An Island of Opportunity

Natalie takes off during swim call, with a view of HTHH in the background. Credit: SEA
Natalie takes off during swim call, with a view of HTHH in the background. Credit: SEA

By Natalia Chiapperi & Carlin Schildge /HUNGA TONGA-HUNGA HA’APAI, KINGDOM OF TONGA/

As we begin to wrap up our time here at HTHH, the data collection slowed down and we found some free time to enjoy the beauty and seclusion of the island. The day started late, with an 8:40 wake-up call, the latest we’ve been able to sleep-in in several weeks. After a fun frittata frenzy (don’t you just love alliteration?) we signed up for shifts of anchor watch on the ship and free time on shore. Half of the students ventured to island in the morning, while the other half took to land in the afternoon. Our watch hung around on the ship for the morning. What was shaping up to be a relaxing morning of reading and card games was made much more exciting with a surprise swim call right before lunch. We climbed to the end of the bowsprit for the first time without our harnesses, and suddenly the way down looked like a much further fall than we initially realized. But with the encouragement of our shipmates, we mustered some courage and took the leap!

Cameron, Grace, and Natalie (left to right) at the rim of the Crater Lake. The Crater Lake and the South Shore of HTHH can be seen behind them. Credit: SEA
Cameron, Grace, and Natalie (left to right) at the rim of the Crater Lake. The Crater Lake and the South Shore of HTHH can be seen behind them. Credit: SEA

After lunch wrapped up, we started the daily shuffle of small boat runs to shore, to swap out students and crew who spent the morning on the island. Once on the rocky black shores, the two of us parted ways to chase our separate adventures. Natalie made the long haul across the north shore to the southwest corner with Grace and Cameron to begin a trek up to the crater rim. The path was an easy one to choose – simply go where the crevices are only 10 feet deep instead of 50, and you’re good to go. The mountain was deceptively small; the trek up wasn’t even the hardest part. The 15-minute climb was nothing compared to the 45-march out to the base of the crater. But it was all worth it once we saw the view from the top. We even saw a whale splashing around Mama Seamans! Oh, and we spotted Carlin journeying across the barren island towards the Crater Lake.

A bright patch of juvenile coral perches on a rock in the waters off Hunga Tonga. Credit: SEA
A bright patch of juvenile coral perches on a rock in the waters off Hunga Tonga. Credit: SEA

Carlin broke off with Eliza and Arielle, and we walked over to Crater Lake to investigate the legendary hot spots. Unfortunately, we were unsuccessful in locating them ourselves, but we had a nice time seeing how far we could sink into the sediment (I almost lost my shoe when, after sitting in sediment up to my thigh, my leg found the surface but my shoe did not). After some light whale watching on the south shore, we made our way back for a snorkel around the northern tip of Hunga Tonga. It was absolutely incredible, and I saw some of the healthiest and most diverse corals I will probably ever see. It was amazing to witness the rebirth of the reef and see how resilient an ecosystem can be when undisturbed by human impacts. Colorful reef fish (and the occasional reef shark) darted from rock to rock, where hundreds of precariously perched baby coral polyps grew out of the ashes of the volcanic eruption. We even saw some massive, old heads of coral, covered in ash, with smaller new polyps growing miraculously over them. It was amazingly hopeful to see the coral reef at the beginning of its life, and it left me with hope for the future of the budding diverse ecosystem.

We really appreciated the opportunity to explore HTHH on our own time today, while still carrying the geological and ecological knowledge we’ve come to acquire over the past few days of research. Data collection was still active across the island, as a team continued vegetation and bird surveys and another surveyed the corals using an ROV. And shout-out to our marine debris team as well, who worked tirelessly today to finish removing as much trash from the island as possible. We finished off this perfect day at HTHH with burgers, a beautiful sunset, and a movie night on deck. Once again feeling grateful for every opportunity this island has provided us. Cheers!

– Natalie Chiapperi, Ithaca College & Carlin Schildge, Colby College, proud members of A Watch!

On this expedition to the Kingdom of Tonga, NASA is partnering with the Tongan Ministry of the Environment and the Sea Education Association, an internationally recognized leader in field-based environmental education at sea. This entry is cross-posted from SEA’s blog with permission.

 

Hands-on Research Gets Hot on HTHH, Tonga

Left – Sally and Grace compare surface mud with mud from deeper in the sediment column, while Eva, Katherine, and Olivia look on; Center – Cam holds hot mud up to the camera while Eva looks off camera; Right – Photo of hot mud with stake that is being used to investigate tidal influence within the crater lake. Blue in the thermal camera is not only produced by the cold, but also the underwater areas in the top of the image. Credit: NASA/ Dan Slayback
Thermal images of hot mud. Left – Sally and Grace compare surface mud with mud from deeper in the sediment column, while Eva, Katherine, and Olivia look on; Top right – Cam holds hot mud up to the camera while Eva looks off camera; Bottom right – Photo of hot mud with stake that is being used to investigate tidal influence within the crater lake. Blue in the thermal camera is not only produced by the cold, but also the underwater areas in the top of the image. Credit: NASA/ Dan Slayback

By Cameron Gallant and Katherine H. Webber /HUNGA TONGA-HUNGA HA’APAI, KINGDOM OF TONGA/

KATHERINE: Walking on deck, I welcomed our first sunny day at HTHH; however, upon reaching the island, I was greeted by hot black sand and an all-consuming heat that would last all day. Soon, as a part of the bird/vegetation team, Emily, Arielle, Cam, and I headed towards the southwest corner of the island, which boarders Hunga Ha’apai (which I think looks like a dragon lying down). Its red eye watched over us as we drew near.

CAMERON: The morning was hot, but peaceful. The sound of the waves mixed with the calls of boobies and frigate birds. The vivid green vegetation and reds in the rocks of Hunga Ha’apai set sharply against a bright blue sky and were in crazy contrast to the deep black rocks of HTHH.

KATHERINE: Our team observed a variety of birds, from frigate birds to red tailed tropical birds to a rare red-footed booby! While I was disappointed that we did not see any barn owls, we did discover a mysterious marsh bird, which we will soon identify!

Upon reaching the southwest corner, I was shocked to discover that there was a lot of marine debris scattered along the shore, in the sand and in the grass. Our single large trash bag was not enough to pick up all that we found (shoe soles, plastic bottles, Styrofoam, buoys, long plastic pipes, etc.), so we gathered the trash into piles for a group to collect tomorrow.

Plastic debris collection on HTHH, plastic debris is present on the foreground, with Arielle collecting trash in the background with the cone of HTHH in the distance. Credit: SEA
Plastic debris collection on HTHH. Plastic debris is present on the foreground, with Arielle collecting trash in the background with the cone of HTHH in the distance. Credit: SEA

CAMERON: How can there be shoes in a place where nobody has ever walked? Arielle alone, in about 15 minutes found 14 shoes (all flip flops or sandals), 13 bottles, and two buoys. It’s tough to feel impactful when I know next year more trash will be back. Perhaps HTHH, if it’s picked up each year, can be used as an indicator of the state of ocean bound trash in the area.

KATHERINE: The afternoon was for the crater lake. Watching the still green water emerge from the cover of brown canyons was striking in contrast to the crashing blue and purple surf of HTHH’s southern shore. I had paused between the two bodies of water when I noticed a small wave break not far from shore. I barely had time to alert my companions before a humpback whale breached right before my eyes! You could hear our screams of shock and delight from our ship, the Robert C. Seamans (I’m sure!), and we soon watched her calf breech multiple times, playing in the waves.

CAMERON: Grace thought she felt warm mud yesterday when we did transects to sonar map the bottom of the crater lake. Today, it took us a little while to find the area Grace had stumbled upon and there was some doubt as to if it even existed. Then, there was an excited cry, “I found it! It’s over here!’ Sure enough, as we stood half submerged in the crater lake, our feet sunk through the soft, and uncharacteristically warm mud!

Crater lake group in the water: (left to right) Dan, Adrianna, Eva, Kerry, Jennie, Cameron, Olivia, and Grace standing in the crater lake during hot mud investigation (not pictured: Katherine, Catherine, and Sally). Credit: SEA
Crater lake group in the water: (left to right) Dan, Adrianna, Eva, Kerry, Jennie, Cameron, Olivia, and Grace standing in the crater lake during hot mud investigation (not pictured: Katherine, Catherine, and Sally). Credit: SEA

KATHERINE: I stepped into the cool lake water, surprised as my foot, then ankle, then calf, was submerged until I was knee deep in gravel and mud! Due to a lack of a sediment temperature probe, our chief scientist decided that we would use what we have – our hands, feet, arms, and legs – to conduct our research.

So there we were, wandering knee deep in sediments (waist deep in water), sticking our limbs in and out of the earth, scooping up mud and gravel beneath the sun and clouds. When someone found a hot spot, everyone rushed over (all stumbling with movement hindered) to experience the spa-like sensation. Using a thermal camera, we measured the temperature of the sediment by taking a picture of mud after lifting it out of the water. In
the end, we discovered areas of underwater sediment in our study area (approximately one third of the lake shore) that were hotter than 100°F, with the hottest section at 127°F!

CAMERON:  “I love this mud. It’s not gritty.” I marveled. “Most mud has a certain grit too it.”

“It’s probably ash,” someone replied. Wow. It probably is.

The layering of sediment in the lake was fascinating! There were dark Oreo blacks combined with lighter brown layers to create a roughly inch-and-a-half thick rubbery crust (like firm tofu). This crust sat on top of softer mud mixed with volcanic rocks that provided very little resistance to our feet. Beneath everything was a firm gravely surface that supported our weight. Near one of our hotspots, we found that the sediment was layered in an alternating gravel, mud, gravel, mud fashion.

Throughout the afternoon, we moved along the lake edge and discovered the hot areas were not uniformly around the lake. We hope to feel out the rest of the lake tomorrow. We observed some of the mud has a slight sulfur aroma. The crater lake’s salinity and temperature are also similar to nearby sea water. We set up a temporary stake to monitor the water level to help determine if the lake is tidally influenced. Perhaps there is some
circulation between the lake and the ocean nearby.

KATHERINE: As incredible as the discoveries we are making on this island are, I think it’s important to note that there is nothing like experiencing nature’s wonders firsthand, whether in the splashes of whales or the stateliness of HTHH. So, I encourage all of you to go out and experience your local nature. I hope that you will gain the same appreciation for your natural surroundings as I have for HTHH.

CAMERON: Walking back I just was smiling, trying to wrap my head around the outlandishness of the situation. We spent the afternoon walking around getting muddy in a crater lake and just discovered something nobody in the world knew.

– Katherine H. Webber, B Watch, Best Watch!, The University of Virginia

– Cameron Gallant, A Watch, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

On this expedition to the Kingdom of Tonga, NASA is partnering with the Tongan Ministry of the Environment and the Sea Education Association, an internationally recognized leader in field-based environmental education at sea. This entry is cross-posted from SEA’s blog with permission.

“Another Planet:” Exploring Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai

Collecting a side-scan sonar transect of the crater lake. The Lowrance is in the foreground, with Cam and Grace towing it in another inflatable raft. The crater wall is also in the background. Credit: SEA
Collecting a side-scan sonar transect of the crater lake. The Lowrance is in the foreground, with Cam and Grace towing it in another inflatable raft. The crater wall is also in the background. Credit: SEA

By Grace Callahan /HUNGA TONGA-HUNGA HA’APAI, KINGDOM OF TONGA/

Hello from the newest land mass on earth! I’m Grace, and today was my first day on Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai. (I spent yesterday on the ship, helping to ensure that our anchor wouldn’t slip and allow us to be blown out to sea.) After breakfast and a community meeting on the quarterdeck, I boarded our small rescue boat and was whisked ashore. The sky was blanketed with clouds that occasionally pelted us with rain, a fact which under normal circumstances would have been disappointing, but the weather made the pitch black sand of the beach more intense and the volcano itself, pitted with deep ravines, all the more striking. As I walked across this otherworldly landscape, it was easy to convince myself that I had stumbled onto another planet. That is until a barn owl swooped past me, shattering this illusion. (We believe these owls are eating the rats we have observed on the island, and there is still so much more to discover about the animals here!)

My first task of the day was to hike to the crater lake on the other side of the tuff cone in order to conduct a plankton net tow and to complete the last of the side-scan sonar transects that will allow us to map the contours of the lake basin. We inflated our two rafts, and paddled across the mint green lake, dragging a very fine mesh net behind us. This gave us a concentrated sample of any organisms larger than 60 microns in the lake. Our water samples from yesterday show that the lake is more acidic than the ocean around it, so it will be fascinating to see what organisms have colonized these waters. We have looked at our net tow sample using our ship microscopes, and so far have identified spindly diatoms and barnacle nauplii (larvae)!

Next up, we fixed a sonar device and GPS to one of the inflatable rafts, and towed that across the lake several times. These transects will hopefully allow us to map the bathymetry of the lake itself! In the process of handling and paddling the rafts, I managed to submerge myself up to my chest several times, and eventually gave up on being completely dry ever again. After all this walking, paddling, and hauling of equipment we were all quite ready to head back to the beach and meet the other research teams for lunch.

The cliffs and surf on the south shore of HTHH. Credit: SEA
The cliffs and surf on the south shore of HTHH. Credit: SEA

After lunch, I joined the geosurvey team on a hunt for geothermal hotspots in the ravines that scar the sides of the volcano. Dan Slayback, who has joined us from NASA for this mission, brought along his heat-sensing thermal imaging camera for this purpose. Though we did not succeed today in finding any hotspots, we had fun exploring the ravines and collecting images of interesting rocks for our geologic catalog. On our way back to our home base, we went around the south shore of the island and marveled at the steep, jet black cliffs above us and the raging surf below. We also saw several baby whales happily showing their tails in the waters just off the coast!

As the rescue boat ferried people back to the Seamans in small groups, I decided to go for a swim. Floating in the water with the magnificent volcano looming in front of me, I thought about coming back tomorrow. Hopefully I will hike to the very top of the crater in order to collect samples that will provide vital clues about the soil microbiome of this brand new island. I also want to pick up more of the plastic trash that litters the island, giving back to this place that has already taught us so much. But for now it’s back to the ship, dry clothes, dinner, and another round of planning before bed. Thank you Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai for your unearthly beauty and for helping us better understand the workings of our Earth and other planets beyond it. I can’t wait to return.

– Grace Callahan, Wellesley College

On this expedition to the Kingdom of Tonga, NASA is partnering with the Tongan Ministry of the Environment and the Sea Education Association, an internationally recognized leader in field-based environmental education at sea. This entry is cross-posted from SEA’s blog with permission.

Early Reports from HTHH, Tonga

Students with the Sea Education Association's SSV Robert C. Seamans after landing on beach of HTHH. Credit: SEA
Students with the Sea Education Association’s SSV Robert C. Seamans after landing on beach of HTHH. Credit: SEA

by Frank Wenninger and Michael Tirone /HUNGA TONGA-HUNGA HA’APAI, KINGDOM OF TONGA/

As we labored down into the zodiac with our gear and rations, the ocean splashed violently around us. Those with hats cowered under the power of the southeasterly winds, and those in the front surrendered to the incessant spraying of the ocean. The 60 HP Yamaha engine roared to life and propelled us to the black sand beachhead on the northeast part of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai. On the approach, our coxswain barked disembarking orders and doubled down on the throttle for the landing. The bow of the boat was into the black volcanic sand by the hands of the white foam waves. Following orders, we rolled over our respective sides, plunged into warm Pacific waters, and maintained our hold on the rope that had kept us safe on the journey over. As waves, wind and rain battered us from all sides, we raced to clear the boat of the shoreline. We were eagerly greeted by fellow pioneers who off loaded our gear, and took us to the rendezvous point. Water, sunscreen, and snack; we were here.

As I attempted to free my feet from the soft volcanic sand, my perspective took shape. The black volcanic sand gnawed at my feet as I crawled up the dune where I was met again with the unrelenting southeasterly wind. To my left Hunga Tonga, a 150m high, former island blanketed with vegetation, towered over. On my right, Hunga Ha’apai, also a former island stood in the distance thinly populated with green. Finally, to the center stood the body that bridged the two, a 120m gray volcanic crater. Frigate birds, brown boobies, sooty terns, and thin gray clouds hung over head; tall grasses, trees, coconuts, ferns, hanging vines blow in the wind, and (reported) rats and insects scurry through the brush. Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai is young, and nature is quickly adapting and exploiting this union.

ank Wenninger paying Respect to Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha'apai, small boats and SSV Robert C. Seamans in the background
Frank Wenninger paying Respect to Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai, small boats and SSV Robert C. Seamans in the background. Credit: SEA

It still is surreal to be on Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai as the island is only four years old and fewer than 40 people have set their feet on this volcanic island. As some of us have talked to some Tongans while we were in Vava’u, thankfully there weren’t any bad omens or disrespect to their culture for us visiting the island and collecting data unlike other Polynesian islands such as Hawai’i. It is a bad luck to take rocks from the islands of Hawai’i as bad things happen to those that take rocks out of the island. Some people have mailed the rocks back to island in hope to get rid of the bad luck. From where I am from, Guam, it is important to ask for permission from the ancestors to enter certain areas or even to pee in the jungle. Although the people in Vava’u told us there is nothing to worry about, I wanted to pay respect to the island as soon as we got on the shore.

As a Pacific islander, respect is the most important virtue when it comes to every aspect of life. After I did my little prayer on the shore, all the crew got together to pay respect to the island. Soon we were off to complete our mission to help gather data in collaboration with our partners at NASA and with permission granted from the Kingdom of Tonga.

– Frank Wenninger, B Watch, George Washington University

Dan Slayback (right) and Pen Vailea (left) placing down drone/satellite target.
Pen Vailea (left) and Dan Slayback (right) placing down drone/satellite target. Credit: SEA

There is humanity among this beauty. I was fortunate to work with a team that included Dan Slayback, the NASA scientist who expertly orchestrated S-288’s research and Pen Vailea, our Tongan observer who guided and allowed us to do research on the island. Throughout my first day on the island Pen and Dan spearheaded multiple initiatives. First, we deployed a drone to systematically take photographs of the connecting portion of the island, or crater lake part. The drone flew at 300m in high winds and rain. It completed its mission per Dan. We also installed Tonga Geological Service plaques and satellite targets throughout the island to measure erosion. This group, the drone/installation group, summited and circumnavigated the crater lake, and I painfully ran around the rim looking for a different descent route. Other groups collected human debris throughout the island and others mapped the island’s crater lake. It was a productive first day for exploration, education, and stewardship. I hope we continue to have the opportunity to explore and give back to the island. Onto another day at sea, and on Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai.

– Michael Tirone, C Watch, Bowdoin College

On this expedition to the Kingdom of Tonga, NASA is partnering with the Tongan Ministry of the Environment and the Sea Education Association, an internationally recognized leader in field-based environmental education at sea. This entry is cross-posted from SEA’s blog with permission.

Sailing to Mars via Earth’s Newest Landmass

Intrepid students and SEA assistant scientists deploy the pack rafts and side-scan sonar in the crater lake at HTHH.
Intrepid students and SEA assistant scientists deploy the pack rafts and side-scan sonar in the crater lake at HTHH. Credit: SEA

by Kerry Whittaker, Chief Scientist aboard the SSV Robert C. Seamans / KINGDOM OF TONGA /

On September 27th the SSV Robert C. Seamans departed Pago Pago Harbor, American Samoa, bound for Earth’s newest landmass, located in the Kingdom of Tonga. The ship is a Sea Education Association student sailing and oceanographic vessel with 40 souls on board: student and professional crew, faculty, a visiting scientist from NASA, and an observer from the Tongan Ministry of the Environment. The ship’s destination: a new landmass formed in 2015 in an explosive volcanic eruption. The eruption deposited a pile of ash, pumice, and lava ‘bombs,’ building up a new landmass over the course of a month connecting the two small, uninhabited islands of Hunga Tonga and Hunga Ha’apai.  Perhaps the King of Tonga is scheming up a name for this new landmass, but for now, we’ll refer to it as HTHH.

Sea Education Association has been sailing to remote ocean regions, conducting oceanographic research, and involving students in sail training and scientific exploration for over 40 years.  Our two 134-foot sailing tall-ships are each fully equipped with an oceanographic research laboratory and field sampling technology geared towards studying the chemistry, geology, physics, and biology of the ocean from the surface to deep ocean habitats.  Both ships are designated Sailing School Vessels (SSV), which means that students sail as crew, not as passengers.  The SSV Corwth Cramer operates in the Atlantic Ocean, and the SSV Robert C. Seamans in the Pacific.

Since the formation of HTHH in 2015, NASA has been keenly interested in this landmass as a rare opportunity to examine pathways of land formation and erosion in the time of 21st century remote sensing and scientific technology. HTHH is the first island formed on Earth since the availability of sub-meter resolution satellites including imaging radar and geodetic lidar altimetry. The island has persisted longer than expected, sparking
questions of the erosion dynamics behind its longevity and mechanical stability. NASA’s Mars Exploration Program is most interested in HTHH, as it offers a proxy for understanding important geologic dynamics on the red planet associated with water-based erosion.  One might even consider the island of HTHH “Mars on Earth.”

Map showing the western Pacific with Australia and the Kingdom of Tonga.
Map showing the western Pacific with Australia to the left and the Kingdom of Tonga highlighted in red.

We’ve now arrived here at HTHH, aboard the Robert C. Seamans, which is nimble enough to get close to the island and involve students in this work in collaboration with the Kingdom of Tonga and with our partners at NASA.

As Chief Scientist for the SSV Robert C. Seamans throughout this mission, I have the distinct pleasure of wearing many hats (educator, scientist, shipmate, and my salty blue baseball hat), and facilitating the scientific and educational elements of this work.  As we sailed south from Vava’u, the island emerged from the horizon, otherworldly, wild, and pristine. For months and months, we had planned for this moment. Now, our much-discussed mission fully materialized: a dark grey primordial-looking volcano striped with canyons, dark black saddles leading to green-tufted islands to the East and the West.

We have twenty-six eager college students as integral parts of our scientific mission: to better understand processes of land formation on Earth, so that we might understand it on other planets (e.g. Mars). We’ll conduct our research in partnership with NASA and with the Kingdom of Tonga. As an educator, this experience is a dream.  I’m able to guide students through the process of discovery-to invite them to be scientists, to be stewards of this place, and communicators of our work. To show them the messy, complicated, joyous process of fieldwork. These students are immersed in the pure logistics of it all – of getting people from boat to island (don’t forget the sunblock, the radios, and make sure the datasheets are waterproof!). The need to McGuyver.  The need to open our eyes and question everything we see. I’m not lecturing in front of an undergraduate chemistry bench or over a microscope mimicking the scientific process.  Instead, I’m trudging through tiny volcanic black pebbles through the wind and rain with students trailing behind, wearing bright yellow foulie jackets and rain boots. I can’t help but feel a bit like Miss Frizzle.

We’re headed to the island’s crater lake to map its depth and shape for the first time using pack rafts and a portable sonar device. We’ve wound up and through the canyons lining the volcano’s steep walls, loose volcanic ash towering 30-50 feet above us, documenting and hypothesizing about the rocks and a suspicious white ooze coming from a distinct layer between ash and chunks of basalt.  We’re asking questions, using the human tools of our eyes and senses. We’re collecting data that might help to answer those questions with equipment we’ve personally lugged through force 6 winds in five or so small boat runs back and forth from island to ship throughout the morning. The equipment includes an ROV, two drones, highly sensitive GPS devices, datasheets, trash bags, sonar equipment and pack rafts, all to be deployed by student teams throughout the day, all to be trudged through the tiny black pebbles to the crater lake, the crater rim, the raucous wind-exposed south side beach, and the island’s saddles.  Tomorrow, we’ll test the newest rumor yet (although currently unsubstantiated) – Grace stuck her feet deep in the silt at the crater lake, and it was WARM down there. We’re picking up marine debris (because yes, of course, despite being the newest landmass on Earth, HTHH is covered with plastic trash).

The greatest delight for me, beyond the science and the adventure, is inviting students to engage as integral members in this scientific (and very human) process of discovery.  I am so excited to share this experience on HTHH with this eager group of SEA students.  I’m thrilled to be collaborating with NASA, our visiting scientist Dan Slayback, and our Tongan observer and partners in the Tongan Ministry of the Environment. I’m so fortunate to be working alongside an amazing team of professional crew (assistant scientists, engineers, steward, and mates) sailing aboard the SSV Robert C. Seamans, without whom this work would not be possible.  I’m also endlessly grateful to my co-faculty, Captain and Chief Anthropologist, aboard as masters of our educational and sailing program.  And we’re excited to share our experience with you! Please follow along for the next few days as we accomplish this most exciting mission here at HTHH, Mars on Earth.

On this expedition to the Kingdom of Tonga, NASA is partnering with the Tongan Ministry of the Environment and the Sea Education Association, an internationally recognized leader in field-based environmental education at sea. This entry is cross-posted from SEA’s blog with permission.

Plumes Go the Distance

True color satellite image of Canada and the northern United States on July 23, 2019. Fires in northern Alberta (red dots in top left) produced smoke that traveled to the Great Lakes (bottom right) over the course of a few days. Credit: NASA EOSDIS / Worldview
True color satellite image of Canada and the northern United States on July 23, 2019. Fires in northern Alberta (red dots in top left) produced smoke that traveled to the Great Lakes (bottom right) over the course of a few days. Credit: NASA EOSDIS / Worldview

by Ellen Gray / BOISE, IDAHO/

From Alberta, Canada, to Michigan, USA. That’s how far the plumes of smoke traveled in a few short days, from July 21 to July 24. Smoke from wildfires has staying power.

Laura Thapa, a graduate student at the University of California Los Angeles and member of the FIREX-AQ forecasting team, has been monitoring the smoke from the northern Alberta fires over the last few days. She and her team first took notice of the plume on July 21, when its leading edge had already traversed half of the approximately 2000-mile journey to the Great Lakes by July 24.

Tracing a plumes’ journey accomplishes two main goals for FIREX-AQ. “It lets us verify the forecast models,” Laura said. The forecast team wants to improve and fine tune a number of smoke transport models that use weather and other data to project where smoke plumes end up.

In particular, scientists want to know where the fine particulate aerosols called PM 2.5 go. The microscopic particles are one of the biggest health hazards associated with fires. When breathed in, they can lodge deep in the lungs, causing irritation and coughing. Long term exposure has been linked to higher rates of respiratory and heart problems.

“I have asthma, so that’s my vested interest,” Laura said. It’s also the vested interest of the U.S. Forest Service, which leads the interagency Wildland Fire Air Quality Response Program, and the Environmental Protection Agency that closely monitors PM 2.5 and tries to limit exposure to communities downwind of fires.

The other goal tracking plumes serves is much more practical during the campaign. As the fire season progresses, background smoke from fires-in-progress may be present in the air when a new fire starts and a new plume develops. Keeping track of plumes as they travel helps tease out what fires contributed to the smoke the science team is measuring in the DC-8.

“Understanding the transport is important for seeing what’s going on,” Laura said.

The DC-8 Goes the Distance, too

The DC-8 takes off from Boise, Idaho, for a science flight on July 25, 2019. Credit: NASA
The DC-8 takes off from Boise, Idaho, for a science flight on July 25, 2019. Credit: NASA

The FIREX-AQ team will be in Boise through August 18, but for the Communications team our coverage is at an end. For now.

After Boise, the DC-8, Twin Otters, Mobile Labs, and everything else FIREX-AQ brought with them to Boise will travel to Salina, Kansas, to study prescribed agricultural fires which have different fuels and emissions.

Stay tuned.

 

Join us on @NASAExpeditions Twitter and NASA Expeditions Facebook for more from FIREX-AQ in Boise. Our coverage in Salina will continue on @NASAEarth and the NASA Earth Facebook page.

Fire Weather, Pyro Weather

True color satellite image from MODIS on July 28, 2019. The red dots are fires detected by the MODIS and VIIRS instruments. In southwest Oregon, the smoke plume from the Milepost 97 fire is visible. Credit: NASA EOSDIS/ Worldview
True color satellite image from MODIS on July 28, 2019, of Washington, Oregon and Idaho. The red dots are fires detected by the MODIS and VIIRS instruments. In southwest Oregon, the smoke plume from the Milepost 97 Fire is visible. The red dot in central Idaho is the Shady Fire. Credit: NASA EOSDIS / Worldview

by Ellen Gray / BOISE, IDAHO/

Each morning Amber Soja gets up at 5:00 a.m. to check the fire weather. She’s an associate scientist from the National Institute of Aerospace based at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia, one of the lead forecasters for FIREX-AQ with one of the most important jobs: distilling the information from the National Weather Service, the National Interagency Fire Center, and other satellite and model info into a short list of fires for the DC-8 to visit the next day. All by 8 a.m.

Understanding fire weather is a big part of the job. Fire weather is the term used to describe weather conditions favorable for fires to start or burn, a mixture of high temperature, low humidity, zero to low rainfall, and high winds.

“Fire weather is the potential to have the fire behavior that we want to see,” Amber said. Hot, dry and windy conditions build over the course of a day’s worth of sunshine, so that where fire weather conditions are present in the morning, fires in the same area are likely to become active in the late afternoon. And for the FIREX-AQ science team, active usually means a smoke plume to fly through.

The National Weather Service puts out daily maps of where they forecast fire weather to be elevated. This map came out on July 28, 2019. Credit: NOAA/ NWS
The National Weather Service puts out daily maps of where they forecast fire weather to be elevated. This map came out on July 28, 2019. Credit: NOAA/ NWS

At 10:00 a.m., Amber presents her team’s short list of fires to the science team at the daily morning briefing. This is the meeting where decisions are made about where and when to fly the DC-8. In a neat table projected on the wall, the fire short-list also takes into account the types of fuel on the ground – the second major ingredient for wildfires, and one that can change the chemistry of the plume whether its grassland or timber – as well as location, size, and what action is being taken to monitor and fight the fire, among other considerations.

While Amber is putting together the fire outlook, David Peterson from the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Monterey, California, is working with a team of meteorologists and forecasters to monitor and forecast weather systems. It’s a slightly amped up version of a local weather newscast, and includes current conditions and outlooks for high and low pressure systems, moisture, and cloudiness that could hamper the DC-8. By 9:00 a.m. they’re analyzing their model results, and at the 10 a.m. briefing, David shares the forecast with the science team.

The forecasting team meets early everyday to look at upcoming fire and weather conditions. July 28, 2019. Credit: NASA
The forecasting team meets early everyday to look at upcoming fire and weather conditions. July 28, 2019. Credit: NASA

He’s also on the lookout for the potential for a different type of weather – weather generated by the fires themselves.

“A fire is a heat source. It’s creating a strong updraft,” David said. The smoky air above a large, hot fire shoots upward like going up a chimney, and in the void left behind, more air is sucked in from the sides, which gets heated and lofted. When this fire-generated circulation lofts the smoke high enough, from 15,000 to 30,000 feet, and there’s moisture at the higher altitudes, pyrocumulonimbus clouds can form – also known as smoke-infused thunderstorms.

These billowing, smoke-polluted storms don’t really produce rain, but lightning strikes are possible. They can also, in some cases, loft a large smoke plume into the upper atmosphere (stratosphere), where it can circulate around the globe, similar to the impact from a volcanic eruption.

With each daily forecast, David is on the lookout for conditions that might produce pyro-clouds and thunderstorms. In the coming week, the weather over the Shady Fire looks promising, but only time – and a little luck – will tell.

UPDATE Aug 13, 2019: The DC-8 flew through a pyrocumulous cloud on August 8 generated by a fire in eastern Washington. David got to sit in the cockpit and see the cloud from the air. See the stunning pictures and read more about it at NASA’s Earth Observatory Image of the Day.

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A Visit to the National Interagency Fire Center

The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, is the nerve center for fire fighting operations in the United States. Credit: NASA
The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, is the nerve center for firefighting operations in the United States. Credit: NASA

by Ellen Gray / BOISE, IDAHO/

The FIREX-AQ campaign is flying out of Boise, Idaho. The choice of location was no accident. Boise is also home to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), the nerve center of all major firefighting operations for the United States. Earlier this week, we took a tour.

“NIFC is not an organization, it’s a place. Each big bureau dealing with fires has people here,” said Kari Cobb, our tour guide with the Bureau of Land Management in the Department of Interior that hosts the center.

In addition to the Bureau of Land Management, the agencies working together to put out major wildfires, support the crews in the field and assist with other disasters include the National Association of State Foresters, the USDA Forest Service, the Department of Defense, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the National Park Service, the United States Fire Administration, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The center is located next to the Boise Airport – across from the Idaho Air National Guard where the DC-8 is stationed for FIREX-AQ. Airport access is essential for the helicopters and planes used to deliver crews and supplies to firefighting teams in the field, and also for reconnaissance planes that survey active fires with infrared instruments to detect hotspots hidden by smoke plumes.

The Radio Cache

The NIFC Radio Cache has a team of technicians that check and refurbish every single handheld radio and repeater. They will replace faulty parts down to the transistor to extend the radios' lifetimes. Credit: NASA
The NIFC Radio Cache has a team of technicians that check and refurbish every single handheld radio and repeater. They will replace faulty parts down to the transistor to extend the radios’ lifetimes. Credit: NASA

In order to coordinate, you need to be able to communicate. NIFC’s Radio Cache ensures that’s possible. They manage, repair and refurbish the 11,000 handheld radios and radio repeaters that get delivered to firefighters in the field. They deliver the equipment in kits that are already pre-programmed to be ready to plug-and-play as soon as they arrive. While all the radios are ultimately managed and dispatched from Boise, they pre-position equipment closer to likely fire activity and other disaster-prone areas.

The Great Basin Cache

NIFC's Great Basin Cache supplies all of a firefighter's gear except for their boots. Credit: NASA
NIFC’s Great Basin Cache supplies all of a firefighter’s gear except for their boots. Credit: NASA

When you’ve got people fighting fires for weeks on end, you need a place for them to sleep, eat and manage day-to-day operations. Kari described the giant warehouse that makes up the Great Basin Cache as the “Costco” of wildland fire management. It’s the largest of the 16 caches set up in different parts of the country, and has everything needed for the Incident Command Posts, from tents, sleeping bags, tables, and coffee, to firefighters’ personal protective gear, and the shovels, Pulaskis (axe plus flat-head scraper), MCleods (a type of rake) and combi-tools (with a shovel and pick head) they use to clear vegetation and dig fire breaks.

Smokejumpers

Smokejumpers wear Kevlar jump suits to avoid punctures from rocks and branches when they land in rough terrain. They also carry extra rope for getting out of trees. Credit: NASA
Smokejumpers wear Kevlar jump suits to avoid punctures from rocks and branches when they land in rough terrain. They also carry extra rope for getting out of trees. Credit: NASA

There are plenty of people willing to jump out of perfectly good airplanes, but not nearly as many willing to jump out of a plane next to a wildfire. In the United States, there are 450 in fact, and 80 to 85 of these smokejumpers are stationed out of Boise at any given time. Currently most of the Boise smokejumpers are at out-stations, located across the West to be closer to fire-prone areas.

They’re delivered to remote fires by Twin Otter aircraft and jump from 3000 feet in special gear made of Kevlar that each smokejumper has made themselves (they’re required to know how to sew and use a sewing machine.) They jump with one main parachute, a reserve parachute and two days of personal gear. Once they’re on the ground, the plane drops supply kits for two firefighters for two days. Their regular firefighting gear is on under their jump suit, which they stash before getting to work.  Once they’ve done their initial assessment and work at the fire site, relaying info back to base, they hike out.

National Weather Service Boise

The National Weather Service Boise station forecasts fire weather and monitor lightning strikes which can cause fires. Credit: NASA
The National Weather Service Boise station forecasts fire weather and monitors lightning strikes which can cause fires. Credit: NASA

Weather conditions – wind, humidity, rain and temperature – are fundamental to understanding what a fire is doing and where it will go next. The National Weather Service station in Boise monitors and forecasts weather for southwest Idaho and western Oregon. They’re staffed 24 hours a day, and use satellite imagery and models to forecast not only the weather, but fire weather – conditions favorable for burning. They also track lightning strikes, which are one of the main causes of wildfires in the region.

National Interagency Coordination Center

NIFC's National Interagency Coordination Center supports fire fighting efforts across the country. Credit: NASA
NIFC’s National Interagency Coordination Center supports firefighting efforts across the country. Credit: NIFC

Putting it all together is the National Interagency Coordination Center – effectively a national dispatch center, which manages the support resources and sends them into the field where they are needed. Fire management begins locally, at the town or county level. When their capacity for fighting a wildfire is exceeded, they go to their regional support center, one of eleven spread throughout the country. When their resources are exceeded, that’s when they call on the National Interagency Coordination Center in Boise – who then pulls crews from other regions, and sometimes Canada, Australia and New Zealand, to help put out the fires. They also supply information, helicopters and water tankers, and handle getting food and showers in place at the Incident Command Post.

 

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The Shady Fire, a Deviation From Plan

The Shady Fire smoke plume seen from the DC-8 on Thursday, July 25. Credit: Bernadett Weinzierl, University of Vienna
The Shady Fire smoke plume seen from the DC-8 on Thursday, July 25, 2019. Credit: Bernadett Weinzierl, University of Vienna

By Ellen Gray / BOISE, IDAHO/

Thursday, July 25

“It’s nice to have a flight plan to deviate from,” said DC-8 pilot Tim Vest at the debrief on Thursday night. It was just after 10 p.m. and the DC-8 had just returned from a 6-hour flight over a fire they weren’t planning on visiting.

The original plan for the afternoon was to fly to eastern Washington State, where several fires were burning in clear skies. But wildfires are tricky things. That morning during flight planning, the Shady Fire, less than 30 minutes away by air in the Salmon-Challis National Forest, didn’t look like it was going to generate an impressive smoke plume. But a half hour before take-off at 4 p.m., after the instrument teams were aboard and the DC-8’s doors were closed, the scientists staying behind to monitor the flight from the ground pulled down new satellite images.

“They said, take a look at the Shady Fire once you’re in the air,” said Carsten Warneke from the University of Colorado working at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado. He’s one of FIREX-AQ‘s project scientists and was sitting in the DC-8’s cockpit jump seat as Thursday’s flight mission scientist.

Flying north on their original plan to the Washington fires, Carsten  – and everyone else with an eastern-facing seat – looked out the window. Shady’s smoke plume was big and billowing. The hot and dry conditions of the late afternoon had invigorated the fire and helped to loft its smoke thousands of feet into the atmosphere.

The Shady Fire seen from the ground in the Salmon-Challis National Forest on Friday, June 26. Credit: U.S. Forest Service
The Shady Fire seen from the ground in the Salmon-Challis National Forest on Friday, June 26, 2019. Credit: U.S. Forest Service

“It was very exciting,” said Carsten. Measuring smoke was why the science team was flying. “But it was also a surprise. We had a completely different flight plan, but then there was that plume.”

So, less than half an hour after take-off, the flight plan changed.

Fortunately, the Shady Fire had been the second fire on the list for the previous day’s flight, although they’d only made one pass over its then-low-lying plume. Tim Vest and his co-pilot, Dave Fedors, both from NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center, were able to use the that plan once they redirected.

Aboard the Aboard the DC-8, monitors show Wednesday's flight plan in black overlaid by the actual path of the plane in red. On the left you can see the sharp right turn from diverting from the original plan. At this point in the flight they'd completed one sequence of the lawnmower sampling path. Credit: NASADC-8, monitors show Wednesday's flight plan in black overlaid by the actual path of the plane in red. At this point in the flight they'd completed one sequence of the lawnmower sampling path. Credit: NASA
Aboard the DC-8, monitors show Wednesday’s flight plan in black overlaid by the actual path of the plane in red. On the left you can see the sharp right turn from diverting from the original plan. At this point in the flight they’d completed one sequence of the lawnmower sampling path. July 25, 2019. Credit: NASA

Flying over a wilderness area was a huge advantage. With no other air traffic, aside from a pass from a plane gathering a hotspot survey for the U.S. Forest Service, the pilots had a lot of room to work with. They guided the plane in a series of maneuvers that began with flying above the plume at 15,000 feet to gather data from the remote sensing instruments. Then they cruised to a lower altitude of about 5,000 feet above the terrain and flew through the plume in a pattern called “the lawnmower” that cut north-south back and forth across the eastward-stretching plume. By the time they’d completed the first pass, the plume had been spread by winds farther east, and the smoke gases had been reacting in the atmosphere for about two and a half hours since they began. So they went back to the source and “mowed” it again, and then did a third pass east to west through the length of the plume. By the time they headed back to Boise, the plume had extended to the Wyoming border.

Flying through the plume, it was surprisingly dark, said Carsten. During each lawnmower pass, they had zero visibility where the smoke was thickest, closer toward the Shady Fire’s vertical plume (which they didn’t fly through because it was too hot and turbulent). The light that filtered in, especially as they moved toward the less dense eastern end, was yellowish-brown that snapped to clear once they exited the smoke on each perpendicular pass.

“It was smelly, too,” said Carsten. “Not as bad as I was expecting but it still smelled like smoke.”

The view from the jump seat right after take-off. From here, Carsten as mission scientist can easily communicate with the pilots and flight engineer in the cockpit. Credit: NASA
The view from the jump seat right after take-off. From here, Carsten as mission scientist can easily communicate with the pilots and flight engineer in the cockpit. July 25, 2019. Credit: NASA

As mission scientist, Carsten was in charge of meeting the science goals of the flight. This largely meant he was frequently switching between chatting with the ground team who had the updating satellite imagery and two different headsets on the plane: one on the science team channel where requests for adjustments were flying thick and fast, and one on the pilot channel to figure out what was possible and safe for the aircraft. Balancing all that information, Carsten directed the details of the flight to try to get the best measurements for everyone.

“Then after we turned at the end of each pass, I would call out on the science channel ‘Get ready we’re measuring smoke in 30 seconds,'” he said.

A close up of the Shady Fire's smoke plume during sampling on July 25, 2019. Credit: Bernadett Weinzierl, University of Vienna
A close up of the Shady Fire’s smoke plume during sampling on July 25, 2019. Credit: Bernadett Weinzierl, University of Vienna

The Shady Fire started from a lightning strike on July 10 at about 6 p.m. Since it’s in a wilderness area far from populated areas, the U.S. Forest Service has closed nearby roads and trails and is monitoring it, but otherwise letting it burn for now – with the exception of protecting specific buildings and assets in the area. So far it has burned more than 2600 acres of primarily subalpine fir and lodgepole pine trees.

For the FIREX-AQ science team the Shady Fire is exactly what they’re looking for to study smoke dynamics in the atmosphere – what are the gases and airborne particles in plumes and how do they evolve as they age and spread downwind.

“We’re measuring everything a non-chemist knows about and then 500 more chemicals,” said Carsten. The DC-8 is loaded up with instruments and more than 30 scientists to run them during flight. Among the gases they’re measuring are carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen oxides, as well as particulate aerosols including soot and black carbon.

The interior of the DC-8 has instruments where seats would be on a commercial plane. They suck smoke inside through inlets and tubing that connect to the instruments. July 25, 2019. Credit: NASA
The interior of the DC-8 has instruments where seats would be on a commercial plane. They suck smoke inside through inlets and tubing that connect to the instruments. July 25, 2019. Credit: NASA

They’re also measuring chemicals formed in the plume, such as ozone. Ozone near Earth’s surface is a pollutant and health hazard that the Environmental Protection Agency monitors to evaluate air quality. It forms from a reaction of nitrogen oxides with volatile organic compounds (both emitted in large amounts from the fire) in the presence sunlight (that often forgotten ingredient in atmospheric chemistry.) During Thursday’s flight, the team saw ozone forming in the plume.

The science team’s excitement was palpable when they returned, and the instrument teams spent Friday getting a first crack at their data. Their deviation from the plan had been a huge success.

At the Friday morning briefing, when the team was taking a look at their options in Washington and Oregon for Saturday’s proposed flight, project scientist Jim Crawford from NASA Langley said, “Put together a flight plan for each of them.”

“And,” said Jack Dibb, project scientist from University of New Hampshire, “have a plan for Shady in our back-pocket.”

 

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Laying Down with Smoke in the Valley, an Unexpected Camping Trip

Bruce Anderson and the NASA Langley Mobile Lab in a valley near Stanley, Idaho. July 24, 2019.
Bruce Anderson and the NASA Langley Mobile Lab in a valley near Stanley, Idaho. July 24, 2019. Credit: NASA

By Ellen Gray / NEAR STANLEY, IDAHO /

Wednesday, July 24

We were ready to fly. We’d heard Tuesday evening that there were two seats open on the DC-8 for the communications team on Wednesday, but as often happens in the field, plans change. For the first science flight, requests for extra seats from the instrument teams came in after the morning briefing. Safety first, science second, and communications third. But rolling with the change of plans opens up new opportunities, and ours was leaving at 2 p.m.

Out in the hangar parking lot, the NASA Langley Mobile Laboratory was getting ready to head into the Idaho wilderness. The van is big, boxy, and white. Unmarked, it looks like the kind of van movie FBI agents use for surveillance, but inside the equipment is designed to watch the sky. Specifically, the small team of five is looking at trace gases and aerosols from smoke plumes that will sink to valley floors during the night when temperatures cool.

The Langley Mobile Lab is one of two that will be deployed to take ground-level measurements during the FIREX-AQ field campaign. Ideally, the team parks the van downwind from a blazing fire whose smoke flows over the van site, said Bruce Anderson, the principle investigator for the NASA Langley Aerosol Research Group Experiment that runs the van. From their parking spot, they’ll watch the emissions evolve as the fire goes from hot and intense to smoldering and from hot daytime temperatures to cold nights and back to day.

With about two hours’ notice, Bruce graciously agreed to let us tag along. “Do you have camping gear?” he asked.

I had a sleeping bag I hadn’t expected to use during FIREX-AQ. None of us had meant to sleep anywhere but at our hotel. But this trip was too good to pass up. We reassured Bruce that we’d make do.

Landscape Shaped By Fire

Burned trees and recovering undergrowth at varying stages make up the National Forests along Highway 21 in Idaho. July 24, 2019. Credit: NASA
Burned trees and recovering undergrowth at varying stages make up the National Forests along Highway 21 in Idaho. July 24, 2019. Credit: NASA

Because of the van’s size, Bruce drove the long way on the major highways to Stanley, Idaho, a town in the middle of the Sawtooth National Recreational Area. We took the more direct and windier Highway 21 through the Boise and Challis National Forests.

Boise is located on a plain, with brown hills dotted by shrubs dominating the landscape. As we drove northeast, the hills gave way to forests of lodgepole pines and subalpine firs. Fires’ mark on the landscape soon became clear.

Fire is part of the ecosystem in the western U.S., leaving behind ghostly trees and charred soil that will grow new life. July 24, 2019. Credit: NASA
Fire is part of the ecosystem in the western U.S., leaving behind ghostly trees and charred soil that will grow new life. July 24, 2019. Credit: NASA

Amid the green trees of the forest, we passed entire slopes of ghostly trees, burned pale and dead but still standing with bare branches. On some slopes, grasses and scrub had regrown. On others, smaller baby trees made up the understory. On still more, the burned ghost trees were interspersed with healthy green trees at the same height – likely grown to maturity after the fire. The marks of past fires were everywhere – and then we passed the blackened char of recently contained fires.

The Canyon Fire and the Vader Fire were both near the road, and while the flames were out where and when we saw them – each fire was 75-80% contained at that point – smoke was smoldering from a few hotspots on the ground. The Canyon Fire started from a lightning strike on July 14, a common cause for wildland fires. The Vader Fire’s cause is still unknown.

Nighttime Science

Our campsite near Stanley, Idaho, was in the middle of a long and wide valley, framed by mountains. July 24, 2019. Credit: NASA
Sunrise at our campsite near Stanley, Idaho. We were in the middle of a long and wide valley, framed by mountains. July 25, 2019. Credit: NASA

We met up with the team in Stanley at the end of Highway 21 around dinner time. It’s a tiny town with a tiny population of 63 that is the launching point for seasonal visitors to the Sawtooth’s and surrounding national forests. After three hours of driving with no reception, it’s also a welcome oasis of internet and cell service within the wilderness – essential for meeting up with the Mobile Lab caravan.

In addition to Bruce, Jackson Kaspari from the University of New Hampshire and Jiajue Chai from Brown University were driving an RV to make the camping a little easier. In a separate car were Kathleen Brunke from Christopher Newport University and Carolyn Jordan from the National Institute of Aerospace with tents and camping gear. They were all looking forward to being in the field for FIREX-AQ.

“It’s a little like science camp,” said Carolyn. “You get to go out with all these people who study the same thing you do.” She raised her hands in an excited pantomime of sharing data. “What did you get? Here’s what I got!”

After dinner we headed out back the way we came a few miles down a long and wide valley with a stream running through it, and then off onto a lengthy gravel road to our campsite in the middle of the meadow.

We helped Carolyn set up tents for the night while the others got their instruments running. She joined them in the van right afterwards.July 24, 2019. Credit: NASA
We helped Carolyn set up tents for the night while the others got their instruments running. She joined them in the van right afterwards. July 24, 2019. Credit: NASA

Off in the distance a plume of smoke from the Shady Fire to the north drifted by the nearby hills. Before sunset and after testing the wind direction, the scientists got to work setting up their instruments in the van – running the power generator, opening intake valves and hatches to the outside air, attaching filters to catch particulate aerosols. It was a clear night, and in the end not much smoke made its way to the middle of the valley where we were.

“It’s a little like fishing,” Bruce said. You do your best to find a good spot based on the information and weather, but sometimes the smoke doesn’t bite.

Earlier in the week, Sunday night to Monday morning, however, the Mobile Lab at the same site caught a lot of smoke from a fire near the highway. The smoke plume sank to the valley around midnight, and the team measured the height of the smoke particles with an infrared laser looking upward and bouncing off the particles back to the laser.

Jackson climbs to the roof of the van to open and set up the inlet valve that will suck exterior air into the van. July 24, 2019. Credit: NASA
Jackson climbs to the roof of the van to open and set up the inlet valve that will suck exterior air into the van. July 24, 2019. Credit: NASA

In the van, each researcher had an instrument measuring different aspects of the smoke and addressing different science questions. Carolyn’s instrument measured the scattering or absorption of light by smoke particles. The scattering tells her about the size and shape of the particles, and the absorption something about their chemical composition. Kathleen was collecting particulates in the air that she will take back to the lab to measure for heavy metals – evidence that bits of soil got burned and swept up into the smoke plume – and PM 2.5, the particulate matter size that can cause respiratory problems for people who breathe it in.

Jackson’s instrument collected air into hand-blown glass chambers filled with mist that serves as seed points to collect nitrite (NO2), nitrate (NO3), and sulfate (SO4) that then run through chromatography to determine their concentrations. Jiajue’s instrument collected air samples to measure for nitrogen oxides and nitrous and nitric acid. Nitrogen compounds are essential for determining the role ozone plays in the atmosphere. Ozone reacts readily with other gases in chains of chemical reactions that can ultimately process harmful gases like greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere. Jiajue also uses nitrogen and oxygen isotope ratios to “fingerprint” the fuel source of the air – whether the smoke came from vehicles, soils or burned vegetation.

Jiajue prepares sample bottles for his instrument inside the Mobile Lab. July 24, 2019. Credit: NASA
Jiajue prepares sample bottles for his instrument inside the Mobile Lab. July 24, 2019. Credit: NASA
Bruce and Carolyn look at initial readings of gases inside the van. July 24, 2019. Credit: NASA
Bruce and Carolyn look at initial readings of gases inside the van. July 24, 2019. Credit: NASA

Bruce was a one-man show monitoring 14 instruments that doubled up some of the others’ measurements and also took measurements of major gases like carbon dioxide (CO2) and carbon monoxide (CO), whose ratio of one to the other can determine whether the smoke came from a hot intense fire (low CO) or smoldering fire (higher CO). Another instrument measures the mass of soot in the air, and others look at the optical properties of soot and various gases so that they can ultimately improve satellite interpretations of plume composition.

Together these individual measurements build a more complete understanding of how smoke particles and gases react and evolve in the atmosphere, what they say about their fuel sources, and ultimately how they affect the air quality people encounter downwind.

Kathleen sets up her instrument that will filter exterior air and capture airborne particles on filters. She'll take the filters, frozen to preserve them, back to her lab at the end of the campaign for analysis. July 24, 2019. Credit: NASA
Kathleen sets up her instrument that will filter exterior air and capture airborne particles on filters. She’ll take the filters, frozen to preserve them, back to her lab at the end of the campaign for analysis. July 24, 2019. Credit: NASA

On a smoky night, the researchers barely sleep. While some of the instruments are fully automated, they often monitor them until past midnight, and Kathleen and Jiajue have to swap out filters and sample bottles every few hours.

The night we were out they got a reprieve, but Bruce stayed up most of the night anyway to monitor the instruments and make sure everything was running smoothly. Also, the cold made it difficult to sleep. While it was 95 degrees F in sunlight, the dry, cloudless Idaho night doesn’t hold moisture, and so temperatures dropped to below freezing, making the noisy, generator-heated van the warmest spot in camp. Those of us without proper camping gear, ended up sleeping in the car.

Despite the cold, we woke to a beautiful sunrise and to smoke plumes from the Shady Fire edging the valley. The Mobile Lab team packed up and headed back to Stanley for breakfast and to call in to the morning briefing on fire activity to find out where they were going next.

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