The Importance of Monitoring Wildfires
Per NASA, fires play an important role in the natural changes that occur in Earth’s ecosystems. The diversity of plant and animal life in the world’s forests, prairies, and wetlands is (partly) dependent on the effects of fire; in fact, some plants cannot reproduce without fire (fire breaks open the outside coating of some seeds and stimulates germination). What may at first look like total devastation soon becomes a panorama of new life. Fire initiates critical natural processes by breaking down organic matter into soil nutrients. Rain then moves these nutrients back into the soil providing a rejuvenated fertile seedbed for plants. With less competition and more sunlight, seedlings grow more quickly.
Wild animals deal with fire remarkably well. Birds fly out of the fire area, large animals leave the danger zone by escaping to ponds and streams, while others return to their burrows. Usually few animals are killed by fire.
The Health Effects of Wildfires
Per the EPA, smoke may smell good, but it’s not good for you. While not everyone has the same sensitivity to wildfire smoke, it’s still a good idea to avoid breathing smoke if you can help it. And when smoke is heavy, such as can occur in close proximity to a wildfire, it’s bad for everyone.
Smoke is made up of a complex mixture of gases and fine particles produced when wood and other organic materials burn. The biggest health threat from smoke is from fine particles. These microscopic particles can penetrate deep into your lungs. They can cause a range of health problems, from burning eyes and a runny nose to aggravated chronic heart and lung diseases. Exposure to particle pollution is even linked to premature death.
How to Monitor Wildfires
The EPA and US Forest Services have provided a network to track fire and smoke. The Fire and Smoke Map displays information on ground level air quality monitors recording fine particulates (PM 2.5) from smoke and other sources, as well as information on fires, smoke plume locations, and special statements about smoke issued by various sources. This map is designed to: Allow the user to browse current conditions https://fire.airnow.gov/
Wildfire Smoke Tracking
Per NASA, smoke and aerosol particles from large-scale biomass burning can rise high into the troposphere and be carried long distances by wind currents. Smoke plumes from Mexico have traveled as far north as Wisconsin and the Dakotas, and as far east as Florida and out over the Gulf Stream.
Aerosols have a two-fold cooling effect on climate. In the open atmosphere, they scatter and absorb incoming solar radiation, thereby reducing the amount of sunlight that reaches the surface. Moreover, aerosols act as “seeds”—called cloud condensation nuclei. When clouds form in the polluted atmosphere, the clouds’ droplets tend to be smaller and more numerous. Because polluted clouds are typically comprised of more densely-packed droplets, they are more efficient at absorbing and reflecting sunlight, again having a cooling effect on the surface.
Aerosols represent one of the greatest areas of uncertainty regarding climate change, both on global and regional scales. Scientists do not fully understand the magnitude of their cooling influence on climate.
Scientists do not know which of the emission products exerts the greater net effect on regional and global climate—the cooling influence of aerosols and clouds, or the warming influence of the greenhouse gases. Because both types of emission products change rapidly through time and space, they are difficult to observe and characterize. In the future, the greenhouse gas warming is expected to dominate due to the gases’ much longer presence in the atmosphere (10-100 years) than that of aerosol particles (7 days).
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