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Tracking the Impacts of Wildfire Aerosols to Learn About Climate Change

A massive wildfire plume over Washington state

A massive wildfire plume over Washington state

The massive wildfires that recently raged through the Northwest carved trails of tremendous destruction. The stories of these fires largely played out across the ground. But wildfire fallout actually extends far into the skies and raises important questions about how smoke can impact climate.

To better understand this impact researchers from Brookhaven Lab’s Environmental Sciences Department recently lead a field campaign known as the Biomass Burn Observation Project (BBOP), a collaboration with Pacific Northwest National Lab and 12 other research groups, to measure the way airborne soot evolves during its first few hours in the sky above wildfires and prescribed burns. After carefully coordinating with a range of experts to guarantee everyone’s safety, state-of-the-art instruments were flown directly into the multi-mile smoke plumes of the northwestern fires in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho as well as above agricultural fires in the lower Mississippi River Valley. 

The smoke above these fires breaks down into two main components: aerosols and gases. BBOP focuses on studying the aerosols – solid particles or liquid droplets in the air – by measuring their size, optical properties, cloud condensation effects, and chemical composition with some 30 instruments, many of them built at Brookhaven or by collaborating researchers. Nearly 100 gigabytes of data were collected on each of 19 flights in the Pacific Northwest alone. Analysis of that data is now underway. The scientists are already saying with some certainty that the wildfire aerosols observed have a net cooling effect, meaning that they reflect more sunlight than they absorb. The researchers’ measurements are also helping to corroborate and deepen the data pulled from NASA satellites.

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