Workshop on biomass burning held in Colorado

Plumes of smoke as seen from space from a wildfire that engulfed the state of Utah in the United States in 2010. Photo: NASA
Read a summary of the Fifth Interdisciplinary Biomass Burning Initiative (IBBI) Workshop, which took place in Boulder in July 2017.

A version of this story was originally published by International Global Atmospheric Chemistry (IGAC). It was written by Melita Keywood, of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation  (CSIRO) Climate Science Centre in Australia, Johannes W. Kaiser, of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Germany, and Megan L. Melamed, of IGAC in the United States.

Fifty-three participants from 15 countries gathered in July 2017 in Boulder, USA, for the Fifth Interdisciplinary Biomass Burning Initiative Workshop. This workshop was sponsored by International Global Atmospheric Chemistry (IGAC), a global research project of Future Earth, and hosted by the University of Colorado Boulder and the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES).

Biomass burning, from forest to peat fires, occurs on every continent except Antarctica. It changes the land surface and releases large amounts of trace gases and aerosols to the atmosphere that play important roles in atmospheric chemistry and climate. However, there is also large uncertainty about how climate change and global change will impact the frequency, intensity, duration and location of biomass burning in the short- and long-term.

Participants in the Fifth IBBI Workshop pose for a photo at the University of Colorado Boulder. Photo: IGAC

The aim of the workshop was to capitalise on U.S. research campaigns around biomass burning in the global and operational contexts. The event brought together the international biomass burning research community to discuss how to leverage efforts in the U.S. and Europe to improve scientific research and understanding of open biomass burning around the world and to maximise the benefits from new satellite instrumentation.

In the U.S., there are several research campaigns underway to study the impact of fires on the atmosphere. They include integrated laboratory, field and modelling activities. The following major field activities will take place in 2018 and 2019 with funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Joint Fire Science Program Project:

  • Fire Influence on Regional and Global Environments Experiment (FIREX )
  • FIREChem
  • Western wildfire Experiment for Cloud chemistry, Aerosol absorption and Nitrogen (WE-CAN)
  • Fire and Smoke Model Evaluation Experiment (FASMEE)

In addition to these activities, the U.S. Department of Energy  Biomass Burning Observation Project (BBOP) took place in 2013, and the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR)  Atmospheric Chemistry Center for Observation Research and Data (ACCORD) is coordinating an effort to synthesise various data related to open fires. At the same time, the capabilities of scientists to observe global fires are being greatly improved by a series of Sentinel satellite launches by the European Space Agency (ESA) and the geostationary GOES-R and Himawari-8 satellites launched by the U.S. and Japan. Furthermore, ESA is developing a stable long-term time series of fire observations in its Climate Change Initiative. All these activities will contribute significantly to the understanding of the role of biomass burning in the climate and for operational air quality forecasting applications.

The July workshop took place over two days and included plenary talks, breakout groups and plenary discussions. The workshop opened with welcomes and introductory presentations from the host institution and sponsors of the workshop. David Fahey from NOAA discussed a newspaper article from the same day describing current fires burning in California and British Columbia. Alexander Baklanov from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) Global Atmosphere Watch (GAW) announced the publication of Vegetation Fire and Smoke Pollution Warning and Advisory System (VFSP-WAS): Concept Note and Expert Recommendations, which was the outcome from the Fourth IBBI Workshop in 2016.

Other plenary sessions included descriptions of the 2018 and 2019 U.S. field campaigns, the challenges of forecasting and modelling biomass burning. Presenters described forecasting systems from Europe, Australia, the U.S. and Singapore and also discussed fire products available from satellites. On the second day, after a plenary session delving into the ACCORD project and selected non-U.S. based activities, a World Café-style break out session was carried out. In this session, participants circulated between tables and discussed: (1) How the outcomes of the U.S. field campaigns can be transferred beyond the U.S. and into the future; (2) How the U.S. field campaigns can serve to verify and enhance satellite products; (3) How the U.S. field campaigns, satellite products and non-U.S. activities can address the challenges of forecasting and modelling biomass burning; and (4) How the U.S. field campaigns can help to meet the goals and needs of biomass burning research outside the U.S.

Two themes emerged repeatedly amid a wealth of ideas:

  1. The U.S. field campaigns should link smoke plume properties to fire characteristics like flaming versus smoldering fire type, temperature and radiative fire power in order to make their results applicable to large-scale satellite observation analyses for smoke forecasting. This is also highly relevant in view of the strong fire temperature-dependence of smoke composition that was observed during the BBOP campaign. It may, however, require an additional aircraft dedicated to observing the evolution of fires that emit an observed smoke plume.
  2. The U.S. campaigns can make their results and know-how accessible to scientific groups worldwide by developing programmes for visiting scientists from outside the country to observe aircraft experiment activities directly from campaign bases. This would likely have a long-lasting effect by initiating research collaborations for years to come.

Other suggestions included ensuring the products and information from the activities are discoverable and usable for the international community, expanding the scope of U.S. campaigns. That may include adding fuel types from outside the U.S., such as peat and eucalyptus trees, to laboratory burning experiments, and building capacity among scientists by developing “best practice” guidelines based on the U.S. field campaigns.

IBBI is currently developing follow-up activities to implement the themes that emerged from this workshop.

IGAC thanks the following funders of this workshop:

  • U.S. NOAA
  • U.S. NASA
  • U.S. NSF
  • ESA-Future Earth Partnership