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David Hosansky | 7 September 2010 • The wildfire that has erupted in the foothills west of Boulder is sending a thick plume of smoke right over NCAR’s chemistry labs. Even as their offices smell of smoke, scientists are taking measurements from the roof, seeking to glean new insights into the particles and gases emitted by a wildland fire involving natural vegetation and built structures.
Data from the lab's spectrometers can provide information about more than a dozen gases that may be emitted in a plume, such as methanol, formaldehyde, and carbon monoxide. Such gases can have serious effects on human health and the environment, as well as potentially influencing climate. The scientists are also using a photometer to analyze optical depth—a measurement that can be used to infer the quantity and size of particles in the atmosphere.
The data can help scientists better understand the impacts of wildfire plumes on our atmosphere, as well as on human health and climate. Recent research by NCAR scientists Christine Wiedinmyer and Gabriele Pfister, along with colleagues at NCAR and other organizations, has found that wildland fires can worsen air quality for thousands of miles downwind. The particles and gases in large-scale fires can also influence climate, both by affecting the amount of sunlight that reaches Earth’s surface and by releasing carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere.
The blaze west of Boulder, known as the Fourmile Fire, broke out Monday and has burned more than 7,000 acres as of Tuesday afternoon, destroying scores of structures. It has sent a plume of smoke over the Front Range and far downwind, as far as Nebraska and Iowa.
“As destructive as this event is, it also gives us a rare opportunity to learn more about fire emissions,” Wiedinmyer says. "We're hoping for everyone's safety, and working to learn as much as we can."
This research takes time to develop and publish. For information on current conditions, Boulder County and state health officials are issuing advisories (see the links below).
Prescribed burns may help reduce U.S. carbon footprint (March 16, 2010)
Air quality updates