From more intense wildfires to prolonged droughts, climate change is impacting the ecology of the American West. That’s got researchers in our region looking at a new way to fight some of these impacts: drones.
"And now, pretty much the whole screen is filled with alternating fire and black from the smoke and it’s really a hellish, otherworldly scene," Watts says, pointing at the screen.
"You just can’t imagine being in something like this," he adds.
Watts was observing the fire with a team of researchers to learn more about how fire and smoke behave in large fires. They’ll use that information to improve the models firefighters and land managers use to fight fires.
But, he says there’s a limit to what they can learn at a prescribed burn.
"We want some really big fires that are kind of like simulated wildfires," Watts says. "We don’t want a little tiny prescribed burn, because if we study those prescribed burns, we don’t get the kind of fire behavior and smoke movement that we see in wildfires. And that’s what we’re after the understanding of."
Researchers are a common sight at prescribed fires, but Watt’s goal is to eventually get data from large wildfires. He now has a tool for that. The pictures and data collection from the video we were looking at earlier came from unmanned drones. That means he was able to get insights from locations he couldn’t get to before.
"Right over the flames, right in that column of smoke coming up from the fire, where you just can’t get a manned aircraft because of the safety obviously," Watts says.
And that’s important, because new perspectives can give scientists different information. For example, Watts is looking into whether microbes from soil can be transferred from one region to another by wildfire smoke. But to measure that, he needed to put scientific equipment right into the smoke.
That’s a challenge because this equipment can be big. Some can take up the bed of a pickup truck. So to get it onto the drone, Watts and his team had to fit it all into something the size of a cigar box.
"So even though we’re doing fires right now, this emphasis on miniaturizing and specializing instruments and getting them in the air to observe natural phenomenon applies to so many different things that relate to the atmosphere, water, and terrestrial ecosystems."
Drones are a new tool in a variety of ways from fire suppression to land surveys to environmental information gathering. They're also being used to deal with drought.
Watts is part of a team that has been testing drones for a process called cloud seeding. Theoretically, that can help mitigate drought impacts, by flying aircraft up to the clouds and releasing silver iodide, which can help produce more precipitation. Science has yet to reach a consensus on whether or not the process works reliably outside the lab, but climate change is making all sorts of ideas more palatable.
Ahira Sánchez-Lugo is a climate scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She says increased temperatures from climate change bring a rise in extreme weather-related events.
"What we were expecting to see, was more intense and frequent heat waves [and] more intense and frequent drought in some locations. The general rule of thumb is the wet areas will get wetter; the dry areas will get drier," she says.
This is a business opportunity for drone producers like Mike Richards. He's the president and CEO of Drone America, a Nevada-based company. He says he started his business to help with search and rescue operations, but it’s since evolved to include ways to help mitigate the impacts of climate change, like a longer and more intense wildfire season.
"Some of the work we’ve done with power line surveys actually helps with that," he says, "because you’re identifying faults which could arise in a spark and then a brush fire, which as you can see, has turned into some pretty horrible results in the past."
As wildfires and other natural disasters overwhelm communities, Richards says drones can be used to more safely, quickly and reliably get medical supplies and help to people in need. Imagine drones delivering first aid kits or life vests to people during Hurricane Katrina.
"So what you would do is have them positioned strategically around known disaster areas, such as that area of Louisiana, for example, where the flooding and high storms or hurricanes, etc. can cause massive flooding," he says.
Richards says Drone America was recently awarded a five-year contract with the Department of Interior to gather and provide data on wildfires for agencies like the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.