Fire activity has increased significantly over the last few weeks in Texas due to the drought conditions observed across the entire state.  West Texas has been particularly plagued by severe to exceptional drought conditions, which has only exacerbated the threat for wildfires.  Within the last couple of weeks, large wildfires have ignited from the Panhandle to northern Mexico.

Satellite image showing hotspots (fires)
Satellite image showing hotspots taken Saturday, April 16.

Smoke from the fires across the Trans Pecos, South Plains, Concho Valley, and even Mexico has occasionally drifted northward into the Panhandles during the late night and early morning hours.  In fact, as recently as this morning, smoke was observed across the area, including Amarillo.  So, how does smoke from a fire as far away as 400 miles get transported into the Panhandles?

Winds at 0.5 km
Winds at ~1,600 feet above the surface were from the south at speeds of 45-55 mph this morning. (Orange circles represent hotspots)

This morning, winds at the surface and about 1,600 feet above the surface were blowing directly from the fire regions to our south.  Also, under normal circumstances, temperatures typically decrease with height.  However, after sunset, heat from the surface of the Earth begins to escape toward space, thereby allowing the surface to cool.  Some of this heat warms a very thin layer of the atmosphere close to the surface.  Instead of the temperature decreasing with height, it actually increases with height in this case.  This is called a temperature inversion, and the inversion acts like a blanket and traps the smoke near the Earth's surface.  Once the sun rises, vertical mixing and surface heating reduce the strength of the temperature inversion, allowing the smoke to dissipate.

Atmospheric profile taken at Amarillo on the morning of April17.


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