Research Aims to Improve Wildfire Prediction

David Peterson’s fascination with storms brought him to UNL to study meteorology. But now the former storm chaser is using his knowledge of storms to pursue even bigger prey. 

The UNL geosciences graduate student is combining meteorological data with NASA satellite images to study wildfires caused by lightning strikes to better predict where fires will occur. This innovative work may one day lead to improved fire weather forecasting. Peterson completed his master’s degree in 2009 and won a prestigious $90,000 NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship to continue his doctoral research at UNL with atmospheric scientist Jun Wang, who earned the same fellowship in 2004.

The Indiana native credits a summer 2008 trip to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., for spurring his interest in satellites.

Peterson and Wang saw an opportunity to combine Peterson’s meteorological background with Wang’s research using satellite data. Wang studies the effect of particulates from fires and volcanic eruptions on air quality, visibility and climate.

Forest fires behave differently depending on local weather patterns, land features and climate. Current forecasting models cannot account for these variations. By combining ground and satellite data, Peterson hopes to improve the models’ forecasting capabilities. His research focuses on the boreal forest in Canada and Alaska.

"I use the meteorological data that’s already available. But to actually know where the fires occur, you need satellite technology," Peterson said. "Otherwise, you have to rely on someone on the ground spotting the fire, which isn’t nearly as reliable as looking at it from space."

Peterson will use these techniques to look at other fire behavior characteristics, such as how they spread.

"Dave has really come along at the right time," Wang said. "We lack an expert who knows both meteorology and satellite sensing. What he’s learning will be needed by many agencies."

The work dovetails with Wang’s current research on the impact of smoke from jungle-clearing fires in Central America on air quality, clouds and precipitation in the U.S., funded by a $300,676 grant from NASA’s New Investigator Program in Earth Sciences.

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