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UM Chemist Takes Students on a Wildfire RideStudents Aboard Flying Laboratory Study Composition of Wildfire Smoke
Most aircraft slicing through the smoke above wildfires either drop water or smokejumpers in an effort to manage fire on the ground. But one plane – a flying laboratory carrying researchers from UM – has the capacity to change what we know about future fires.
Last summer, the four-engine cargo plane spent more than 100 hours above fires burning in the West, collecting data about the chemical composition of smoke and how it changes over time and travel.
The National Science Foundation C-130 sampled wildfire plumes in California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Nevada and Montana. The results will provide a new understanding of air quality and how it may affect populations downwind.
Assistant Professor Lu Hu from UM’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, along with four UM graduate students, were part of the research team funded to work on the study through a multimillion-dollar collaborative NSF project called the Western Wildfire Experiment for Cloud Chemistry, Aerosol Absorption and Nitrogen, or WE-CAN. It is the “largest, most comprehensive attempt to date to measure and analyze wildfire smoke,” according to the NSF.
Hu and his atmospheric chemistry group are leading the investigation into chemistry and emission of organic pollutants from smoke. The team deployed UM’s new mass spectrometer on the C-130 research aircraft.
This instrument provided real-time measurements of volatile organic compounds in wildfire smoke and more insight into organic gas composition than previously possible. The emissions from wildfires are typically toxic, and they can form ground-level ozone and fine particulate matter, which are linked to serious health impacts and regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“We expect to observe many toxic species from smoke that had been rarely characterized or reported before,” Hu says. “This unprecedented and rich dataset will help us better predict air quality downwind and understand how fire smoke impacts the climate system.”
Back in the lab on campus, Hu and his team worked to interpret how cloud chemistry, aerosol absorption and reactive nitrogen in wildfire plumes affect air quality, nutrient cycles, weather, climate and the health of those exposed to smoke.
The collaborative study includes researchers from five other institutions. As part of this project, Hu teaches students aircraft observations in UM’s new Atmospheric Chemistry course. There were more than 30 students across three universities in the course, including seven students from UM.
The class brought the C-130 flying laboratory into a classroom. Students learn about the aircraft-based mission design and flight planning, and they just planned and executed three flights with the C-130 aircraft in early September.
“Bringing cutting-edge research into a classroom is very fun and a great experience for both students and instructors,” Hu says.