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Using NEON Airborne Sensing to Study Wildfire Impacts


Wildfires are a growing problem in the American West, consuming millions of acres of land and causing billions of dollars in damages annually. Frequent droughts caused by a changing climate are expected to make matters worse in the decades to come. But how much do we really understand about how these fires burn, what they emit, and the relationships between vegetation in the landscape and fire intensity, spread and emissions?


A 2019 study funded through the NSF (RAPID) Grant program attempts to answer critical questions about the correlations between biomass burned from wildfires and the emitted quantities of trace gases and aerosols. "Airborne LIDAR and Hyperspectral Observations to Support Ecological Characterization of Wildfire-Affected Areas" was a joint undertaking by the NEON program and University of Colorado–Boulder in partnership with BB-FLUX, an existing NSF supported project. The NEON portion of the study was conducted under the NEON Assignable Assets program, which makes the AOPs and other NEON infrastructure available to researchers for projects outside the scope of the NEON program.


The NEON data, which have been shared with the U.S. Forest Service, may help in the development of fuel models that could be used to determine the percentage of total available biomass actually consumed by each fire. Calculating this "combustion completion" ratio is a very challenging interdisciplinary problem and presents an interesting opportunity for future research.

By improving the estimates of total biomass that researchers can get from remote sensing data, that data can be used to build models that give us better predictions of wildfire spread and emissions. This will also help us predict how changes in biomass resulting from climate change may influence fire activity in the future.


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