Colorado Scientists Take To The Skies To Learn More About Wildfire Smoke

Aug 10, 2018

A diverse team of scientists led by Colorado State University will be on an aircraft conducting smoke observation flights in Boise, Idaho.

The project, called The Western Wildfire Experiment for Cloud Chemistry, Aerosol Absorption and Nitrogen, or WE-CAN, is looking into what kind of effect wildfire smoke has on air quality, nutrient cycles, weather and climate.

CSU’s Emily Fischer is the lead scientist on the campaign. 

Research Flight 6: Clouds in WA, Cougar Creek Fire, Idaho Kiwah and Rabbit Foot Fires
Credit Emily Fischer

“What’s different about our field campaign is we are trying to generate statistics,” said CSU’s Emily Fischer, a lead scientist on the campaign. “So we are trying to sample the smoke under a lot of different environmental conditions repeatedly so we have a full picture of the chemistry of the smoke. Because without that you really can’t improve either air quality forecasts or storm forecasts.”

The researcher group includes scientists from CSU, University of Wyoming, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, University of Colorado Boulder and University of Montana will be looking for answers to a multitude of questions: What is the smoke made of? How does it affect clouds? How does the type and growth of the forest affect the composition of smoke produced?

“We don’t have a good grasp on everything that’s in that smoke. What are people breathing and how is what they’re breathing changing based on their distance from the fire?” Fischer said. “In order for health departments or individuals to make decisions, we need to have a better fundamental understanding of what’s in smoke and how it changes over time.”

The WE-CAN team will be conducting 15 to 20 smoke-observation flights in Boise through August. Fischer says when the plane is back in Colorado there will be graduate student-led flights around the Front Range to continue to collect more data.

Research Flight 3: Taylor Creek Fire
Credit Frank Flocke