Queen's University

School of Environmental Studies
Dept. of Geological Sciences & Geological Engineering

Wildfire emissions and in-plume chemistry monitoring using alternative sampling methodologies

In 2018, Dr. McLagan worked on the Oil Sands Monitoring Campaign with Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) that utilised a research aircraft decked out with an array of sophisticated atmospheric contaminant monitoring instruments. During this campaign, there was a wildfire in NW Saskatchewan that was upwind of the Oil Sands facilities that we were able to study. Dr. McLagan’s role within this campaign was managing the atmospheric mercury instrumentation and data. Dr. McLagan wrote up this study in the northern winter of 2019/20, which coincided with the catastrophic and unprecedented bushfires in Australia, his country of birth. Seeing areas of the country burn that he knew well really hit home and drove Dr. McLagan’s desire to expand his study of wildfires.

This study also made me realise some of the considerable challenges associated with monitoring wildfire plumes, data that is severely lacking for all but the most widely monitored atmospheric contaminants (CO, CO2, and CH4). It is non-normal to have an aircraft sufficiently equipped for wildfire monitoring ready to take off and fly into wildfire plumes. Wildfires are unpredictable and are typically no-fly zones due to aircraft-based extinguishing efforts. Monitoring from ground-based stations is also limited. Winds don’t always blow in the right direction and measurements at large source-receptor distances present the potential for atmospheric transformation/degradation to occur; such measurements may not be representative of actual emissions.

Hence, the FEWA Lab is seeking to develop alternate strategies and methodologies to improve our capacity to monitor these plumes that have considerable human health and climate change implications. There are two key sub-projects that will look to develop research in this area:

  • Ground-based mobile platform and passive sampling of prescribed/controlled fires. Here, the FEWA Lab aim to use a number of innovative methods to monitor prescribed/controlled fires that are of a more predictive and less destructive nature than wildfires.
  • Development of a unpiloted aerial vehicle (UAV) for monitoring wildfires with lightweight low cost sensors. This is an ambitious project that will look to build strategic collaborations and method advancements to bring into fruition.

With these and future projects, the FEWA Lab also aim to develop means to support the rights of Indigenous Peoples’ to burn country for cultural and environmental stewardship purposes.

Figure: Gaseous elemental mercury (GEM) concentrations measured in a wildfire plume in North-West Saskatchewan with Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC). (McLagan et al., 2021; https://doi.org/10.5194/acp-21-5635-2021)

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