NEON Data Used to Answer Questions About What Fuels Wildfire Size, Intensity & Emissions

A joint study by NEON, the University of Colorado–Boulder and BB-FLUX looks to learn more about the relationship between biomass and a fire’s intensity, spread and emissions.

BOULDER, Colorado (June 10, 2019) — As the American West gears up for another potentially devastating fire season, a new study from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) NEON program and the University of Colorado–Boulder, in partnership with BB-FLUX, attempts to answer critical questions about the relationships between ecosystems, climate and fire activity.

The study, "Airborne LIDAR and Hyperspectral Observations to Support Ecological Characterization of Wildfire-Affected Areas," examines how local vegetation fuels wildfires and affects their intensity, spread and emissions. The study is part of NSF’s Rapid Response to Funding (RAPID) Grant program and is a joint undertaking by the NEON program, funded by the NSF and managed by Battelle, and the University of Colorado–Boulder in partnership with BB-FLUX, another NSF-supported project.

The study comes on the heels of one of the deadliest wildfire seasons on record. In 2017 and 2018, wildfires burned more than 18 million acres of land, resulting in record levels of damages. Six of the ten costliest wildfires on record occurred in the last two years, and frequent droughts caused by a changing climate are expected to make matters worse in the decades to come.

As concerns about wildfire activity continue to grow, it’s important to gain a better understanding about how these fires burn. Wildfires are fueled by biomass: organic matter (e.g. vegetation) growing in the ecosystem. The characteristics of that biomass influence how large a wildfire can get and how fast it can spread, as well as the types of smoke and particles it emits. A clearer picture of this relationship between biomass and a fire’s characteristics can help predict the impact of future wildfires.

“This data will help us develop better models that can be used to predict how wildfires spread in different ecosystems and under different conditions,” says Rainer Volkamer, Associate Professor of Chemistry and CIRES Fellow at UC–Boulder and Principal Investigator of the BB-FLUX project. “It will also help us predict how changes in biomass resulting from climate change – including droughts and insect damage – may influence fire activity in the future.”

Tristan Goulden, NEON’s Remote Sensing Lead Scientist and joint investigator on the study, said, “Understanding these changes will be important for researchers, policy makers and land managers. A better understanding of wildfire emissions will also help the public health community develop science-based policies to protect vulnerable populations exposed to smoke from wildfires.”

The study, which leveraged NEON’s Airborne Remote Sensing Team and BB-FLUX’s remote sensing and in-situ instruments across four areas impacted by wildfires in 2018, marks one of the first collaborations between the atmospheric and ecosystem communities when it comes to wildfires. Both teams are enthusiastic about the potential of the collaboration. "The scientific synergies and opportunities for learning are tremendous,” Volkamer says. “A lot remains to be done."

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.

About NEON

The NEON program, managed by Battelle for the National Science Foundation, is a continental-scale ecological observation facility that collects and provides open data from 81 field sites across the United States that characterize and quantify how our nation's ecosystems are changing. The data will contribute to a better understanding and more accurate forecasting of how human activities impact ecosystems and how society can more effectively address critical ecological questions and issues. The data is available for any researcher to use. Learn more at

About Battelle

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Jun 10, 2019


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