Scientists Use Plane to Study Wildfire Smoke Impact on Climate - NBC Right Now/KNDO/KNDU Tri-Cities, Yakima, WA |

PNNL Scientists Use Plane to Study Wildfire Smoke Impact on Climate

Posted: Updated:

PASCO, Wash.-- Forest fires continue to burn across the Northwest, but the smoke and heat they produce may actually be cooling the atmosphere.

Scientists at PNNL are flying a plane over wildfires in our area to study the fire's impact on the climate.

Equipment on the PNNL plane monitors particles above forest fires and the data from the studies will contribute on a grand scale to global climate models.

It is outfitted with 35 instruments to sample smoke from forest fires.

The aircraft gets in the thick of it, gathering data from Washington wildfires like the Colockum Tarps and Mile 28 fires.

"We're getting right on top of the fires, several thousand feet above the fire and making measurements. From there, going downwind as the wind moves the smoke away from the fire," said Larry Kleinman, Department of Energy, Brookhaven National Laboratory researcher.

Machines onboard measure the evolution of wildfire particles called aerosols.

One machine uses a laser to light a particle on fire and break down the composition. Another simulate cloud formations, altered by the particles.

"Young smoke is not very well understood. So we're getting in close to the fires. We're measuring what you might call the first two hours in aging of the smoke as it comes away from the fire," said John Hubbe, PNNL researcher.

Wildfires produce about 40% of all soot. But the overall impact of these bio-burning particles on the climate varies.

"When they absorb sunlight, they're heating the atmosphere and when they reflect sunlight back into space, they're cooling the atmosphere. At least from the fires we've sampled, we're seeing a net cooling effect," Kleinman said.

Researchers hope this study will help them understand how aerosol particles contribute to climate change and project their future impact on the planet.

The plane will continue to monitor forest fires in Washington through the end of the summer and then it's on to Tennessee where it'll monitor agriculture fires.