Big fire with side effects
There have been major forest fires worldwide in recent years. Which substances get into the air and how they work has only been partially researched. Atmospheric researchers are tracking down the dangers of the smoke with highly sensitive instruments and flying laboratories.
"This one looks interesting. Not too dense," says atmospheric chemist James Crawford. He has a plaster against motion sickness stuck behind his ear. He bends over a plume of smoke visible from the cockpit. It's late July 2019 and we're on a former passenger plane that NASA has converted into a laboratory. 35 scientists and engineers calibrate their instruments in the cabin. They are full of excited anticipation. Their equipment is actually designed to measure air pollutants in cities. Now they are supposed to take samples in this particle-laden environment. It remains to be seen how the 50-year-old plane will fare in a column of smoke. The plane bucks and hops as it plunges 13,000 feet into the dark cloud looming over a fire outside of Missoula, Montana. "45 seconds, then turn around," Crawford instructs the pilot. The turbulence turns out to be surprisingly weak, so they take another shot at the cloud.
It is the third flight as part of FIREX-AQ, an ambitious three-year project led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA…