Impacts of wildfires on clouds, climate research focus of mid-career award 

Smoke particles and dust from wildfires interact with clouds and impact weather and climate, affecting how clouds form, where and when it rains, and even how air moves in the atmosphere. Supported by a Mid-Career Advancement award from the National Science Foundation, Jennifer Griswold, an associate professor and chairperson of Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST), will strive to better understand these interactions, which can aid scientists and policymakers in making smarter decisions to protect community health, improve air quality, and prepare for future wildfires. 

“I’m most interested in having a better understanding of how the atmosphere, clouds and climate are impacted by the particles emitted by large wildfire events through combining satellite observations, my current expertise, and improving global climate model representations of these types of events, a skill I will learn through this project,” said Griswold. “This program and the support I receive through it will expand my research potential and provide additional opportunities for future students.”  

The three-year program and $360,000 in funding provide protected research time, resources, and the means to gain new skills through synergistic and mutually beneficial partnerships. The support is aimed at helping to lift the constraints of service, teaching, or other activities to reduce workload inequities and enable a more diverse scientific workforce at high academic ranks.

The funding will buy out a full semester of teaching and summer overload for each year and cover the one month of salary for Griswold’s mentor at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), project scientist Christina McCluskey; and cover travel to NCAR for training and collaboration, fees to attend conferences, and purchasing a new node for Department of Atmospheric Sciences’ high-performance computing cluster.

“I’m very fortunate to have not only the funding from the MCA to buy out my teaching but the support of my Department and the SOEST Dean’s office to take a full year off,” said Griswold.

Learning from events across the Pacific

The devastating Lahaina fires in 2023 significantly impacted the surrounding community and environment. This tragic event renewed Griswold’s focus on how particles produced or transported by large wildfire events can impact air quality and clouds near the fires and downwind.

“In my research field, cloud physics, there are three main ways to investigate clouds and cloud processes: observations and laboratory, satellites, and modelling,” said Griswold. “I learned how to make in situ observations for my doctoral degree, learned how to use satellite data for my postdoctoral research fellowship, and now I’ll have the chance to add the third main research method, modelling.” 

At NCAR, Griswold will learn how to run the Community Earth System Model version 2 and will investigate the impacts of one of the most intense and catastrophic fire seasons on record in Australia, the 2019–20 bushfire season, or “Black Summer”. The associated fires sent a smoke plume all the way to South America and Antarctica and as high as the stratosphere. This large-scale impact means that many points in the climate model will be included in Griswold’s simulation of the event. Simulated and satellite cloud properties from the Black Summer event will allow her to investigate cloud activation, ice nucleation, and impacts of biomass burning aerosol on cloud properties.

Background: Fire rages behind ridge line; midground: city lights shine in Australia’s capital city, Canberra.
Orroral Valley Fire rages on January 28, 2020 in Australia’s capital city, Canberra. Photo by Nick-D; acquired from Wikimedia Commons.

In addition to improving preparedness for other wildfires, this research also helps build more accurate predictions of climate change, which is crucial for developing effective strategies to safeguard communities in Hawai’i and across the globe.