NSF Scientist's Computer Model Links Fire and the Atmosphere
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Winds play a critical role in fire spread in tinder-dry forests, but a fire itself can modify local winds, helping it grow even more quickly, according to scientist Terry Clark of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado. NCAR is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).
"Clark has created one of the world's first computer models to trace the interplay over time between fire behavior and winds, pointing the way toward future models that will aid in fire prediction and management," said Jewel Prendeville, coordinator of NSF's lower atmospheric facilities section.
Using supercomputers to model small-scale atmospheric phenomena, Clark has analyzed severe thunderstorms, downslope windstorms, and the dynamics near fronts. For the fire-atmosphere study, one of Clark's atmospheric models was connected with a model of dry eucalyptus forest fires (a major threat in Australia). Although forests vary in how they burn, the findings translate to a variety of settings.
Most previous studies on fire and wind have assumed a straightforward relationship between large-scale winds and fire behavior. However, Clark points out that forest fires are very complex phenomena. "Interactions between forest fires and airflow are highly unstable," he said.
Among Clark's findings:
Clark and his colleagues are now investigating a second, smaller-scale type of fire fingering that occurs through a process similar to the one that causes supercell thunderstorms to rotate. Preliminary model results show the development of a tornado-like vortex within a fire, much like the vortices often observed in actual fires.
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