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Researchers Fly Over Western Blazes to Find Role of Smoke in Climate

8/19/2013 10:40:15 AM

Researchers have flown over the raging wildfires of Washington and Oregon to sample the thick smoke and study its role in cloud formation and climate.

Recently, they also traveled to central Idaho, where a complex of fires has burned down more than 250,000 acres of grass- and forestland. The scientists are particularly looking at how aerosols, the particles given off by wildfires, evolve over time.

Biomass burning, which includes forest and agricultural fires, releases large amounts of carbon dioxide. Little is known about how smoke plumes evolve over time and affect climate.

The thick, black smoke emitted when a wildfire is burning hottest tends to have a warming effect on the climate, said Larry Kleinman, one of two principal investigators from Brookhaven National Laboratory.

Photo by: Flickr user Daniel R. Blume

As winds push the particles away from the fire, they gather a coating of reflective organic matter, which has a cooling effect on the Earth, he added.

The change can happen in just a few hours as the particles travel through the atmosphere, said Arthur Sedlacek, a researcher for the study at Brookhaven.

The scientists stressed that they are in the initial stages of their research but aim to soon provide information that could be used in large-scale climate models.

The researchers must also pore over detailed weather forecasts to map their observations.

"It's surreal to go through the plume," Sedlacek said. "You're in blue skies, then you a hit a wall of white haze, then it's orange. And there's a lot of turbulence" (Shannon Dininny, Associated Press, Aug. 15).

Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. 202-628-6500.

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