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Unique flying lab studies how smoke travels, what it does to our bodies

Posted at 2:35 PM, Jul 24, 2019

Scientists have long warned of the effects of global warming and the possibility of more intense wildfires that burn for longer periods of time. Now, a new team of researchers is hoping to get a better understanding of how the smoke travels and what the tiniest particles could be doing to our lungs.

"There's many things we’re still struggling to understand about smoke,” explains Joshua Schwarz, a physicist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The group of researchers includes meteorologists and weather modelers, in addition to scientists.

“All together, we are deciding which fires to target," Schwarz says.

Amber Soja, with NASA, describes herself as the “fire person” of the group. Every day for the next couple of weeks, this group will create a flight plan, opening the door for another group of scientists inside this flying laboratory.

“We've got tremendous range, and we're carrying a tremendous payload of information,” Soja says.

This lab was once an Italian passenger airliner. It flies straight into the smoke of fires.

"We'll have to look at what's the altitude of the smoke we want to be in, which direction is the smoke going, how far can we track that smoke," Schwarz says.

Intake tubes on the outside of the lab bring in smoke particles that will be studied. Researchers are interested in learning how the smoke travels and what it does to our bodies when it’s inhaled.

Pete Lahm, with the U.S. Forest Service, says studying the smoke is important because it impacts both public health and safety.

“This info will help us make in the long run [make] better decisions on when we ignite fire and how we consider smoke impacts, and that's absolutely critical to our mission,” Lahm says.

Watch the video above to learn more.