BER launches Environmental System Science Program. Visit our new website under construction!

U.S. Department of Energy Office of Biological and Environmental Research

BER Research Highlights


Wildfires Pollute Much More Than Previously Thought
Published: June 14, 2017
Posted: July 14, 2017

Aircraft observations show that wildfires produce three times as many particles as assumed in current emission inventories.

The Science
Biomass burning, which includes wildfires and prescribed agricultural and forest management burns, is a large global emission source of trace gases and aerosol particles to the atmosphere. In the United States, wildfires are the largest contributor to the annual total area burned and occur largely in the western continental states and Alaska. Understanding the types and amounts of gases and particles produced by wildfires is important for understanding their overall impacts on air pollution and human health. Previous aircraft studies of U.S. forest fire emissions have been performed primarily on controlled burns. In this study, scientists, including researchers from Los Alamos, Brookhaven, and Pacific Northwest national laboratories, used research aircraft operated by the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) Climate Research Facility and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to study details of fresh emissions from the initial stages of three western U.S. wildfires.

The Impact
This research quantifies the emissions of a range of both gaseous and particulate species from U.S. wildfires using measurements performed on research aircraft operated by DOE and NASA. The results indicate that wildfires are a large source of particulate pollution in western states and that the source is currently underestimated by more than a factor of three in emissions inventories. Comparison of these results to those obtained from prescribed burning indicates that wildfires are a larger source of pollution. These findings could better inform fire management and support the practice of prescribed burning to reduce the impact of particulate matter from wildfires on air quality.

Summary
Plumes from three wildfires in the western United States were measured from aircraft during the Studies of Emissions and Atmospheric Composition, Clouds and Climate Coupling by Regional Surveys (SEAC4RS) and the Biomass Burning Observation Project (BBOP), both in summer 2013. This study reports an extensive set of emission factors for over 80 gases and five components of submicron particulate matter (PM1) from these temperate wildfires. These include rarely, or never before, measured oxygenated volatile organic compounds and multifunctional organic nitrates. The observed emission factors are compared with previous measurements of temperate wildfires, boreal forest fires, and temperate prescribed fires. The wildfires emitted high amounts of PM1 (with organic aerosol dominating the mass) with an average emission factor that is more than two times the emission factors for prescribed fires. The measured emission factors were used to estimate the annual wildfire emissions of carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, total non-methane organic compounds, and PM1 from 11 western U.S. states. The estimated gas emissions are generally comparable with the 2011 National Emissions Inventory (NEI). However, the PM1 emission estimate in this study is over three times that of the NEI PM2.5 estimate and is also higher than the PM2.5 emitted from all other sources in these states in the NEI. This study indicates that the source of organic aerosol from biomass burning in western states is significantly underestimated. In addition, the results indicate that prescribed burning may be an effective method to reduce fine particle emissions.

Contacts (BER PM)
Sally McFarlane and Rick Petty
Atmospheric Radiation Measurement Climate Research Facility
Sally.McFarlane@science.doe.gov and Rick.Petty@science.doe.gov

Ashley Williamson and Shaima Nasiri
Atmospheric System Research Program
Ashley.Williamson@science.doe.gov and Shaima.Nasiri@science.doe.gov

PI Contacts
Corresponding Author:
Greg Huey
Georgia Tech
greg.huey@eas.gatech.edu

DOE Laboratory contacts:
Manvendra Dubey
Los Alamos National Laboratory
dubey@lanl.gov

Arthur Sedlacek
Brookhaven National Laboratory
Sedlacek@bnl.gov

Funding
This work was supported by National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) grants NNX12AB77G, NNX15AT90G, NNX12AC06G, and NNX14AP46GACCDAM. The BBOP project was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Science, Office of Biological and Environmental Research, Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) Climate Research Facility and Atmospheric System Research program. P.C.J., D.A.D., B.B.P., and J.L.J. were supported by NASA NNX12AC03G and NNX15AT96G. M. Müller received additional support from the Austrian Space Applications Programme.

Publication
Liu, X., et al. 2017. “Airborne Measurements of Western U.S. Wildfire Emissions: Comparison with Prescribed Burning and Air Quality Implications,” Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres 122(11), 6108-29. DOI: 10.1002/ 2016JD026315. (Reference link)

Related Links
Georgia Tech press release

Topic Areas:

  • Research Area: Atmospheric System Research
  • Facility: DOE ARM User Facility

Division: SC-33.1 Earth and Environmental Sciences Division, BER

 

BER supports basic research and scientific user facilities to advance DOE missions in energy and environment. More about BER

Recent Highlights

Jan 11, 2022
No Honor Among Copper Thieves
Findings provide a novel means to manipulate methanotrophs for a variety of environmental and in [more...]

Dec 06, 2021
New Genome Editing Tools Can Edit Within Microbial Communities
Two new technologies allow scientists to edit specific species and genes within complex laborato [more...]

Oct 27, 2021
Fungal Recyclers: Fungi Reuse Fire-Altered Organic Matter
Degrading pyrogenic (fire-affected) organic matter is an important ecosystem function of fungi i [more...]

Oct 19, 2021
Microbes Offer a Glimpse into the Future of Climate Change
Scientists identify key features in microbes that predict how warming affects carbon dioxide emi [more...]

Aug 25, 2021
Assessing the Production Cost and Carbon Footprint of a Promising Aviation Biofuel
Biomass-derived DMCO has the potential to serve as a low-carbon, high-performance jet fuel blend [more...]

List all highlights (possible long download time)