Scientists Look For Climate Change Clues In Wildfire Soot

By Anna King

You may know that on a hot, sunny day it’s better to be sitting in a white car than a black one. White reflects sunlight, while black absorbs more of it. The same concept applies to researchers trying to figure out what effect wildfires have on climate change. And part of the answer is whether the smoke particles are dark or reflective.

Outside of a white, paint-peeling hanger in Pasco, sits a glossy small science plane.

Anna King: “… like some kind of fancy jet airliner for executives. It’s kind of of those ones that you see when you’re on the Boeing 747, and you look out and then you see the really fancy plane guiding by you toward the runway.”

Onboard, there are no fancy champagne chillers, or plush seating. Instead, it looks like a server farm. Stacks of equipment are anchored down in chest high cages with very little room to walk around.

Art Sedlacek is a physical chemist from Brookhaven National Lab. Most people would run away from wildfires, but Sedlacek leads a team of researchers who fly directly into smoke plumes.

Art Sedlacek: “Here you’re going through basically blue sky and then you hit this wall of white haze. And when you’re in the column itself it goes from a white to an orange haze color. The absorptive properties of these biomass burns just change the character of what it is. It’s somewhat surreal almost for all of us.”

Sedlacek says the data his team’s gathering will help determine what happens when a fire moves from an active burning stage with flames, to a smoldering stage. If you imagine a tiny smoke particle, it’s black when it first leaves the flames and as it travels farther away it gathers reflective material.

Anna King: “So black smoke equals warming, white smoke equals cooling?”
Art Sedlacek: “That’s exactly right.”

Now the task is to see if a particular wildfire puts off more of those dark soot particles or the reflective ones, and for how long. How the wildfires are effecting climate change ... that will take years of more study to answer.

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