Feds Launch Mission to Study Effects of Wildfire Smoke Health & Climate

NASA’s DC-8 jet, a flying laboratory that will be used to study the effects of wildfire and agricultural fire smoke on climate and health. (Cathy Valenti / CNS)

BOISE (CN) – Mission scientists and program managers from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration kicked off their joint field campaign Tuesday to study how U.S. wildfires and agricultural fires affect air quality and climate.

The event was held Tuesday at the Idaho Air National Guard base in Boise, Idaho, the first of three sites of study to include Salina, Kansas, and U.S. Forest Service land in Utah.

The Fire Influence on Regional to Global Environments and Air Quality (FIREX-AQ) campaign brought together an international team of scientists collecting data from satellites, aircraft and ground-based instruments to understand how different types of fuel and fire conditions at the point of ignition affect the quality of air in the impact zone and downwind.

According to FIREX-AQ staff, this mission is threefold: investigate wildfires, study agricultural fires and collect particle samples from emissions during a large U.S. Forest Service prescribed burn. To accomplish this, scientists use satellite imaging, NASA’s DC-8 jet, two NOAA Twin Otter prop planes and ground support. All mobile laboratories on the planes are fitted with equipment designed to measure and interpret the chemical makeup of smoke and the changes it creates in the atmosphere downwind.

“Wildfires are getting more common,” said Barry Lefer, program manager with NASA Earth Science Division. He emphasized the importance of forecasting where wildfire smoke will go but also the difficulty in accuracy, especially in mountain terrains that create unpredictable wind conditions.

Smoke has chemical compositions specific to the area and type of fire, Lefer noted, which is why it’s important to sample plumes from a variety of fire types and geography.

“There are instances where smoke finds its way to populated areas,” said James Crawford, mission scientist with NASA Science Directorate from Langley Research Center in Virginia. Since the chemical composition of these fires don’t overlap well with other fires, scientists can determine the types of various air particles and where they came from, he said.

Although satellites are useful for broad spatial coverage of fires, Crawford said, they have limitations. Satellites have to be in the right place at the right time and can only observe “partially and imperfectly.” With smaller fires, up to 40% of activity might go undetected by satellites.

The use of sampling from aircraft mobile labs can confirm satellite accuracy to mission scientists, according to Carsten Warneke, mission scientist with NOAA Earth System Research laboratory in Colorado. Three aircraft will be on site to use during this campaign, Warneke said, each with specific capabilities and limitations.

The NASA DC-8 has the widest range and longest flight time. According to NASA, the plane can fly up to 42,000 feet for up to 12 hours. This jet has exterior collectors that pull in air samples which are piped to specialized equipment inside, where onboard scientists can analyze composition of the smoke.

But the DC-8 cannot fly as low as other aircraft and has a hard time maneuvering through terrain and valleys often found in forested areas, said Warneke.

One of NOAA’s Twin Otter, a flying laboratory which will be used to study the effects of wildfire and agricultural fire smoke on climate and health. (Cathy Valenti / CNS)

For situations closer to the ground or in rough terrain, the FIREX-AQ will use two shorter-range NOAA Twin Otters carrying a crew of two and up to five scientists, said Alan Brewer, mission scientist from NOAA Chemical Sciences Division. The “Met Otter,” already in place in Boise, collects meteorological data and can make wind measurements to help determine how high a smoke plume might reach and its direction of travel.

The other small plane is the “Chem Otter,” on its way from Boulder, and is equipped to take chemical measurements. Both Otters utilize Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) in small hinged cases onboard that allow for multidirectional measuring through the use of light in the form of pulses to measure ranges, Brewer said.

All aircraft and the satellites share measurements and samplings to provide a comprehensive picture of smoke plumes from wildfires, how they change the atmosphere, where the smoke particles travel and the length of time they remain, according to Lefer.

The Boise site will serve as the first base for studies of wildfire smoke and its potential impact on health and climate change. From July 22 through August 18, the DC-8 and the Twin Otters will be available to fly out to surrounding states to gather data on wildfires.

One of NOAA’s Twin Otter, a flying laboratory which will be used to study the effects of wildfire and agricultural fire smoke on climate and health. (Cathy Valenti / CNS)

Brewer said Boise is ideal as a base for the FIREX-AQ wildfire campaign. “This area is ground zero for fire activity,” he said. “There are already people here with the ability to support this effort.” Aircraft can quickly mobilize to cover wildfires in surrounding states, he added.

The aircraft, scientists and support staff will move from Boise to Salina, Kansas, on Aug. 19 for the second phase of the mission to focus on smoke from agricultural fires, where it will remain until Sept. 5.

The final phase of the mission will take place in Utah, focusing on a prescribed burn on a large section of U.S. Forest Service land, said Linda Chapell, fuels program manager with the U.S. Forest Service.

Conditions have to be right for the prescribed burn, however, and Chapell said they will not know exactly when it will take place as it is dependent on weather conditions and other criteria. But they will have mapped out the type and quantities of fuel present to make useful measurements, she said.

Although data sampling from wildfire and other smoke has been ongoing over the years, this is the first official collaboration between NOAA and NASA that includes worldwide support, according to Lefer. All three of these missions will provide valuable information that will be made available to a diverse community of investigators and researchers.

A brief tour through the Boise staging area included an informal meeting with a room full of support staff who came from around the world to work with the campaign. The excitement was apparent from individuals as they explained their roles. Some staff followed and analyzed data from past fires, such as the Rim Fire in California – which burned for more than a year due to the lack of winter storms – that would provide valuable information on the effects of wildfires on health and climate in the future.

During his talk, Crawford praised this collaborative effort using over 40 partners comprising an international team of scientists.

“We’ve put together the best of the best,” he said.

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