the observatory's post. "Black carbon particles (red) are among the particles emitted by fires...."

Also visible in the image is Hurricane Lane in the Pacific Ocean, which dumped 3 to 4 feet of rain on parts of Hawaii. The storm is visible "within giant swirls of sea salt aerosol (blue), which winds loft into the air as part of sea spray," says the post.

The aerosol in the visualization is not a direct representation of satellite data, the NASA Earth Observatory explains in the post. The "model, like all weather and climate models, used mathematical equations that represent physical processes to calculate what was happening in the atmosphere on August 23. Measurements of physical properties, like temperature, moisture, aerosols, and winds, are routinely folded into the model to better simulate real-world conditions. Some of these inputs come from satellites; others come from data collected by sensors on the ground," is says of the technology used to create the image.

NASA also announced Monday that it has been using its technology to help fight the fires after the California Air National Guard asked its NASA Earth Science Disasters Program, which uses technology and observations to improve response to disasters, for help.

The NASA agency team members arrived on scene July 29, NASA says. A high-altitude aircraft collected infrared imagery in two missions, which was used to both help fight the current fire and to study future fires, NASA said.

Another NASA mission flying a Lockheed ER-2 Earth Resources aircraft (described by NASA as "flying laboratory") collected thermal imaging, which is used both to help predict the amount of resources necessary to fight the fire and to identify potential dangers from mudslides this winter, says Jeffrey Myers, manager of NASA's Ames Research Center Airborne Sensor Facility in California, in the written statement.

There are currently 17 uncontained large fires burning in California, Kyle Smith, a public information officer for California Interagency Incident Management Team 3, tells CNBC Make It. One of those fires, the Mendocino complex fire, is the largest fire in California history, Smith says.

As of Tuesday morning, the Mendocino complex fire has destroyed 459,102 acres, Mike Lindbery, the lead public information officer for California Interagency Incident Management Team 3, tells CNBC Make It. (A complex is two or more fires managed by the same team and the Mendocino complex includes both the river and ranch fires, Lindbery says.)

NASA research pilot James Nelson flew a 3.6-hour mission in the ER-2 at 65,000 feet on Aug. 9: "The two fires near Yosemite could clearly be seen from my altitude, but the Mendocino fire was obscured by smoke," he said via written statement. "However, our instruments are multispectral and can see through much of the smoke in the infrared bands and we were able to collect data on all the fires."

Don't miss: