As temperatures climb this summer, large wildfires become more likely in Southern California. And even though not everyone may be near an impacted fire zone, smoke from the fires can still affect those near them.
But what may come as a surprise to most is scientists don't know exactly what is in the smoke that wildfires create. The reason for this is as smoke rises, the elements inside the smoke change. But a new project hopes to find the answer to what people actually breathe when breathing in smoke after a fire.
A 50-year-old DC-8 plane has been converted with 50 different instruments that are fastened outside the plane and are set to record the different elements of smoke. Inside the plane is a mobile lab, collecting data from outside the plane as it flies over fires. Scientists hope to find which part of the smoke is most carcinogenic and toxic.
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"The diversity of what you find in fire is so great that you literally need to measure hundreds of different things. And so, you're looking at the gases that come out of the fire," said NASA scientist James Crawfod.
Although it is fairly obvious that smoke from fires is not good for your health, the smoke may be worse than what most people think. As smoke climbs in the atmosphere, its chemistry changes. And the smoke, as seen from NASA's satellite, can move hundreds, even thousands of miles across the country.
"We've been studying fires for over 30 years, but this is the first time that we're going to systematically look at what's burning, the intensity of the fire, the chemical composition and, then, how it changes as it gets transported in the atmosphere," said NASA Scientist, Barry Lefer.
However the DC-8 plane is not the only plane being used for this study. The ER-2 will also be used and is currently based in Palmdale.
The plane is what is known as the near space vehicle. It's going to travel 60,000-70,000 feet in the sky so that it doesn't affect firefighting efforts on the ground, it's going to be used as a mobile satellite monitoring the wildfire.
The information retrieved from the EP2 will be relayed to scientists on the ground showing what is happening with the fire in terms of temperature and smoke.
The goal of the project is to find out how the smoke is affecting air quality and air pollution on the ground near the fire as well as farther away.
The project is set to start in July 22 and will go through September 5. All the planes involved in the project will fly to all large fires ranging from Canada to Mexico.