USA – As Western wildfires get bigger and meaner, a team of Colorado State University researchers want to find out how smoke from those blazes impacts air quality and weather.
The CSU group will use a National Center for Atmospheric Research C-130 aircraft to fly into smoke plumes to collect the needed data.
Well fly as close to active fires as can be safely done and follow the plumes downwind, said Emily Fischer, assistant professor in CSUs Department of Atmospheric Science and lead investigator for the CSU team. She will be joined by five other CSU investigators with knowledge of trace gas chemistry, cloud and precipitation chemistry, aerosol-cloud interactions, and instrument development.
CSU, with a $3.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation Atmospheric Chemistry program, and the University of Colorado are among five universities working to gather a more comprehensive data set aimed at understanding how wildfire smoke changes with time.
The data collected during summer of 2018 will help determine the composition of the smoke, how much it matters to air quality, what happens when smoke and clouds interact, and whether thats important for understanding weather, CSU says.
Its vital to do the study now, since the frequency and intensity of Western wildfires is increasing and expected to mushroom with climate change, CSU said. And as automobile emissions decrease, understanding how wildfires interact with environmental elements becomes even more important, Fischer said.
Part of the challenge for the CSU faculty is to identify the right conditions to fly. They will need to know when the smoke will be high enough in the atmosphere to safely fly through it and when smoke and clouds might be interacting, Fischer said. Associate Prof. Russ Schumacher will be forecasting to help the group assess when flight conditions are ripe.
Firefighting efforts and airspace regulations will also be taken into consideration, CSU says.
The CSU effort is unique since very few samples of Western U.S. wildfires exist, at least not with the level of chemical specificity this will capture, said Fischer.
There have been many field campaigns that have opportunistically measured wildfire smoke, she said, but none completely devoted to it at this scale for Western wildfires.
From 1980 to 2015, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado accounted for about 40 percent of the burned area in the lower 48 states, according to CSU.
Since 1960, the cost to federal, state and local governments to fight wildland fires has jumped from less than $100 million to more than $3.3 billion, according to estimates. A 2015 report from the Center for American Progress projects that the federal government will have to spend an average of $2.8 billion per year to fight wildfires between 2015 and 2024, up from $1.7 billion per year over the past decade.