With a historic wildfire season in the West last year (2020), the importance of forecasting smoke movement came to the forefront. In mid-September, record wildfires in both California and Colorado caused smoke and haze to stretch over 3,000 miles from coast to coast, reducing air quality as it traveled. Some of that smoke even reached parts of Central Texas.
- LOOKING BACK: Smoke from western wildfires visible in Central Texas
Developed by NOAA’s Global Systems Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado, the High-Resolution Rapid Refresh Smoke model (HRRR-smoke) is the first numerical weather model in the U.S. designed to track the movement of smoke in three dimensions over the entire country, 48 hours into the future. It analyzes current weather patterns in conjunction with satellite observations of current wildfires’ locations and intensities, to predict the smoke’s impact on an area’s visibility, temperature and wind. The model would also be used to forecast smoke concentration as a way of gauging air quality.
IN-DEPTH: Smoke in the atmosphere can act like a cloud, reflecting sunlight back into space, and as a result, keep temperatures from warming a few degrees (smoke has a higher albedo compared to Earth’s surface… meaning it can reflect the sun’s radiation better than a darker colored surface can).
After three years of being experimental, the HRRR-smoke was put into operation late 2020. By early December, it was implemented to the suite of forecast models used by the National Weather Service (NWS) and added to the data we use in the KXAN Weather Center.
How is it used?
Not only is the HRRR-smoke data useful to meteorologists when forecasting temperatures, visibility, etc., it is also used as a resource for others in various fields. Wildfire managers can deploy crews based on smoke intensity, community leaders and public health managers will be able to monitor the effects on their residents and decide if action (i.e. evacuation) is needed, those with respiratory issues are able to prepare and plan for possible air quality issues, etc.
Forecasters are constantly working to improve computer modeling and weather prediction. Given the now operational HRRR-smoke, scientists are currently using the model data to further improve our understanding of how ozone and other pollutants in smoke affect air quality.
For more information, visit Research.NOAA.org