Notes from the Field

First Stop: Sampling the 2023 Fires in Quebec

June 25th, 2024 by Lucas Ribeiro Diaz, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

This blog post is the first in a series to come. Our team, the Climate & Ecosystems Change research group from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, is working in collaboration with the Environmental Change Research Unit from the University of Helsinki for a summer with lots of fire field work, science, and adventure. On this journey, our first stop was the Quebec province in Canada. I’m writing this post after our last day of fieldwork here.

The 2023 wildfire season was the largest on record in Canada, with more than double the burned area as the second largest year. In Quebec, an estimated 4.5 million hectares were burned, an area slightly larger than the size of the Netherlands. This record-breaking fire season in Quebec was due to extreme warm and dry conditions. The dense smoke plumes from the 2023 Quebec blazes shocked the world when the smoke reached several cities on the US East Coast, including New York City.

Fellow scientists have been digging deep to understand and explain the phenomena involved in this Quebec fire season. However, as far as we know, estimates of carbon combustion, or the amount of carbon per area burned that is released during a fire, have never been made in Quebec. That’s why we are on it! In loco, since field measurements are a prime way to quantify carbon emissions from fires.

Meet the team: Thomas Janssen, Yuquan Qu, Lucas Diaz, Max van Gerrevink, Sonja Granqvist, and Sander Veraverbeke (from left to right).

We assess post-fire ecosystem effects to calculate carbon pools below and above ground. In other words, this is the carbon stored in the soil and vegetation. After collecting soil samples and inventorying the vegetation, we can compare burned and unburned (control) locations to estimate how much of this carbon was emitted to the atmosphere due to fire. We do this comparison based on what is called the adventitious root method. On black spruce trees, adventitious roots grow above the initial root collar into the upper soil layers and provide a reference for the pre-fire soil height, as they remain clearly visible many years after fire.

Work in progress: Lucas Diaz scouting for a plot location; Sonja Granqvist coring a tree for stand age estimation; Max van Gerrevink measuring adventitious root height; Yuquan Qu collecting a soil sample; Sander Veraverbeke giving an interview for a documentary; Thomas Janssen carrying out the tree inventory (from top/left to bottom/right).

During our expedition, we covered more than 4,000 kilometers on the road. We started by traveling north from Montreal along the James Bay Road and began our sampling at two fires near the locality of Radisson, where the remote Trans-Taiga road was our daily route. We then headed to Waskaganish, on the southeast shore of James Bay, where we sampled another fire. Finally, we ended our campaign at a large fire in the commercial forest near the town of Lebel-sur-Quévillon. All these trips allowed us to make a scientifically interesting transect from North to South in the Quebec province. We also got to know some incredible places, and we are grateful to the people living there who welcomed us.

We were able to observe two different types of intermixed ecosystems in the fires we visited. We found forests dominated by black spruce in peaty lowlands. In drier and often rocky uplands, Jack pine trees dominated. I’m curious to see how these differences will be reflected in practice when we analyze the carbon combustion in these systems.

Two different ecosystems: Black spruce-dominated forests in peaty lowlands (left) and Jack pine dominated forests in dry uplands (right).

Our team in the campaign was Lucas Diaz, Max van Gerrevink, Thomas Janssen, Yuquan Qu, and Sander Veraverbeke from VU Amsterdam, and Sonja Granqvist from the University of Helsinki. The success of this expedition is also thanks to our collaborators here in Quebec who helped us during our preparation: Dominique Arseneault (Université du Québec à Rimouski), Jonathan Boucher and Yan Boulanger (Canadian Forest Service), and Fabio Gennaretti (Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue).

This fieldwork is part of my PhD project, so I was responsible for leading and organizing the entire expedition. As hard as it was, the whole process was also a lot of fun. Several times during the campaign, I felt like I was on a holiday road trip with a group of friends. In the end, that’s not entirely wrong. This kind of experience brings us closer to people. It strengthens existing bonds and creates new ones. This great adventure gave me moments that I will remember forever.

Time passes quickly here in the boreal forest. Soon, it will be time to pack our bags and embark on the next stage of this fiery journey. Curious about the destination? Stay tuned!

Building memories (from left to right): our campsite near the Trans-Taiga Road; sunset in the boreal forest; the joy of a mission accomplished.

The Quebec fires expedition is part of FireIce (Fire in the land of ice: climatic drivers & feedbacks). FireIce is a Consolidator project funded by the European Research Council. FireIce is affiliated with NASA’s Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE). This blog post was written by Lucas Ribeiro Diaz, a Ph.D. student at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, studying Arctic-boreal fires by combining field and remote sensing approaches.

Little Things Make a Big Difference

February 7th, 2024 by Mike Carlowicz

“PACE is a mission that will use the unique vantage point of space to study some of the smallest things that can have the biggest impact.” — Karen St. Germain, director of NASA’s Earth Science Division

The skies above us are teeming with tiny particles of dust, sea salt, smoke, and human-made pollutants. The seas, oceans, and lakes around us are teeming with microscopic, plant-like organisms. In both cases, individual bits of these tiny living and inanimate particles are too small for your eye to see. But when billions to trillions of them aggregate in one place, we can see them from space. And these little things make a vast difference for life on Earth.

The particles in the air are known to atmospheric scientists as aerosols. Though the spray cans you might use for paint or hairspray do contain aerosols, the ones PACE will study are the flecks of carbon that rise from wildfires and smokestacks; the fine, dusty minerals that get lofted from deserts into the sky by strong winds; the nitrates and sulfates spewed by cars, trucks, and ships in their exhaust; and the salty spray from crashing waves and strong winds blowing over the ocean.

Why study them? Because those particles influence air quality, sometimes making it unhealthy to breathe, especially if you have asthma or heart and lung conditions. Pollution and smoke don’t observe borders – we all share Earth’s air — so it’s important to know something about the sources and types of particles floating around us. On the positive side, the bits of mineral dust or smoky aerosols can sometimes fertilize the ocean, providing nutrients for phytoplankton to bloom. 

Aerosols also affect weather and climate. Tiny particles in the air reflect sunlight, and how much they reflect affects how much the land and ocean surfaces heat up. Aerosols also “seed” the formation of clouds: they provide surfaces on which water droplets form (condensation nucleii) as they aggregate into clouds. One of the great unknowns in our models of climate change is what role will aerosols will play in changing rainfall and snowfall patterns and in the heating or cooling of our atmosphere.

Though NASA has been studying aerosols from space for decades — observing where they are and the abundance of them — PACE and its SPEXone and HARP2 polarimeters will change the game. The instruments will tell us the shape and size of aerosols, helping us answer questions about where they come from and how they might influence other parts of the Earth system.

The other little things that PACE will examine have names like diatoms, coccolithophores, cyanobacteria, algae, and dinoflagellates. To borrow and mangle a quote from one of my favorite movie characters — Annie Savoy in Bull Durham — if you have three phytoplankton, they can’t do much. But if you have 300 billion of them, they can build a cathedral. Well, maybe not a cathedral, but they can develop into vast blooms that have a profound impact on life on this ocean planet. 

Phytoplankton grow constantly on Earth and just about anywhere there are open, sunlit patches of water. When conditions are right, the growth of these microscopic cells can blossom to scales that are visible from orbit for days to weeks. 

Phytoplankton are to the ocean what grasses and ground cover are to land: primary producers, a basic food source for other life, and the main carbon recycler for the marine environment. They are floating, plant-like organisms that soak up sunshine, sponge up nutrients, and create their own food (energy).

Why do we need to study these tiny organisms with PACE? While humans don’t really consume phytoplankton for food, the little floaters are fuel for the zooplankton, fish, and shellfish that we do eat. We also need to care about phytoplankton because they can influence water quality and human health. Some species of phytoplankton produce toxins that are dangerous to humans and animals; others can grow in such abundance that they crowd out other species or deplete the water of necessary oxygen. 

Speaking of oxygen, phytoplankton produce a lot of it. Somewhere between 20 and 50 percent of the oxygen on Earth — some in our air, a lot in the ocean — is made by phytoplankton as they use photosynthesis to turn sunlight, carbon dioxide, and nutrients into sugars. In the process, they also draw carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and, in time, sink it to the bottom of the ocean.

Better understanding the phytoplankton in the ocean will help us better understand the fisheries that feed us and our economy, and it can ultimately help us work toward cleaner waterways. 

NASA and its research partners have been studying phytoplankton from space for decades, but mostly with just a few wavelengths of light. I am looking forward to the colors, textures, and details we will see with PACE’s OCI hyperspectral imager. As the PACE science team likes to say: we have been coloring the ocean with a box of 8 crayons, and now we are about to get a box with 128 shades of color. The leap in detail will allow scientists to better spot where phytoplankton are, but also figure out who (what species) they are.

And when PACE data are combined with observations from our recently launched SWOT mission — which studies the shape and movement of the surface of the ocean — it will be like going from the Earth-observing equivalent of the Hubble Space Telescope to the new James Webb Space Telescope.

Learn more about phytoplankton with these resources:

PACE Phytoplankton Exploration

The Insanely Important World of Phytoplankton

What Are Phytoplankton?

NASA Wants to Identify Phytoplankton Species from Space: Here’s Why.

As the Seasons Change, Will the Plankton?

Phytoplankton May Be Abundant Under Antarctic Sea Ice

Learn more about aerosols with these resources:

Just Another Day on Aerosol Earth

New NASA Satellite to Unravel Mysteries About Clouds, Aerosols

Global Transport of Smoke from Australian Bushfires

Aerosols: Tiny Particles, Big Impact

PACE StoryMap: Air (E)quality

NASA: Explore Air Quality