WE-CAN seeks to crack chemistry of wildfire smoke

Plane landing
The NSF/NCAR C-130 lands after a successful test flight on July 17, 2018 from Broomfield, Colorado.

A team of Colorado State University scientists led by Assistant Professor Emily Fischer spent the summer flying into wildfire smoke to analyze its composition in the largest, most comprehensive campaign of its kind to date. Five universities and the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) collaborated on the Western Wildfire Experiment for Cloud Chemistry, Aerosol Absorption and Nitrogen, or WE-CAN, which involved a C-130 research aircraft loaded with scientific instruments and 15 scientists per flight.

Based in Boise, Idaho, the flight crew flew 16 six-hour missions to collect smoke samples and data. Boise was chosen because almost every August there is a wildfire burning within a two-hour flight of the city. The WE-CAN team included around 100 scientists and engineers, with many of them stationed on the ground, monitoring fires, smoke and weather to guide the plane.

Fischer directed the campaign from the cockpit.

“The visibility was so poor that we had to use a completely different flight planning strategy than I anticipated,” she said. “Decisions in the cockpit were essential.”

The campaign’s objectives were to determine what the smoke is made of, how it changes over time and as it travels, how it affects clouds, how the type of fuel affects smoke composition, and how the fire’s temperature affects the smoke’s chemistry. The results will bring insights on air quality, health impacts, weather and climate.

Fischer will share preliminary WE-CAN results in a session at the American Meteorological Society Annual Meeting in January. She was pleased with all the data collected during the campaign.

“We have a beautiful dataset that will answer many of the questions we posed,” Fischer said.

The campaign was primarily supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), with additional support from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA. The C-130 aircraft is owned by the NSF and maintained and operated by the NCAR Earth Observing Laboratory.

Students in flight

In Fischer’s original WE-CAN proposal, she requested extra flight hours from the NSF to conduct an aircraft observations class following the campaign.

“I thought, ‘What would I like to do if I was a student?’” said Fischer.

Researchers in flight
WE-CAN scientists Frank Flocke, Emily Fischer and other collaborators aboard the NSF/NCAR C-130, loaded with instrumentation for studying wildfire smoke.

Students from several universities, including CSU, the University of Wyoming, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, and the University of Montana, learned about aircraft-based atmospheric science in a hands-on format by calling the shots during three educational flights. They learned how to plan and execute flights, analyze the data they collected, and communicate science through short videos. Fischer arranged for the National Public Radio (NPR) Science Desk to review the students’ videos for real-world feedback.

Mechanical engineering student Ali Akherati found the course rewarding and beneficial to his Ph.D. work. Framing a research question, considering all the factors involved in flying, and communicating research information all were valuable lessons he took away from the class.

“It pushes the boundary of thinking critically in a short amount of time, and you have to have a precise plan,” said Akherati. “I learned how to communicate the science in a simple way with other people.”