Science 3 min read

Wildfires to Produce More Tarballs due to Climate Change

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Summer 2019 saw a historic inferno torching the Amazon rainforest at record rates, creating a cross-country smokescreen that you can see from space!

Wildfires didn’t spare even Siberia, Alaska, and many regions in practically every continent.

Wildfires have always been a natural part in the life of forest ecosystems that used to recover, but that may no longer be the case. Climate change is to blame for wildfires’ increasing intensity and frequency that’s threatening to wipe put these ecosystems for good.

The impact of wildfires extends well beyond the immediate perimeter of the blaze, due to emissions containing one less-understood type of airborne particles.

It’s a harmful by-product of wildfire called tarballs that scientists are only now getting to know how they form and affect the environment.

Tarballs, Fiery Airborne Calamity

Dark-colored pieces of carbonaceous particles, wildfire tarballs are the by-product of burnt organic matter, or biomass — as opposed to tarballs associated with oil spills.

Wildfires require what firefighters refer to as fuel bed, or all the trees, bushes and other types of vegetation and combustible matter that can feed the fire once ignited. The combustion of biomass releases smokes containing gases and aerosols like tarballs.

As a significant source of tarballs, biomass burning (BB) can be an “environmental calamity,” according to a new study.

Professor Peter Buseck of Arizona State University, and Kouji Adachi, from the Meteorological Research Institute in Japan, worked for years studying BB aerosols and tarballs specifically.

From their part, researchers at the Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Lab (BNL), have planned the BBOP field campaign, which aims to use an airplane to measure the rapid chemical changes in BB smoke.

The BNL team was interested in Buseck and Adashi’s work so, they asked them to take part in the BBOP project. The DOE Gulfstream-1 (G-1) airplane served as a perfect skylab to zero in on tarballs and BB aerosols, and understand how they influence and are influenced by climate change.

The collaborative effort found tarballs to be a dominant component, up to 30% of the aerosol mass, in BB smoke. The team also showed that tarballs form within the first hours of a wildfire through a combination of rapid chemical and physical changes of organic aerosol particles.

This study highlights the potentially disastrous environmental impact of BB emissions that can cause “major problems for visibility and health, as well as for local and global climate.”

Climate change can lead to heat waves and longer drought spells, increasing the risk of wildfire. BB events generate large amounts of emissions, predominantly tarballs, that can disperse over a broader area than the fire itself.

“BB emissions including tarballs are expected to increase in coming decades as a result of climate change… The findings can be used to improve interpretation of BB smoke from satellite data and ground-based observations by considering tarball shape, viscosity and compositional changes during aging and to provide better estimates of their effects in climate models.”

The study’s findings are published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Read More: Study Shows Air Pollution is Twice as Deadly as Previously Estimated

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Zayan Guedim

Trilingual poet, investigative journalist, and novelist. Zed loves tackling the big existential questions and all-things quantum.

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