The smoke from wildfires can spread the dangerous impacts of wildfires far beyond the area actually scorched by flames.

Wildfire smoke can cross continents, degrading air quality and creating hazardous conditions thousands of miles away from its source. For example, a 2021 study found that wildfire smoke is responsible for more than 33,000 deaths a year across 43 countries, and these deaths often occur in cities hundreds of miles away from the fires burning.

Smoke also impacts weather, not just air quality. While the path of smoke is highly dependent on the weather, the smoke itself can also change the weather. For example, tiny particles called aerosols that are lofted into the atmosphere as a fire burns can affect cloud formation and precipitation. A better understanding of how wildfire smoke evolves, its impact on atmospheric chemistry and resulting air quality, and where it’s likely to travel are all important for helping protect society. 

The challenge:

Predicting the air quality impacts of wildfires is a challenge because atmospheric chemistry models, which require significant computational resources to run, rely on once-a-day fire emissions estimates from satellites. In addition, mobilizing ground-based and airborne instruments needed to observe the complex chemistry of the smoke plumes is difficult given the uncertainty around where and when a fire will occur. 

Actionable science:

NCAR scientists are working on a number of fronts to improve our understanding of wildfire smoke, its impacts, and our ability to predict them. 

For example, NCAR scientists have facilitated or participated in field campaigns that use sophisticated research aircraft loaded with precision instruments to fly through wildfire plumes, collecting measurements that help illuminate the chemistry and micro-physics of smoke and how those processes affect clouds, air quality, and more.

NCAR scientists also make extensive use of satellite instruments to research wildfire smoke, including an instrument called Measurements of Pollution in the Troposphere. MOPITT, which was designed by NCAR in collaboration with the University of Toronto, flies onboard NASA's Earth Observing System Terra spacecraft and measures carbon monoxide, which is released by wildfires. For example, NCAR scientists recently used MOPITT data to identify a new seasonal pattern of pollution over the U.S. related to increasing fires in the Pacific Northwest. 

NCAR also produces daily atmospheric chemistry forecasts that take wildfires into account as well as a daily fire emissions inventory called FINN, or Fire Inventory from NCAR, for use in other atmospheric chemistry models.