Navy Meteorologist Presents New Wildfire Climate Research to Global Scientists

Story by Raeanna Morgan, U.S. Naval Research Laboratory  

Last year was a record year for wildfires across the globe, and their impact on the atmosphere remains highly uncertain. Thanks to new research from expert scientists at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, the world is gaining more insight into what drives these massive and escalating events.

NRL meteorologist Dr. David Peterson explained his findings from his recent research, “Wildfire-Driven Thunderstorms Cause a Volcano-Like Stratospheric Injection of Smoke,” during a press conference today at the European Geosciences Union’s annual General Assembly in Vienna, Austria, which was held from April 8 to 13.

“Our research shows that the stratospheric impact from five wildfire-driven thunderstorms, known as pyrocumulonimbus or pyroCb, was comparable to a moderate volcanic eruption,” Peterson explained the NRL pryoCb research team’s findings and that it’s an interdisciplinary collaboration with scientists from both the Marine Meteorology and Remote Sensing Divisions within NRL.

Navy courtesy photo

The significance of volcanic eruptions in the climate system has been recognized for several decades, but pyroCb research is relatively new, originating at NRL in the early 2000s, according to Peterson.

“The significance of pyroCb is still not well-recognized, even within the stratospheric science community. Our presentation describes the largest known stratospheric injection from a pyroCb event, producing a high-altitude smoke layer that encircled the Northern Hemisphere over several months,” Peterson said. “This event provides the best opportunity to date for highlighting pyroCb activity as an important consideration in the climate system.”

Peterson, along with scientists from Norway, Portugal, and Spain, comprised a four-person panel participating in an international press conference at the EGU General Assembly, which brings together more than 14,000 earth and planetary scientists from around the world.

“I am excited to share our results, which are based on nearly two decades of research at NRL,” Peterson said. “We provide a unique perspective on extreme wildfire behavior and its impact on the Earth’s atmosphere system.”

According to experts, there were a record number of wildfires worldwide in 2017.

In Greenland, highly unusual open fires burned on peat lands left vulnerable by permafrost thawing. Wildfires in Portugal were the deadliest and most extensive ever recorded, resulting in more than 100 fatalities and a burnt area over four times larger than the average of the previous 10 years.

California had the most destructive and costly wildfire season on record, experts say. Some of the most extreme activity occurred in British Columbia, Canada, where wildfires burnt a record area. Violent thunderstorms generated by fire heat injected smoke particles into the stratosphere in a quantity without precedent in the satellite era. Violent thunderstorms Aug. 12, 2017, generated by fire heat (pyroCb) produced a volcano-like impact on the stratospheric aerosol layer.

During the press conference, all experts discussed the importance of research on extreme wildfires, including how powerful the British Columbia smoke plumes were and what the fires on and near Greenland mean for ice melting in the region. The press conference also focused on how the 2017 fire season can be a harbinger of future changes, and how countries can better adapt to changing wildfire patterns.