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Astronauts spot smoke from growing Australian wildfires from space

Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano shared this image of an ash cloud over Australia on Jan. 13, 2020.
Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano shared this image of an ash cloud over Australia on Jan. 13, 2020. (Image credit: ESA/NASA)

As the deadly Australian wildfires spread smoke around the world, astronauts in space are closely watching the burns advance.

International Space Station commander and Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano sent a series of tweets showing the environmental effects of the deadly bush fires, which have killed dozens of people in recent weeks and are now wrapping smog around major Australian cities, such as Adelaide, Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney. NASA is tracking smoke spreading around the globe (opens in new tab), which Parmitano could easily see from space.

"An immense ash cloud covers Australia as we fly toward the sunset," Parmitano tweeted Monday (Jan. 13), showing a thick cloud of dust and smoke covering the desert. More pictures from Parmitano showed the dust streaming over the ocean near Australia. "Australia fires: lives, hopes, dreams in ashes," he said in another tweet (opens in new tab) Sunday (Jan. 12).

Related: Australia's Deadly Wildfires in Photos: The View from Space

NASA astronaut Christina Koch, who just completed 300 consecutive days in space on her first space mission, also shared several pictures from orbit (opens in new tab) showing dust flying across Australia and smoke rising from several fires. "Australia. Our hearts and thoughts are with you," Koch tweeted Tuesday (Jan. 14).

Thunderstorms induced by the wildfires are accelerating the smoke plume in its path around the world. The smoke is now likely to arrive back in Australian airspace in the coming days, according to ABC Australia (opens in new tab). Since the smoke is rising at least 17 kilometers (10 miles) high, it can "travel relatively unimpeded, above most of the atmosphere and weather," Lisa Harvey-Smith, an astrophysicist at the University of New South Wales, told ABC. 

Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano shared this image taken over Australia on Jan. 13, 2020. (Image credit: ESA/NASA)

Australians are quickly learning about the different types of clouds that accompany wildfire smoke plumes. These fire-born clouds carry names such as pyrocumulonimbus and flammagenitus, according to a recent NASA Earth Observatory blog post (opens in new tab).

"The formation of pyrocumulus clouds requires fires to burn hot enough to create an updraft of superheated, fast-rising air," NASA wrote. "As the hot air rises and spreads out, it cools, causing water vapor to condense and form clouds. In certain conditions, powerful updrafts can create clouds that rise several kilometers and turn into full-fledged thunderstorms … the storms pose serious risks for pilots and firefighters due to powerful turbulence." 

NASA astronaut Christina Koch shared this image of smoke towering over Australia on Jan. 14, 2020.  (Image credit: NASA)

Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.  

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Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she tackles topics like spaceflight, diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc (opens in new tab). in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Her latest book, NASA Leadership Moments, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.