Researcher takes a close look at particles in wildfire smoke

Posted: Sunday, August 11, 2002

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- When smoke from wildfires blew into Fairbanks last week, researcher Glenn Shaw couldn't resist. He had to study it.

''I just stuck a tube out the window,'' said Shaw, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

He pumped the air through a machine that measures cloud condensation particles and discovered the particles in the smoke were very small and very water resistant.

''They hate water,'' he said. ''I thought that was very interesting.''

It wasn't until he ''supersaturated'' the particles with water that they broke down. Normally, the smaller the particles, the easier they ''nucleate,'' or condense.

''It really goes against the established thought,'' Shaw said. ''It's very weird.''

Shaw specializes in studying aerosols, tiny airborne particles that condense into clouds. Usually Shaw's research focuses on pollution.

He spent the last two years working in the Indian Ocean region, studying smoke produced by pollution and the effect it has on the monsoon cycle. He has also studied the air in Portugal, Antarctica and Brazil.

Shaw has been studying the number and size distribution of the particles in the smoke that has filled Fairbanks for the past week. Using a pump he has stashed on the roof of the International Arctic Research Center, Shaw fills an aluminum bag resembling a giant, silver pillow with air and then retreats to his office to run it through his array of instruments.

The particles' aversion to water is one of the reasons the smoke was not washed away by rain that fell early last week, he said.

''They must be oily,'' Shaw said. ''The rain we had didn't do much.''

Shaw said it will take a good rainfall to get rid of the smoke. As for what he will do with the information he is gaining through his impromptu experiment, Shaw isn't quite sure. He will probably write a research paper or two about it and discuss it with other scientists.

''We're going to have to get some organic chemists involved,'' he said.

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