Wildfire Smoke Can Rise Higher Than Previously Believed and Cause Ozone Damage


New details about the effects of wildlife smoke beyond the Earth’s immediate atmosphere have emerged. Using various methods, scientists have been able to observe and document how high these smoky clouds can go. There is evidence to suggest that the soot can cause damage to the ozone layer.

Smoke Cloud Formation and Effects

There have been a few recent cases of extreme wildfires. The summer of 2017 saw these destruction fires causing much loss in the western part of Canada and the U.S. Pacific Northwest. The massive fire clouds formed during these wildfires are called pyrocumulonimbus, or pyroCb, clouds. Scientists studying these clouds discovered that they went up as high as 12 to 23 kilometers into the stratosphere. This is much higher than previously estimated. The soot and other particles carried in these clouds can damage the ozone layer and have climatic effects.

A range of instruments was used to track and measure the pyroCb clouds. Weather balloons, satellite, and remote sensing from ground level all provided valuable details. PyroCb clouds formed during the 2017 North American wildfires piled up to a height of 23 kilometers in the stratosphere over 2 months. Science covers the details of how the research team carried out this study.

Scientists continued to track the smoke clouds over a period of 8 months. They measured the content of the soot and organics in the stratosphere during this period. Alan Robock, a climate scientist at Rutgers University in New Jersey and a co-author in the study, describes what they witnessed as the “mother of all pyroCbs.”

Ozone damage from these lingering smoke clouds happens when they displace ozone-rich air and by the action of free radicals formed from water vapor carried in the smoke. There’s still further research to be done, but this study has given scientists a picture of what could happen in the stratosphere after a nuclear war.

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