Articles | Volume 17, issue 10
Research article
30 May 2017
Research article |  | 30 May 2017

Particulate emissions from large North American wildfires estimated using a new top-down method

Tadas Nikonovas, Peter R. J. North, and Stefan H. Doerr

Abstract. Particulate matter emissions from wildfires affect climate, weather and air quality. However, existing global and regional aerosol emission estimates differ by a factor of up to 4 between different methods. Using a novel approach, we estimate daily total particulate matter (TPM) emissions from large wildfires in North American boreal and temperate regions. Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) fire location and aerosol optical thickness (AOT) data sets are coupled with HYSPLIT (Hybrid Single-Particle Lagrangian Integrated Trajectory) atmospheric dispersion simulations, attributing identified smoke plumes to sources. Unlike previous approaches, the method (i) combines information from both satellite and AERONET (AErosol RObotic NETwork) observations to take into account aerosol water uptake and plume specific mass extinction efficiency when converting smoke AOT to TPM, and (ii) does not depend on instantaneous emission rates observed during individual satellite overpasses, which do not sample night-time emissions. The method also allows multiple independent estimates for the same emission period from imagery taken on consecutive days.

Repeated fire-emitted AOT estimates for the same emission period over 2 to 3 days of plume evolution show increases in plume optical thickness by approximately 10 % for boreal events and by 40 % for temperate emissions. Inferred median water volume fractions for aged boreal and temperate smoke observations are 0.15 and 0.47 respectively, indicating that the increased AOT is partly explained by aerosol water uptake. TPM emission estimates for boreal events, which predominantly burn during daytime, agree closely with bottom-up Global Fire Emission Database (GFEDv4) and Global Fire Assimilation System (GFASv1.0) inventories, but are lower by approximately 30 % compared to Quick Fire Emission Dataset (QFEDv2) PM2. 5, and are higher by approximately a factor of 2 compared to Fire Energetics and Emissions Research (FEERv1) TPM estimates. The discrepancies are larger for temperate fires, which are characterized by lower median fire radiative power values and more significant night-time combustion. The TPM estimates for this study for the biome are lower than QFED PM2. 5 by 35 %, and are larger by factors of 2.4, 3.2 and 4 compared with FEER, GFED and GFAS inventories respectively. A large underestimation of TPM emission by bottom-up GFED and GFAS indicates low biases in emission factors or consumed biomass estimates for temperate fires.

Short summary
The study presents a new method for estimating particulate matter emissions from large wildfires. The method relies solely on satellite observations of fire activity and particles suspended in the atmosphere. The results indicate that temperate and boreal forest fires in North America emit similar amounts of particles per unit of fire radiative power. The findings differ from estimates by modelling studies which suggest much larger emissions for boreal events compared to temperate fires.
Final-revised paper