TechMatters: NASA launches fire and smoke studies to improve and save lives

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NASA set to study forest fires

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Satellites from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) capture images of flame-engulfed regions and smoke-filled skies all over the planet. For example, in the dry, hot summer, wildfires rage across the western United States, Canada, Australia, and Europe. Fires also burn in Southeast Asia, South Africa, and Brazil in dry, early spring.

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According to a study published in the journal Earth’s Future, California wildfires have grown by eight times their size since the 1970s. Sadly, last year’s Camp Fire in Northern California became the deadliest fire in the state’s history, with 85 fatalities recorded.

The widespread destruction that fires cause is devastating. Given the ongoing effects of climate change, the life-threatening blazes may only get worse in the future.

Fortunately, NASA is launching multiple campaigns to understand fire and smoke better. Hopefully, the investigations will provide some life-saving solutions.

Early Detection

Any early warning data gathered and shared before a natural disaster strikes can save lives. The earlier people can evacuate an area or seek protective shelter, the better.

Researchers are still perfecting earthquake alert systems. Thankfully, however, meteorologists can track tornados and hurricanes, and AI is helping to forecast floods.

Similarly, NASA hopes snapshots captured on Earth-orbiting satellites can gather early data about a fire’s location and progression. With this critical information, officials and first responders can issue evacuation warnings.

“We are, in essence, the tallest fire towers,” said Doug Morton, Chief of the Biospheric Sciences Laboratory at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center, in a statement. “Real-time transfer of those satellite data into the hands of forest managers, protected area managers, and firefighters about the locations of new blazes—that’s where NASA’s initial role is critically important.”

Tracking daytime and nighttime fire activity are vital in a fire emergency. Furthermore, thermal sensors and onboard automated data processing systems on U.S. Forest Service aircraft can use cell signals to send the “incident command center” fire detection maps in mere minutes. The potential life-saving impact of this process is priceless.

Vince Ambrosia, a wildfires scientist at NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, explained the significance of sending and receiving this vital heads up. “We’re talking about incident command getting crucial information in five to 20 minutes, versus several hours with older technology,” he said.

Fire Forecasting

Watching and reporting an active fire’s progress helps warn people in harm’s way of impending danger. However, learning how to forecast fires and predict their prospective path is also critical.

As such, NASA wants to develop models that “account for moisture content in fuel sources such as desiccated, fallen trees that are more prone to catching fire and spreading it.”

Furthermore, the space agency is working to detect “ladder fuels” remotely. These “tall grasses, bushes, and tree branches” can quickly transmit flames from the ground to higher branches. Due to the speed in which they spread; these fires are extremely dangerous.

Using space data, NASA researchers aim to develop ladder fuel maps that could identify areas at risk for future fires. This information could alert those who may be impacted by fire so that they can take emergency precautions.

Cutting Through the Smoke

Smoke can travel for thousands of miles from its fiery source and cause multiple medical concerns, including respiratory issues. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Weather Service harnesses satellite data to issue smoke forecasts across the country. These broadcasts can help people avoid smoky areas or wear a protective mask.

In a joint venture between NOAA and NASA, the Fire Influence on Regional to Global Environments and Air Quality (FIREX-AQ) campaign, the organizations will send a fleet of instrumentation-bearing aircraft to analyze smoke chemistry “at varying altitudes from the point of combustion to hundreds or maybe thousands of miles downwind” of the debilitating fires.

Not all smoke is the same. Different kinds of burning trees or other smoldering materials release different types of chemicals. As such, each burning substance produces a different “species” of smoke.

Ultimately, researchers are investigating “the composition and chemistry of smoke from wildfires and managed/agricultural burning to better understand the impact of smoke on air quality and climate.” This knowledge might help scientists and health officials learn how to mitigate health issues associated with smoke inhalation and exposure.

Aerosol-Cloud Interactions and Climate

When smoke and clouds interact, it can affect the climate. Water vapor comes together with smoke particles to form cloud water droplets. Smoke also impacts the amount of sunlight clouds transmit back to the atmosphere.

Another field campaign will study these interactions. The effort is called the Cloud, Aerosol, and Monsoon Processes Philippines Experiment (CAMP2Ex). Research aircraft will fly over the ocean in the Philippines and soar “over, under, and through convective cloud systems.”

In the process, scientists will seek to understand how the aerosols produced by air pollution and different kinds of fires influence major weather events.

CAMP2Ex Co-Lead and NRL Research Meteorologist, Jeff Reid, addressed the link between the aerosol particles, weather, and clouds in a statement.

“Numerous satellite remote sensing and modeling studies have linked the presence of pollution and biomass-burning smoke to changes in cloud and storm properties, but we lack the observations of the actual mechanisms taking place,” Reid explained. “CAMP2Ex provides a much-needed crucible for satellite observing systems and model predictions to monitor and understand how atmospheric composition and weather interact.”

Forest Fires and Carbon Dioxide

Finally, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are harmful to the environment and contribute to global warming. Masses of trees consumed by forest fires also release CO2. When fire decimated 7 million acres of boreal forest in the Northwest Territories, Canada in 2014, the monstrous blaze emitted approximately 94 tera-grams (94 billion kilograms) of carbon.

Scientists are exploring carbon emissions released by thawing soil in northern latitudes. They are also correlating them with the carbon emissions from the boreal forest fires in a third campaign.

NASA’s Arctic Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE), seeks to understand the “vulnerability and resilience of ecosystems and society” in the Arctic and boreal regions. Using radar and lidar instrumentation, aircraft in the ABoVE campaign monitor permafrost loss in burned Northwest Territories.

Specifically, researchers are studying the “impacts to and from wildfires, changes to wildlife habitats, and the thawing of permafrost: perennially frozen ground that contains ice, rocks, and sand along with organic material.”

Data shows the ground in burned areas continues to sink each year. Further investigations will hopefully provide solutions to these challenging ecological issues.

Overall, by better understanding the global effects of fire and smoke, NASA researchers can devise early fire prediction and prevention strategies that can improve and save lives.