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Contacts for This Release

UCAR Communications

Tip Sheet: Investigating the Behavior and Far-Reaching Impacts of Wildfires

June 28, 2006

BOULDER—With parts of the nation facing unusually hot and dry conditions, experts are warning about a particularly severe wildfire season. Scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) closely study a wide range of wildfire topics. Using advanced computer models and sophisticated observing tools, they look at wildfire behavior, emissions that can reach across the country and beyond, and impacts on local communities.

Experts are available to explain

  • how smoke from a major blaze can significantly degrade air quality thousands of miles away;

  • how computer models can incorporate ground and weather conditions to simulate the seemingly unpredictable movements of flames;

  • what steps communities can take to protect homes and drinking water supplies from wildfire and subsequent erosion; and

  • how satellite observations are enabling scientists to track the effect of wildfire emissions worldwide.

NCAR also offers background information on the Web.

Wildfire Experts at NCAR

Fire emissions and air quality impacts

David Edwards, NCAR Scientist
Edwards is project leader for a satellite instrument that provides unprecedented detail about atmospheric levels of carbon monoxide, a potentially harmful gas emitted by both wildfires and industrial activities. The instrument (called Measurements of Pollution in the Troposphere, or MOPITT) has provided evidence that wildfires and agricultural burning are responsible for about half the world’s carbon monoxide.

Gabriele Pfister, NCAR Scientist
Pfister specializes in forest fires at high latitudes and their impacts on pollution and climate. Her research has shown that wildfires in Alaska and Canada can significantly increase levels of ground-level ozone as far away as the U.S. East Coast and Europe.

Christine Wiedinmyer, NCAR Scientist
Wiedinmyer estimates the chemical composition of emissions from all kinds of large-scale fires, particularly those in North America. Her estimates are used by environmental officials who work on strategies to minimize air pollution and improve air quality. Scientists who create computer models of regional climate and chemicals in the atmosphere also draw on her work.

Hans Friedli, NCAR Scientist
Friedli specializes in measuring the amount of mercury released into the atmosphere during wildfires. Mercury, a toxic metal, is stored in foliage and ground litter until those substances burn. Friedli’s research, which relies on both fieldwork and lab experiments, is providing insights into the global movement of mercury and the extent to which the toxin enters the food chain.

Fire behavior and safety

Janice Coen, NCAR Scientist
Coen creates computer models that simulate the movements of wildfires. These help researchers understand why fires act in ways that may appear unpredictable, and reveal aspects of fire behavior that can make firefighting safer.

Fire and water

Kathy Miller, NCAR Scientist
An expert on water issues, Miller studies the impacts of wildfires on drinking water. Major blazes can affect runoff patterns and send large amounts of sediments into streams and reservoirs, potentially contaminating drinking water. Miller also conducts research into the reasons that some residents buy houses in areas with a high fire risk.


Fire basics

What kind of vegetation will ignite most readily? How does weather influence fire development? What are the most dangerous pollutants in wildfire smoke? Follow this link for a backgrounder about wildfire basics and a research roundup with numerous links to resources within and beyond NCAR:

Backgrounder: Wildfires

Related sites on the World Wide Web 

Backgrounder: Wildfires

Contacts for This Release
UCAR Communications

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