A fire at a sulfur mine and processing facility near Mosul, Iraq is emitting tremendous quantities of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere for the sixth day in a row. If this fire was a volcano, it would already be among the largest eruptions of 2016.
NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites first detected the heat signature of the fire at Al-Mishraq facility on October 20, 2016.
By the next day, a plume of toxic white smoke was streaming from the facility, killing at least two Iraqi civilians and prompting nearly 1 000 to seek medical attention.
Fire at Al-Mishraq sulfur processing facility, Mosul, Iraq as seen by Aqua on October 22, 2016. Credit: NASA Aqua/MODIS
At the same time, the Ozone Monitoring Instrument on Aura and the Ozone Mapping Profiler Suite (OMPS) on Suomi NPP began making observations of a large sulfur dioxide plume spreading across northern and central Iraq.
Fire at Al-Mishraq sulfur processing facility, Mosul, Iraq emitting SO2 as seen by Aura/OMI on October 24, 2016
Initially, OMI detected sulfur dioxide in the planetary boundary layer and lower troposphere, the lowest parts of the atmosphere, but over the next few days, the plume responded to shifting winds and reached higher into the atmosphere.
Large plume of sulfur dioxide as seen by Aura/OMI from October 20 - 25, 2016
This same facility was on fire in 2003, EO reports. Scientists calculated that the fire at Al-Mishraq, which burned for nearly a month, released 21 kilotons of toxic sulfur dioxide per day, roughly four times as much as is emitted each day by the world’s largest single-source emitter of sulfur dioxide, a smelter in Noril’sk, Russia.
“After nearly a month of burning, the 2003 fire had released roughly 600 kilotons of sulfur dioxide - so much that it was the largest non-volcanic release of sulfur dioxide we had ever observed with satellites,” said Nikolay Krotkov, an atmospheric scientist at Goddard Space Flight Center.
Already, sulfur dioxide emissions from the fire have been significant.
If the sulfur dioxide were coming from a volcano rather than a fire, it would already be among the largest eruptions of 2016 (a quiet year so far), Carn noted in a tweet on October 25, 2016.
Featured image: Satellite image of sulfur dioxide emitted from sulfur processing plant near Mosul, Iraq on October 24, 2016. Credit: NASA OMI/Aura