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UW-Madison researchers track wildfire smoke

LIDAR uses the light of a laser to look for smoke and other particulates throughout the vertical depth of the atmosphere.
Published: Jul. 21, 2021 at 5:40 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - From New York to Philadelphia; Cincinnati to right here in Madison - wildfire smoke has blanketed the sky far above our heads. We have a very good idea where that smoke is thanks to satellites in space. But we don’t know “where” it is. While it’s good to the extent of the smoke blanket, it’s also important to know at what level the smoke is located. It turns out that scientists are using technology similar to our doppler weather radar to do just that.

You might be surprised to learn that the term “Radar” is actually an acronym. It stands for Radio Detection and Ranging. Our doppler weather radar sends out an electromagnetic pulse (radio wave) and “listens” for that pulse to come back. Shifts in power are analyzed to show where and how heavy rain is falling.

Lidar stands for Light Detection and Ranging. Researchers at UW-Madison are using this technology to see smoke in the atmosphere. The device is about the size of a phone booth and also sends out an electromagnetic pulse (this time a laser pulse) straight up into the sky. Laser light is scattered by particles in the atmosphere - everything from clouds to smoke itself.

On a clear day (like Tuesday), Lidar can show how high up smoke it and where its going. This ultimately has big implications on air quality alerting and forecasting of smoke.

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