Image of wildfire smoke

This summer, a four-engine cargo airplane laden with both scientists and sophisticated equipment will fly straight into hazy smoke from Western wildfires.

The flights will comprise the largest, most comprehensive attempt to date to measure and analyze the wildfire smoke that blankets vast swaths of the United States every year.

Throughout late July and August, a multi-agency, multidisciplinary team led by Colorado State University scientists will travel to Boise, Idaho, to conduct 15 to 20 smoke-observation flights. The project is called the Western Wildfire Experiment for Cloud Chemistry, Aerosol Absorption and Nitrogen, or WE-CAN, and is primarily supported by the National Science Foundation.

Media event in Boise, Aug. 11

On Aug. 11, the WE-CAN team will host a research aircraft media event at the Boise Airport, featuring two aircraft: the NSF/NCAR C-130 and the University of Wyoming King Air.

nsf/ncar C-130

The NSF/NCAR C-130 research aircraft.

NSF plane equipment and scientists

WE-CAN scientists Frank Flocke, Emily Fischer and other collaborators aboard the NSF/NCAR C-130, loaded with instrumentation for studying wildfire smoke.

“This is a challenging field campaign,” said lead scientist Emily Fischer, CSU assistant professor of atmospheric science. “It’s not like measuring the plume from, say, a power plant. We don’t know exactly where the fires will be, but we know that pretty much every year, there is a wildfire burning within a two-hour flight of Boise during the month of August.”

The project brings together scientists from five universities and the NSF-funded National Center for Atmospheric Research, with partial support from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA. The goal is a comprehensive, systematic understanding of the chemistry of wildfire smoke.

The researchers will answer such questions as: What is the smoke made of? How does it change over time, and as it travels? How does it affect clouds? How does the type and growth of the forest affect the composition of smoke produced? How does the smoke chemistry of hot-burning fires compare with lower-temperature, smoldering fires?

Answering these and other questions has major ramifications for downstream studies of air quality, health, nutrient cycles, weather and climate. The WE-CAN researchers hope to contribute to science in all these areas with the data they’ll collect this summer.

“We’re following the transport and transformation of the plume of gases and aerosols emitted by wildfires to understand the chemical changes they undergo over time, how their properties might vary, and what their impacts are on human health and the environment,” said Sylvia Edgerton, program director in the NSF Division of Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences, which funds WE-CAN.

Scientist with plane equipment

Chemistry graduate student Matson Pothier shuts down equipment after a July 17, 2018 test flight from Broomfield, Colorado.

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