Maps and pictures of Australia’s unprecedented bushfires have spread widely on social media.
Users are posting them to raise awareness of the devastating fires, but some of the viral maps are misleading, spreading disinformation about the crisis.
The months-long fires have killed at least 25 people and millions of animals, and destroyed more than 2,000 houses.
After milder weather brought brief respite last weekend, fire crews are preparing again for worsening conditions as temperatures are predicted to soar on Friday.
Artist’s visualisation misinterpreted
One image shared widely by Twitter users, including by singer Rihanna, was interpreted as a map showing the live extent of fire spread, with large sections of the Australian coastline molten-red and fiery.
End of Twitter post by @rihanna
But it is actually artist Anthony Hearsey’s visualisation of one month of data of locations where fire was detected, collected by Nasa’s Fire Information for Resource Management System.
“The scale is a little exaggerated due to the render’s glow, but it is generally true to the info from the Nasa website. Also note that not all the areas are still burning, and this is a compilation,” Mr Hearsey wrote on Instagram in response to criticism by viewers that the image was misleading.
Another widely shared map of flame icons dotted across the country claims to show “all the fires burning in Australia”.
Here is a map of all the fires burning in Australia.
Here also is a map of Australia overlaid on Europe. #Bushfires #AustraliaFires #vicfires #nswbushfire #NSWfires pic.twitter.com/x35u7etnuB— Martin (@marty386) December 30, 2019
End of Twitter post by @marty386
It is taken from the Australian government website MyFireWatch, which uses satellite data to map heat sources.
However the data incorporates “any heat source that is hotter than its surroundings… This may include gas flares, refinery furnaces or highly reflective large industrial roofs”, according to its website.
That means that the symbols are not guaranteed to indicate actual fires.
Another issue is that the hotspot symbols do not represent the actual size of fires or the danger posed by them.
Screenshots of maps shared on social media like this often omit important details from the originals, such as the level of risk posed by fire and whether it is under control.
The New South Wales Rural Fire Service publishes live mapped fire information, using symbols to indicate the alert level from “advice” (no immediate danger) to “emergency warning”.
On 7 January, the red and orange fire symbols in the MyFireWatch map of New South Wales (NSW) are all ranked as “advice” alerts by the NSW rural fire service.