Thick smoke from summertime wildfires can present major health risks. Prediction models help locals prepare for poor air quality to come, but the data behind those models is not as conclusive as we might think.
I board NASA’s DC-8 research plane in Boise, and we head down to a wildfire just north of the Grand Canyon.
Most people visit the attraction for the views, but the scientists on board are most interested in the wildfire smoke that’ll be clouding the scenery. In a little over an hour, we’ll descend to around 15,000 feet to fly straight into the plumes.
Carsten Warneke is a mission scientist on the project, and explains that the goal of the mission – called FIREX-AQ – is to gather more data about wildfire smoke. Understanding how it behaves will help them improve the scientific models that help make air quality predictions.
“These models are based on these emission estimates that are quite uncertain,” Warneke explains. “And in many cases, the forecasts are very good, but there’s a lot of cases where they are not so good.”
There’s just not enough research about smoke yet, but this mission wants to fix that. For Warneke, the daily weather report is an example of how he hopes the air quality forecast will be used.
“We all rely on weather forecasts to be really good,” Warneke says. “But I think once our confidence in the air quality forecast gets better, people will really start to notice.”
The DC-8 plane is just one research vessel on this mission. A van drives into the smoke at ground-level. And a few other planes are able to maneuver valleys, or fly at really high altitudes. NASA even uses their satellites to help track the smoke.
“We're trying to cover the measurements of smoke from all directions, from really as close as we can get with mobile labs up to the DC-8 aircraft, and even higher up from there,” Warneke says. “So we’re really covering from the ground up to the satellites and everything in between.”
As wildfire season becomes longer by the year, it’s even more important to understand what is in smoke and how it moves across an area. That’s important so people can prepare for the conditions.
“If you imagine you look at the air quality forecast and think ‘Oh! Yeah, Boise will be clear tomorrow!’ But it turns out differently and it’s all smoked in, you wish you would have known that the day before,” Warneke says.
And preparation is important because of how bad wildfire smoke can be for our health. Heather Kimmel is the Director of Health Promotion at the American Lung Association in Boise. She says that smoke from wildfires is especially dangerous because of how tiny the particles are – about ⅙ the diameter of a human hair.
Because of their size, the particles can get lodged in our lungs, and can even make their way into our bloodstream. And that can lead to some serious health problems.
“We can experience inflammation, infection and we can have a number of other health impacts associated with breathing in particle pollution,” Kimmel explains. “We know that exposure to wildfire smoke and particle pollution can trigger asthma attacks, heart attacks, strokes and also exacerbate underlying heart and lung disease.”
So, improved forecasts are just one thing the federal agencies are working on to keep people healthy. They’re also trying to better understand the chemical makeup of wildfire smoke.
Smoke is made up of tons of different chemicals and molecules which vary at different spots within the plume – they’re still filling in the gaps of their knowledge here. Once they learn more, this research will give public health experts a better understanding of how smoke affects humans.
Warneke explains that fires aren’t going away anytime soon, so studying the smoke in this much detail is the only way we might be able to improve health protection from smoke.
“We are in a situation where there will be fires and there will be lots of fires, and we basically have to live with it,” he says.
On Monday, the DC-8 will begin the next phase of the mission with a flight to Kansas, where it will begin research on agricultural fires. These fires burn different fuel and emit totally different chemicals than wildfires – and therefore have a different impact on human health. It’s just another way NASA and NOAA are working to improve our understanding of smoke, and how the public can best stay healthy in smoky air.
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