PALMDALE — When large wildfires hit, it is common these days to see satellite images of the smoke plumes as they travel hundreds, even thousands of miles from the fire itself.
Those rivers of smoke will be the subject of a joint research project with NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration this summer that will take a closer look at the smoke, its chemistry and how it changes and affects air quality and ultimately public health.
“Smoke is not inert,” NASA Program Manager Barry Lefer said. “There’s thousands of chemicals in it and you can end up causing a bad air quality day in Washington with a fire in Canada or California.”
As it travels up and away from the fire itself, the composition of the smoke changes, creating different impacts along the way. Similarly, changes in the fire itself as it burns through different fuels and changes in intensity can cause different impacts through the smoke.
The study will look at both the short-term impacts of smoke to air quality and public health, as well as the long-term impacts to climate, NASA’s Jim Crawford said.
Other sources of air pollution, such as power plants or cars, are easier to study and model because the sources are well-known.
“Fire is one of the toughest ones” to study and model, Crawford said, because of its unpredictability.
Among other uses, the data collected from this project is intended to help NOAA with its air quality forecasting, Lefer said.
“You’re trying to add all these things up into how much of this stuff in the atmosphere right now is fires’ piece and where is it going to go and who’s going to breathe it and how’s it going to affect things,” Crawford said.
As wildlife season heats up this summer, the FIREX-AQ project will deploy aircraft bristling with a variety of sensors and use satellites to study the chemistry of smoke. The research mission will take place from about July 22 to Sept. 5.
The research flights will take a layered approach to studying smoke, with ground stations, two NOAA Twin Otter aircraft with sensors to look at the smoke chemistry and the meteorology of the fire system, NASA’s DC-8 packed with a variety of sensors flying at about 30,000 feet altitude, a NASA ER-2 with more sensors at around 65,000 feet altitude and satellites collecting data from their perch in orbit.
In addition, a small unmanned aircraft will be used in some instances for very low-level measurements.
This enables researchers to capture a broad picture, including characterizing the fuels and the fire itself from the ground stations, that would not be possible with only one type of research platform.
“We’ve sampled fires for years, but we’ve never sampled fires with this kind of connectivity,” Crawford said.
The team will initially work from Boise, Idaho, where the aircraft will be tasked to wildfires across the western United States and Canada as they appear.
Midway through the project, the team will shift to Salina, Kansas, which will allow them access to agricultural fires in the central parts of the country and to extend their reach to the southeastern portions.
“We definitely need to learn more about what’s in the smoke from agricultural fires,” Lefer said.
NASA’s ER-2, however, will remain based at Armstrong Flight Research Center’s Palmdale facility and make all its flights from there, due to the specialized needs of this civilian version of the U-2 reconnaissance airplane.
Their targets during the field mission will include both large and small fires in order to build the largest and most diverse collection of data possible.
Following the summer mission, the aircraft will return to Palmdale with the sensors on board in anticipation of a large prescribed burn by the U.S. Forest Service in Utah in October, when it will return to the air for additional study.
“It’s like the perfect storm for bringing scientists together,” Crawford said of the planned fire.
Because the research aircraft will be operating in the same areas as firefighting efforts, a great deal of coordination is required to ensure they don’t infringe on those efforts. The researchers coordinate with the National Interagency Fire Center, also in Boise, and the NASA and NOAA pilots underwent training with the center to be prepared with the radio frequencies and other requirements for flying with firefighting aircraft.
Joining NOAA and NASA in the project will also be researchers from the National Science Foundation, the Joint Fire Science Program and the Environmental Protection Agency.