In the heart of downtown Boise on Aug. 11, the smoke choking the skyline from nearby wildfires was oppressive, hazing the foothills and stealing the blue from overhead. But as bad as it was, a drive out to Western Aircraft, an avionics company near the Boise Airport, revealed that it could have been much worse. There, the gray-brown murk was so dense it blanketed the ground like fog.
While the lack of visibility might have dampened the spirits of ordinary air travelers, it was actually good news for the group of scientists from Colorado, Montana, Washington and Wyoming huddled on the tarmac outside Western, dwarfed by a Lockheed C-130 Hercules airplane—in fact, it was their whole reason for being there. Their mission was nothing less than to conduct the largest, most exhaustive analysis of Western wildfire smoke in U.S. history, a project dubbed "Western Wildfire Experiment for Cloud Chemistry, Aerosol Absorption and Nitrogen," or WE-CAN. The plane was one of their "flying laboratories," packed with thousands of pounds of high-tech equipment.
"We have instrumentation from five different universities and the National Center for Atmospheric Research on board," said Colorado State University atmospheric scientist and WE-CAN Project Lead Emily Fischer, speaking to a group of reporters gathered near the belly of the C-130 that morning. "Basically what we're trying to do is get as close as we can safely to wildfires and transit the aircraft through smoke as it moves downwind. Most of the instrumentation that's on this aircraft actually pulls smoke into the plane, so we can measure the composition of that smoke in real time."
Smoke can include everything from organic particles to toxic gasses like nitrogen and ozone. Its composition changes with each mile and hour it travels, meaning it impacts each city and town it passes through differently. The implications of the WE-CAN team's data are massive. Over the course of the morning, the gathered scientists mentioned a multitude of applications for their research, including insight into the effects of smoke on human health, wildlife, cloud formation, weather patterns, crops and the understanding of climate change.
"As we're getting better at controlling other types of pollution like catalytic converters on cars [and] more controls on power plant plumes, these fires are becoming more important, and we know they're getting bigger and bigger," said Amy Sullivan, a research scientist from CSU and a regular on the 6- to 7-hour smoke sampling flights. "And so really being able to understand what they're doing right now is really going to help us."
As is often the case with valuable things, gaining access to that data isn't easy. Frank Flocke, a scientist in the Atmospheric Chemistry Observations & Modeling Laboratory at NCAR with roughly 20 smoke analysis missions under his belt, knows that better than anyone. He described the process with gravitas in his German accent.
"The first time we went into a fire plume we couldn't believe the visibility. It's absolutely zero, you can't see anything. It's like flying through a cloud," he said.
During its time based in Boise, the WE-CAN C-130 made more than a dozen trips to sample the the smoke plumes of various wildfires, often in spots as far away as Utah and California. It approached the plumes from the upland side, flying high to avoid the firefighting aircraft below. The crew worked with air traffic control on each trip to carve out a 50-by-50 mile space where the plane could operate safely, without interference. Flocke said the pilot carefully avoided flying directly over fires, where strong updrafts could catch the plane's wing, flip it and send it spiraling to the ground.
During the flights, Flocke himself stayed in the cockpit, playing backseat driver and guru to Fisher, who made her mission lead debut with WE-CAN. After the Aug. 11 press conference, they climbed up the ladder and into their chairs behind the pilot and co-pilot to give a play-by-play of the action.
"I feel like this is the reason I got a PhD—to fly around in this cockpit," said Fisher, pulling on noise-canceling headphones and flashing a smile.
She said that she and Flocke have a constant raport as the plane approaches a smoke plume, running a "morning show" that drives the crew in the back of the plane, who are crammed between massive banks of knob- and dial-covered instruments, a bit crazy. Flocke said the banter helps alleviate tension, because when the plane hits a plume things can get "intense."
"If you don't have a little fun, you go bananas," he said wryly.
Back on the smoke-shrouded tarmac, Shane Murphy, an assistant atmospheric science professor at the University of Wyoming, looked out at that same anxiety-causing smoke, which he'd commented seems to get thicker and more widespread every year.
"We have to understand all these effects, because it looks like this might be our new reality," Murphy said.
After collecting a host of data, the WE-CAN team left Boise on Aug. 31, just as the smoke finally cleared. Its findings—funded by the the National Science Foundation to the tune of $10 million—are currently being analyzed across the U.S. and in labs as far away as Germany.