Through The Mountains And Smoke

17:42 minutes

a gif of a time lapse video flying above mountains into areas of thick smoke
Video captured by the C-130 research plane flying into smoky skies. Credit: NSF/NCAR

When wildfires rage in the West, Colorado State University atmospheric scientist Emily Fischer hops into a plane, and flies straight into the smoke. The plane is a flying chemistry lab, studded with instruments, and Fischer’s goal is to uncover the chemical reactions happening in smoke plumes, to determine how wildfire smoke may affect ecosystems and human health.

Fischer joins Ira on stage at our live show in Boulder, Colorado to explain their flying laboratory and what it’s like to jump into the action.

a large propellor plane against the backdrop of smoky mountains
The National Science Foundation’s research plane approaches to land after a test flight. Credit: William A. Cotton/CSU Photography
a man types at a large work station with exposed electrical system onboard a plane
Wade Permar, a graduate student at the University of Montana, works with instruments onboard the plane. Credit: William A. Cotton/CSU Photography

Further Reading

  • Learn more about the project on the Earth Observing Laboratory website.

Segment Guests

Emily Fischer

Emily Fischer is an assistant professor in the Department of Atmospheric Science at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow coming to you from the Chautauqua Auditorium in Boulder, Colorado. 


It has been an extraordinarily wet winter and spring throughout the Western US. Here in Colorado, snowpack levels are at a 750% of the usual average this time of year– 7 and 1/2 times normal. Yeah. But there’s the other side to this. As the summer heat comes, the west will again start to dry out, ushering in fire season. 

And that’s when my next guest’s work gets started. When wildfires spark up, she and a team of scientists pile into a plane, packed to the walls with scientific instruments. And then they fly straight into this smoke billowing from the wildfires. They’re not there to put out the wild fire, but to study the most visible evidence of one– the smoke. They want to know what is in this smoke and why. 

And one of those smoke-chasing scientists is with us– Emily Fischer, assistant professor in the Department of Atmospheric Science at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. Welcome to Science Friday. 


So does your mom worry when you fly right into this smoke? 

EMILY FISCHER: I’ve been wearing my mom for a long time. 

IRA FLATOW: So kidding aside, why do you actually fly a plane into the smoke? What do you hope to learn there? 

EMILY FISCHER: I study air quality, and you can’t really understand air quality in the Western US without understanding what’s in wildfire smoke. Because we breathe that every summer here in Colorado. And so to reliably get into that smoke, you need an aircraft. Because sometimes the wildfires launch the plumes higher than you could get with a car, for example. 

IRA FLATOW: Describe the scene inside the plane. Is there smoke leaking into it? Are you wearing gas masks? 

EMILY FISCHER: No, no, no, no, no. But it smells like smoke, and your eyes water. So yeah, we would approach the wildfires less last summer. We would fly behind them. And then as soon as it was safe to do so, we would cross in across the smoke as it’s out flowing. And then we would turn around, like you were mowing your lawn or shoveling your driveway, criss-crossing back and forth across the smoke and tracing it downwind. 

IRA FLATOW: And all those instruments you have on the plane, they’re taking readings while– 

EMILY FISCHER: That’s right. 

IRA FLATOW: What are they reading? 

EMILY FISCHER: That’s right. We probably have– it depends on how you want to define an instrument, but we have 30 or 40 different instruments on the plane last summer. And so the plane actually has little tubes out the side and pumps attached. And so we’re sucking in the smoke into the aircraft and directly into a variety of different analytical instrumentation. So we’re measuring thousands of different things in the smoke. 

IRA FLATOW: I think ever since any one of us has lit a candle and watched it smoking, and you put out the fire and the smoke is left. We’ve all wondered, what is in that smoke? What is the definition of smoke? 

EMILY FISCHER: OK, so what is in smoke? So there’s thousands of different things. Some of them are gases. Some of them are solids. Some of them are liquids. Some of them are in between things, like peanut butter– not that there’s peanut butter in smoke, but not everything– 

IRA FLATOW: Could be. 

EMILY FISCHER: –is exactly a liquid or solid. And each of those thousands of different things, they behave differently in the atmosphere. So each one will interact differently with the sun’s light. Each one will have a different set of chemical reactions with oxygen or with other things in the smoke. Each one will deposit to the ground differently or dissolve into a cloud water droplet differently. So yeah, there’s lots of different things. 

IRA FLATOW: So there’s really like an ongoing chemistry set, chemistry experiment inside that smoke. 

EMILY FISCHER: Yeah, and that’s what we did last summer. So we started as close as we could get to the fire. You can’t actually fly a plane into the fire, right? So we actually get to the smoke about 20 minutes downwind, so after a mission. And then we trace that smoke for up to four to five hours, so we can understand how it changes from emission to four or five hours downwind. And we tried to go further a few times, too, up to a day downwind. 

IRA FLATOW: I’ve heard people from other countries over the Atlantic starting to complain that they’re getting our smoke. Is that true? 

EMILY FISCHER: It’s fair. Yeah, it’s fair. Actually, I think maybe two weeks ago, fires in Alberta, right, they were pushing smoke down to the East Coast of the US. And smoke can actually travel hemispherically. There’s some really beautiful case studies of Russian wildfires, where they’ve been able to see the smoke travel around the globe in a few weeks. 

IRA FLATOW: It’ll go around the whole globe? 


IRA FLATOW: Wow. Over here. 

AUDIENCE: For a red flag day, what are the most irritating components in smoke that would cause respiratory problems? 

EMILY FISCHER: So I’ll answer– red flag day or not red flag day. So some of the things that are inside smoke are particulate matter, right? So that’s small particles. And there are a lot of small ones that can go relatively deep into your lungs. In terms of the gases, there’s a suite of gases. So ones that might cause health effects is one that I spend a lot of time on called peroxyacetyl nitrate. It’s a lachrymator, so it makes you cry. There’s also formaldehyde in smoke, benzene, toluene. There’s a variety of different things in smoke– hydrogen cyanide. So there’s a lot of fun things in smoke to breathe. 

IRA FLATOW: Can smoke affect the weather? 

EMILY FISCHER: That is something we’re also working on. What we know so far is that smoke can affect clouds. So one thing we did this summer was sample smoke impacted clouds. So we would fly to sort of dilute areas of smoke with little puffy cumulus clouds on them. And we would fly in the smoke under the clouds, and then we would go up into the clouds. And then we would tell the pilots to hit the clouds, and so we would go, wee, right? Cloud to cloud, and the back of the plane would get sick. And I would think this is the best job ever. 

And so those clouds that are smoke impacted are actually very different than clouds that are not smoke impacted. They have very small droplets. So for the same amount of liquid water content, the droplets of those clouds are itsy bitsy tiny. They were actually so small, we had a hard time getting them into the plane to sample. We had a cloud collector on the plane. And so we know that smoke acts as a cloud condensation nuclei. 

We also are beginning to know from the sampling we did last summer that smoke can serve as ice nuclei for clouds. And what we’re going to do next, a team at CSU in my department led by Sue van den Heever will run atmospheric models with and without smoke to see how the presence of smoke changes cloud formation in the west in summer. 

IRA FLATOW: Wow, that’s really interesting. Yes. 

AUDIENCE: So when you guys get your results both real time and long term, how does that affect firefighting efforts on the ground? 

EMILY FISCHER: We stayed out of the way of firefighting this entire summer. So I stayed out of what’s called the TFR, which is the Temporary Flight Restricted area around fires. We were often operating above the firefighting. Because as it turns out, the firefighters don’t want to go into smoke. We are the only ones who want to go into the smoke. 

IRA FLATOW: Wait, they call them smoke eaters. You’re the real smoke eaters. 

EMILY FISCHER: Smoke jumpers, yeah. So yes, we actually were smoke eaters, you could say that. No one’s ever pointed that out to me before. 

IRA FLATOW: That’s why we’re here. 

EMILY FISCHER: But yeah, I actually was at a meeting last week with the EPA and the Forest Service. So we’re all working together to better understand what’s in smoke and how to advise the public on what to do when smoke comes to town. Because with climate change, there’ll be more smoke in the west. 

IRA FLATOW: Tell me what you mean by that. What does climate change have to do with it? 

EMILY FISCHER: So the area burned by wildfires in the west has increased over the last several decades. And most atmospheric models, looking forward, indicate that we will at least have the same amount of burn area, if not more. 

IRA FLATOW: Hm. Over here, yes. 

AUDIENCE: Hey, do you know of any efforts to connect the kind of research you’re doing to health data in Colorado or elsewhere around the country, like people have done in big cities looking at air pollution? 

EMILY FISCHER: Yep, actually, I personally work with an epidemiologist routinely to help her identify where smoke is impacting people. And then she figures out what that means for health. So there’s actually a lot of collaboration across the atmospheric chemists and the health community. We’re beginning to understand right now the acute health effects of exposure to smoke. So more people die. There are more asthma hospitalizations, things like that. What we don’t understand yet is what chronic exposure does to the public. 

IRA FLATOW: Can the experiments and the things that you’re studying, the experiments you’re running help us better forecast for people? 

EMILY FISCHER: That’s my goal, right? So we are doing the fundamental chemistry in these smoke plumes, and the ultimate goal is to help improve air quality forecasts. So one thing we really don’t– we understand that smoke increases PM 2.5, which is a pollutant that’s regulated by the US. And but we don’t understand why, yet, smoke also appears to increase ground level ozone at certain sites, so– 

IRA FLATOW: It does? 



EMILY FISCHER: Yeah, and so we’re trying to figure out that chemistry now. 

IRA FLATOW: And ozone is not a good thing. 

EMILY FISCHER: It’s a respiratory irritant. Yep. And Colorado is an exceedance of the ozone standard. So we have plenty of our own local pollution. Stop driving your cars. But fires can also make ozone. 

IRA FLATOW: OK, over here. 

AUDIENCE: What is the most interesting thing you learned about smoke? 

EMILY FISCHER: This summer, I think the most beautiful thing that I learned, actually, was just how many filaments and rivers there are across the West. I have a completely new appreciation for how important smoke is for radiation at the ground, for weather, and for air quality after the summer, just seeing so much of it. It was a very large fire year in 2018. 

And the coolest thing we saw this summer was a plume that– we had flown out to Oregon. And I was very stressed out. There was smoke everywhere, but it was too much smoke, and the pilots couldn’t see if we had dropped down into it. And all of the sudden, one of the fires blew up. And there was nobody up at that altitude fighting it. So we got to go very close to it. So I got to measure wildfire smoke very soon after a mission, which hasn’t been done that many times. So it was awesome. I had basically a time clock of when that smoke plume shut up, and we were able to track it for three hours before heading home. 

IRA FLATOW: I’ve interviewed a lot of people, but never have seen anybody so excited about smoke before. 

EMILY FISCHER: The atmosphere is so cool. 

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go here to this side. 

AUDIENCE: I was wondering, since it seems like there are more wildfires nowadays than there were, is there a difference between children who are born more recently, that would they have more ill lungs or– 

EMILY FISCHER: I don’t know the answer to that question. If something’s alive, I know very little about it. 


I know about gases, some solids, but alive things, very little. Sorry. 

IRA FLATOW: If we cut that out and take it out of context, that would be one hell of a quote. I understand that you have a research project called Progress with James to get more women into science, and geoscience in particular. 


Yeah. Tell us more about that. 

EMILY FISCHER: So first, why is it so important that we have women in science? So gender diverse teams make better science. And there’s a lot of research behind that statement. 


So, thank you. So I decided to gather a team about five years ago and figure out how we could best support undergraduate women interested in the earth and environmental sciences. And so what we did was we recruited a group of women, and we recruited a control group, so a group that will have their normal college education. And for my intervention group, we offer them a three part program. So one is a women only workshop, and my goal with that workshop is to introduce them to the earth sciences, explain to them why these fields are so important for society, inspire them to stay in STEM, and inoculate them against things that might deter them from staying in STEM, like sexism and other isms that they might encounter in their college classrooms. 

So then we have mentoring, and we stay in touch via Facebook. And so we’ve tracked these women in time, and we’ve learned a lot about college women and their experiences. And so what we found is that you can dramatically increase the mentoring networks of undergraduate women if you try. If you show women more women, they increase their science identity and their intention to stay in the earth sciences. And the coolest thing that we found is that for every role model that an undergraduate woman can identify, her odds of staying in the earth sciences doubles. 


IRA FLATOW: So when women find out that there are other women like them, that really helps. 

EMILY FISCHER: It really helps. And the best part is these are role models. They’re not necessarily a mentor, right? So making women more visible to younger women seems to really help, at least in the earth and environmental sciences. 

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. 

I know you’re running a related project on sexual harassment in the sciences. We’ve done segments on Science Friday about how pervasive that is. How are you working to turn that around, to improve the culture? 

EMILY FISCHER: Yeah, so this started about a year ago when I was getting ready for my wildfire sampling campaign. There was a National Academy report that came out on sexual harassment, right? And so when that came out, one of the key findings was that this was a cultural issue. And so I decided, OK, I’m leading a big team. I need to follow best practices. So in doing that, I had to figure out what best practices were, actually. 

And so with support from the National Science Foundation, I partnered with a gender psychologist and another NSF funded team. And what we did was we surveyed my entire team on weekend, which is about 100 people, prior to the field campaign. Then we did a training where we did scenarios that are very real to field programs and conference settings, things typical to academic scientists. And then we flew around in the smoke, as we just talked about. And then we surveyed them again post-campaign. And so do you want me to tell you what we found? 

AUDIENCE: Yes. Yes. 

IRA FLATOW: You have no choice now. 

EMILY FISCHER: OK, I’ll tell you what I found. OK, so as it turns out, it happens and it happens here. So 50% of the women on my field team had had experienced sexual harassment in field settings. 

IRA FLATOW: 50? 5-0? 

EMILY FISCHER: 5-0, you got it. And so the men are experiencing it, too. They’re experiencing it differently than the women. And hostile work climate is the biggest issue that we have in our field. But we had things reported that were very, very far from hostile work climate– were very bad. And then most people are not reporting it. They’re avoiding the situation or have other type of social coping. And then what was good news was that people were much more comfortable intervening and discussing it after the training. And so every science team meeting that I have, we revisit sexual harassment. And we think about how, as a community, we can lead. So– 


So field teams, in particular, I think have to lead on this issue. Because they have science leaders across multiple universities, and national labs, and government agencies. And so it should be a very effective way to spread best practices. 

IRA FLATOW: Do you train other field teams how to do what you’re doing? 

EMILY FISCHER: That’s the eventual outcome of this project, is to make basically a recipe book for other principal investigators on field teams, so that they can follow the lead. And there is a really awesome project called Advanced Geo that has developed materials for training a variety of different groups on sexual harassment. 

IRA FLATOW: Well, that’s great. Yes, one last question here. 

AUDIENCE: Yeah, so about your work with women in science– I got really lucky. My role model, my mom, has a PhD in analytical chemistry, so she was very excited when she heard about all the instruments. What can I do as an undergrad in chemistry and sciences to help other women in science? 


EMILY FISCHER: Stick together, and give back to the high schoolers. 

IRA FLATOW: OK. Thank you. We’ve run out of time. It goes by so quickly. Emily Fischer, assistant professor in the Department of Atmospheric Science at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, thank you. 


Our musical guest, Zimbera. 


After the break, a scientist looking for the lost apples of Colorado and some cider science. I’m Ira Flatow, and this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios.

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