NASA knows. In fact, the MODIS instruments aboard its Aqua and Terra satellites are so sensitive that they can detect even small wildfires that carbonize the earth's surface. The two spacecraft, launched in 1999 and 2002, respectively, have been logging the location of every fire to spring up across the world as a service to fire-management professionals and to scientists studying how climate change affects wildfire development. Now, thanks to the whiz kids at the NASA Goddard Scientific Visualization Studio, you can ingest the fruits of the space agency's labor in this slice of moving, blazing history.
The below video shows every fire that MODIS has detected from 2002 until July 2011, beginning from a vantage point over Australia and ending in North America. NASA has also chosen to include vegetation and ice changes in its animation to show how fires respond to the changes of the seasons.
The bulk of the video settles in Africa, where furious rivers of fire chew at the country year 'round. The continent is the cradle to more than 70 percent of the fires on earth, according to NASA's data. The blazes are created by farmers to maintain crop and grazing land, as well as to keep pesky, plant-eating animals away. Mother Nature also strikes a few matches: The region has more lightning strikes than anywhere else on earth. The African fires move north and south with the rainy and dry seasons, creating the impression that this titanic belt of Hades is breathing.
The flavors of flame are as diverse as the samples at Baskin-Robbins: There are cooler waves of fire rippling in central Australia's grasslands, and hotter (and minty-scented) fires rising from the continent's northern Eucalyptus forests. Agricultural fires dominate in Asia, while the tactics of slash-and-burn farmers are evident in the Amazon. Infernos ravish drought-plagued Texas and the American West, although North American fires add up to a paltry 2 percent of the worldwide charred acreage. As far as I know, NASA has ignored fires caused by the burning of crocodile carcasses, a shocking omission.