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US Forest Service Uses Data to Visualize Impact of Wildfire Smoke

Posted by John Greene on February 27, 2017

When was the last time you made a purchase without doing at least a cursory internet search for stats or reviews? From simple restaurant and movie reviews, to new furniture, vacations, new cars and virtually everything available in the marketplace, we increasingly rely on product data to help improve our decision-making process.

But with so much material readily available at our fingertips, we often find ourselves paralyzed due to information overload. How do we separate the solid, trustworthy data from the inconsequential data? How do we establish a hierarchy of importance, and how do we then put that data to its most effective use in our own personal and business lives? 

Effective visualization is one of the most important factors in being able to properly analyze and make sound decisions from complex sets of quality data. Forest2Market specializes in synthesizing and presenting multifaceted datasets to help our clients make better-informed decisions. From our comprehensive report for NAFO, The Economic Impact of Privately-Owned Forests in the United States, to analyst Hannah Jefferies’s series of blog posts covering the impacts of major precipitation events on timberland in South Carolina, we understand that the data must effectively illustrate its basis to be valuable. 

The United States Forest Service (USFS) also must rely on massive amounts of data in virtually every activity the agency is tasked with managing—from analyzing forest inventories, to fighting wildfires and everything in between. A new general technical report recently published by the USFS Pacific Northwest Research Station adds new visual elements to help assess smoke concentrations in the region heavily impacted by large, destructive fires. While 2017’s wildfire season is still a few months away, the guide will help resource managers and the public accurately visualize smoke concentrations that are unhealthy and impair visibility, which will help affected communities better prepare for the potential of dangerous levels of wildfire smoke. 

Fire smoke is made up of a variety of chemical compounds and components including particulate matter (PM), which can negatively affect public health, visibility, safety and travel. Typically, when air quality regulators and managers assess potential emissions impacts from a fire, they measure PM concentrations in units of micrograms per cubic meter. However precise this measurement is for the scientific community, it is not necessarily meaningful for much of the public that most need information about dire smoke concentrations and negative effects. This is where the actual imagining of data becomes crucial. 

The new guide features photographs of a dozen national parks and scenic areas from across the US that depict the visual changes that typically occur under varying levels of smoke concentration and humidity. Because the guide visualizes smoke effects through the use of actual photographs and popular locations, it can help regulators and managers quickly communicate PM concentrations during wildfires. 

 

Columbia River Gorge (Oregon) 

For example, the Pacific Northwest Region (National Forest System—Region 6) Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area in Oregon is one of the 12 sites included in the guide. To establish guidelines for this area, the USFS notes that, “Particulate data from 551 days of sampling (July 1993 to May 1999) in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area were chosen to represent baseline and elevated regional air quality concentrations (table 14). Table 15 shows the simulated visual range at different levels of PM2.5 concentration (<6, 19, 114, and 245 μg/m3) and relative humidity for the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. The simulated images show a baseline representing an area free from smoke-impaired visibility (<6 μg/m3 fine and coarse particulates) and three levels of impairment. Data used for estimating the effect of relative humidity on visual range during the May to September fire season are from Portland, Oregon (NOAA 2014).”

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Snoqualmie Pass (Washington) 

Snoqualmie Pass is also one of the 12 sites on the new guide. To establish guidelines for this area, the USFS notes that, “Particulate data from 353 days of sampling (December 1993 to May 1999) at Snoqualmie Pass were chosen to represent baseline and elevated regional air quality concentrations (table 16). Table 17 shows the simulated visual range at different levels of PM2.5 concentration (<4, 19, 114, and 245 μg/m3) and relative humidity for Snoqualmie Pass. The simulated images show a baseline representing an area free from smoke-impaired visibility (<4 μg/m3 fine and coarse particulates) and three levels of impairment. Data used for estimating the effect of relative humidity on visual range during the May to September fire season are from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, Washington (NOAA 2014).”

 

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While the data in the tables for both locations detail the dangerous levels of PM concentrations in the air during various wildfire scenarios, the stark contrast in the sets of photographs create immediate, dramatic visualizations of the data. These photographs provide a visual context that can help both officials and the public quickly make decisions about smoke danger, and will allow them to more efficiently take action and potentially save lives. 

“A visual representation is one more tool that may be used to communicate about smoke,” noted Joshua Hyde, smoke program coordinator with the University of Idaho and lead author of the report. “Some individuals prefer to have more quantitative information, whereas others may find a visualization more helpful. We provide both in our guide,” said Hyde, who is also a collaborator with the station’s Fire and Environmental Research Applications Team at the Pacific Wildland Fire Sciences Laboratory in Seattle. 

Regardless of the circumstance, there is no substitute for reliable data. Whether it is being used to make a personal purchasing decision, an investment or business decision, quality data has become part of the modern decision-making process. The USFS’s addition of simple, visual elements to help tell the story of complex datasets not only makes this information more approachable, but it also helps to raise awareness among the public in areas impacted by wildfires. While the USFS leverages different datasets for forecasting purposes, Hyde added that, “I see this as a communication tool rather than as a predictive tool.” Thanks to the visualization of this data, effectively communicating harmful wildfire and smoke danger could result in saving lives, structures and property.

 

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Topics: data quality, PNW Wildfire Fight

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