Alarming US map of Australian bushfires explained

Alarming US map of Australian bushfires explained

25 October 2013

published by

Australia — American network NBC has been ridiculed on the web this week for graphically misrepresenting the bushfires in Australia, but it turns out they weren’t as wrong as it seemed.

They just made the flames too big.

An alarming animated graphic broadcast during their flagship Nightly News bulletin on Wednesday suggested half of Australia was going up in smoke.

While it looked ridiculous to many, the map wasn’t pure fiction.

NBC may have sourced the data from a bushfire monitoring service such as Geoscience Australia’s online tool, Sentinel.

Dr Adam Lewis, Geoscience Australia’s national Earth observation group leader, described the raw data that NBC would have gathered on a national scale as “fairly typical”.

He said that “there’s often a lot of fire activity in northern Australia around the savannas” but “when you get hotspots in Victoria, south-eastern New South Wales and south-western Western Australia… they’re more likely to be the forest fires that are cause for concern”.
Ironically, NBC’s large-scale yet over-simplified national map failed to point out the fires of most concern – the ones surrounding Sydney.

NBC’s controversial graphic ignored the finer details on the fire hotspots map.

Dr Lewis said their choice of display “wasn’t really appropriate”.

He explained that “each fire comes up as one small spot on the Sentinel website”, while on NBC’s report “they put a very big flaming icon over each of these little spots – which makes them look as if they’ve all joined up”.

People using social media didn’t waste any time lampooning the network for what was largely seen as sensationalised and ignorant reporting.

Dr Lewis said the Sentinel online hotspot tool is used by local fire agencies on a daily basis and he has never seen “that sort of confusion” in the past.

The Geoscience Australia resource gathers its data from infrared cameras aboard two NASA satellites, each orbiting the Earth around two times a day. Sentinel is therefore able to refresh its information approximately every six hours.

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