Research on firefighters that is not Open Access should be boycotted

For Throwback Thursday, here’s an article we originally published in 2011:

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Open Access logo
Open Access logo

We all hate paying for something and then not receiving what we paid for. That is what is happening now to taxpayers who pay for government-funded research and then have no access to the findings.

We have ranted about this before, and documented another example a few days ago when we discovered that it will cost us $41 to obtain a copy of the findings from research conducted by the University of Georgia. Associate Professor Luke Naeher and others found that  lung function decreases for firefighters who work on prescribed fires for multiple days and are exposed to smoke. Further, it showed that respiratory functions slowly declined over a 10-week season.

This is not the only research that has explored the effects of smoke on wildland firefighters, but it may significantly add to the limited body of knowledge we have on the topic. We won’t know, however, unless we pay a second time in order to see their conclusions.

Researchers at some organizations receive pay raises and promotions based partially on the “publish or perish” meme. A system that requires researchers to publish in journals that are not completely open to the public, is antiquated and has no place in 2011 when a paper can be published in seconds on the internet at little or no cost.

Some of the research that has been conducted on firefighters requires a great deal of cooperation from the firefighters, including for example, ingesting core temperature monitors, carrying a drinking water system that monitors every drink they take, and even lubricating and then inserting a rectal thermistor probe attached to wires.

The Boycott

There is no reason for firefighters to go to extreme lengths to help researchers advance the researcher’s career paths unless the firefighters can receive some benefits from the project. So, we are jumping on the idea proposed by Rileymon in a comment on the University of Georgia article:

Maybe it’s time to suggest that firefighter/research subjects boycott new research studies unless the findings are put into the Public Domain?

Here is what we are proposing:

  1. Firefighters, administrators, and land managers should not cooperate with researchers unless they can be assured that findings from the research will be available to the public at no charge immediately following the publication of the findings, or very shortly thereafter.
  2. Researchers should conform to the principles of Open Access.
  3. Scientists who assist in the peer review process for conferences or journals should pledge to only do so only if the accepted publications are made available to the public at no charge via the internet.

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UPDATE February 22, 2017: There is a sign that the new Trump administration will be even less transparent than his predecessor. A great deal of data is now unavailable on the White House open data portal. It is possible this is just an unannounced temporary change…. we’ll see.

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More information:

 

Researchers predict impacts of wildfire smoke after climate change

Above: Illustration from Harvard/Yale paper about the impacts of wildfire smoke following climate change. The colors indicate the number of smoke waves based on the primary smoke wave definition (cutoff= 6 μg/m3). The map on the left represents the present day (based on 2004-2009 data). The map on the right represents the future under climate change (based on projected data for the years 2046-2051). 

(Originally published at 11:39 a.m. MDT August 16, 2016; edited at 6 p.m. MDT August 17 to include this link to the research paper. We contacted the author and asked for a copy of the document, which we now have on our website for our readers.)

Researchers at Harvard and Yale Universities have written a paper predicting the quantities of wildfire smoke that will be impacting residents of the United States in the years 2046 through 2051. Unfortunately it will cost you $40 to get a copy of the complete results of their research. Open Access to publically funded research is apparently not a priority at Harvard and Yale. (UPDATE: on August 17 we obtained a copy of the paper from one of the authors. But it would still cost $40 to buy it from the journal.)

The information here is obtained from the abstract and one document with supplementary material that was available.

To identify the highest-risk areas, the team used a fire prediction model and advanced atmospheric modeling to separate pollution caused by wildfires from other pollution sources and track the likely movement of smoke. The authors estimate that under future climate change, more than 82 million individuals will experience a 57 percent and 31 percent increase in the frequency and intensity, respectively, of Smoke Waves, which they define as ≥2 consecutive days with high wildfire-specific PM2.5.

Northern California, Western Oregon and the Great Plains are likely to suffer the highest exposure to wildfire smoke in the future. Results point to the potential health impacts of increasing wildfire activity on large numbers of people in a warming climate and the need to establish or modify U.S. wildfire management and evacuation programs in high-risk regions. The study also adds to the growing literature arguing that extreme events in a changing climate could have significant consequences for human health.

A call to Loretta J. Mickley, one of the authors, to ask about access to the publically funded research, was not immediately returned. UPDATE, August 17, 2016: Ms. Mickley did call the following day, and said she was disappointed that Harvard chose a non-Open Access journal in which to place the paper. She said she will send us a copy of the paper and it will also be posted on her web site in the next day or two. We will link to it later. The research was funded, she said, by the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institutes of Health. In our opinion government agencies that fund research should only do so if the findings are made public at no additional charge.

The paper’s authors are J.C. Liu, L.J. Mickley, M.P Sulprizio, et al.

Researchers attempt to quantify how climate change will affect wildfire seasons

Future Very Large Fires wildfires
The projected percentage increase in the number of “very large fire weeks”—weeks in which conditions are favorable to the occurrence of very large fires—by mid-century (2041-2070) compared to the recent past (1971-2000). (NOAA)

Researchers are predicting that beginning 26 years from now the number of weeks in which very large fires could occur will increase by 400 to 600 percent in portions of the northern great plains and the Northwest. Many other areas in the West will see a 50 to 400 percent increase.

If they are correct, the effects of climate change are not generations away. Firefighters starting out today will be dealing with this on a large scale during their careers.

Warming due to increasing greenhouse gas emissions will likely increase the potential for ‘very large fires’—the top 10 percent of fires, which account for a majority of burned areas in many regions of the United States. Climate change is expected to both intensify fire-friendly weather conditions, as well as lengthen the season during which very large fires tend to spread.

The potential for very large fire events is also expected to increase along the southern coastline and in the forests around the Great Lakes, although the number of events along the northern tier of the country should only increase moderately given the historically low potential for these events.

For this study, researchers considered the average results of 17 climate model simulations to examine how the potential for very large fires is expected to change. Future projections* were based on a higher-emissions scenario called RCP 8.5, which assumes continued increases in carbon dioxide emissions.

Along with the elevated potential for very large fires across the western US in future decades, other climate modeling studies have projected increases in fire danger and temperature, and decreased precipitation and relative humidity during the fire season. The increased potential for these extreme events is also consistent with an observed increase in the number of very large fires in recent decades.

In addition, scientists have detected trends toward overall warming, more frequent heat waves, and diminished soil moisture during the dry season. The combination of these climate conditions and historic fire suppression practices that have led to the build-up of flammable debris have likely led to more frequent large fire events.

At this very moment, more than 56 large wildfires are burning uncontained throughout the West, putting homes, lives, and livelihoods at risk. The smoke created by these fires exacerbates chronic heart and lung diseases while also degrading visibility and altering snowmelt, precipitation patterns, water quality, and soil properties. In addition to public health impacts, projected trends in extreme fire events have important implications for terrestrial carbon emissions and ecosystems.

The authors of the study also note that these findings could place a burden on national and regional resources for fighting fires. Fire suppression costs in the U.S. have more than doubled in recent decades, exceeding $1 billion per year since the year 2000, the National Interagency Fire Center reports. The vast majority of that money is spent on large incidents.

climate change predicted fire seasons

The research was conducted by government employees at taxpayer expense, funded by NOAA, the U.S. Forest Service, and two universities. The authors were: Barbero, R.; Abatzoglou, J.T.; Larkin, N.K.; Kolden, C.A.; and Stocks, B. The title: “Climate change presents increased potential for very large fires in the contiguous United States”. It was published in Australia in the International Journal of Wildland Fire (copies available for $25).

We checked with Frames.gov which posts copies of government-funded research, and were told by Michael Tjoelker, “Unfortunately, due to copyright issues we are not able to distribute full text versions of Journal articles.” However, Renaud Barbero, one of the authors, sent us a copy.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Bill.

Radiation heat transfer once believed to dominate over convection heat transfer in wildfire spread — study reveals that’s not the case

MSO Fire Lab flame research
Researchers at the Forest Service’s Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory study how a wildfire spreads, May 21, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

A new study about the physics of how a wildfire spreads has been completed by government employees, and thankfully it is freely available to taxpayers. A success for Open Access to the products of government-funded research!

The phrase “spreads like wildfire” is well-known but until recent discoveries through experiments conducted by scientists from the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory, University of Maryland and the University of Kentucky, it wasn’t well-known how wildfires actually spread. Specifically, it was unclear how radiation and convection heat transfer processes, which both occur in wildfires, are organized to produce wildfire spread. Now, evidence presented in a new study, Role of buoyant flame dynamics in wildfire spread, reveals how flame dynamics that produce and transport convective heat effectively governs the spread of wildfire.

Previous studies focused mainly on radiant heat so little was known about the respective roles of convection and radiation on fire spread and most often the assumption was made that radiant heat was the governing factor. But scientists recently found that the net rates of heat transferred by radiation are insufficient because the fine fuel particles that constitute wildland vegetation cool efficiently by convection until contacted by flame.

As stated in the study, “if radiation itself is insufficient to account for fire spread…convection must provide the explanation.” So a team of scientists, led by Mark Finney of the USDA Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station, began looking at flame dynamics.

Utilizing specialized burn chambers and wind tunnels at the Missoula Fire Sciences Lab and the University of Maryland, scientists were able to assimilate and measure flame dynamics. They found this process can correctly scale up to those found in large-scale wildfires. They also conducted outdoor experiments and prescribed fires at Camp Swift, TX. The experiments led to the discovery of previously unrecognized flame behaviors and how those behaviors cause wildfires to spread. They also discovered that flame vorticity (circulations) and instabilities due to the buoyancy of flame gasses, cause wildfires to spread by forcing flames downward into the fuel bed and bursting forward ahead of the fire into fresh fuel (grass, brush, etc.).

“This study opens the door into the little known world of flame dynamics and gets us closer to understanding the complexities of radiative and convective heat and how they affect wildfire spread,” said Finney. The information obtained through this research is significant with the potential to:

  • Improve firefighter safety by providing better training to recognize and anticipate wildfire behavior
  • Simplify the physical principles of wildfire spread that can lead to the development of improved prediction models, and,
  • Improve the ability to mitigate fuel hazards by accurately modeling and describing fuel contribution to wildfires

The team of ten scientists who contributed to this study comes from the USDA Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station’s Missoula Fire Sciences Lab – lead scientist Mark Finney, Ph.D., the University of Maryland’s Department of Fire Protection Engineering – lead scientist Michael Gollner, Ph.D., and the University of Kentucky’s Department of Mechanical Engineering – lead scientist Kozo Saito, Ph.D.

Six brief videos supporting the research are available, but you have to download them onto your device in order to view them.

The study is available as a free .pdf download at WildfireToday/Documents.

Scientists find that stratospheric intrusions can increase the effects of Santa Ana winds on wildfires

This important research about a little known weather phenomenon that affects wildfires was conducted by government employees working for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of Colorado at Boulder. However, to get a copy of this taxpayer-funded research, you will have to pay $38 to a private organization, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., a corporation that for the year that ended April 30, 2015 had $1.8 billion in revenue and a net income of $176 million. In that year, 64 percent of their revenue came from journal subscriptions.

While some government and university employees may be able to access this and other research papers, they can only do it because their employer pays tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in subscription fees to these private companies. The employees can seamlessly read the papers, and don’t always realize that non-employees can’t.

Gowers Weblog has an exhaustive article about this issue in which he lists the exorbitant subscription fees paid by some universities in the United States.

He noted, for example, that the state universities in Arizona pay a total of $2.7 million to just one of these private outfits, Elsevier.

The authors of the paper are Andrew O. Langford (U. of Colo.), R. B. Pierce (NOAA), and P. J. Schultz (NOAA).

The University of Colorado and NOAA have graciously allowed this brief summary of the publicly-funded research to be released — to the public:

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Southern Californians and writers love to blame the hot, dry Santa Ana winds for tense, ugly moods, and the winds have long been associated with destructive wildfires. Now, NOAA researchers have found that on occasion, the winds have an accomplice with respect to fires, at least: Natural atmospheric events known as stratospheric intrusions, which bring extremely dry air from the upper atmosphere down to the surface, adding to the fire danger effects of the Santa Anas, and exacerbating some air pollution episodes.

Springs Fire
Satellite image of the smoke on 2 May 2013, the first day of the Springs Fire northwest of Los Angeles. The photo was taken by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instrument on NASA’s Terra satellite.

The findings suggest that forecast models with the capacity to predict stratospheric intrusions may provide valuable lead time for agencies to issue air quality alerts and fire weather warnings, or to reallocate fire fighting resources before these extreme events occur.

“The atmosphere could give us an early warning for some wildfires,” said Andrew Langford, a research chemist at NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado, and lead author of the study. Researchers at NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS) and the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at the University of Colorado Boulder coauthored the work, which was accepted for publication this week in the American Geophysical Union journal Geophysical Research Letters.

The authors took a detailed look at the May 2013 “Springs Fire” that burned 25,000 acres about 50 miles northwest of Los Angeles. The researchers used a NOAA forecast model that incorporates satellite observations of ozone, wind data, and other atmospheric information to detect the occurrence of the intrusions.

The analysis showed that in the early hours before the Springs Fire, a tongue of air characteristic of the stratosphere—extremely dry and very high in ozone from the stratosphere’s ozone layer—reached to the surface in southern California and extended as far south as Baja California.

The researchers found that ground-based monitoring stations near the fire’s origin also confirmed the telltale signs of the intrusion right before the fire broke out: A large drop in relative humidity and a rise in ozone. As the day went on, a combination of factors accelerated the fire: Low humidity, persistent high winds, dry condition of the grasses and other vegetation, clear skies and bright sunlight, and very warm surface temperatures. A few days later, cloudy skies, a drop in temperature, a shift in winds, and widespread rainfall helped extinguish the fire.

The stratospheric intrusion also had another downside during the Springs Fire: it added ozone from the upper atmosphere to the urban and fire-related pollution produced in the lower atmosphere. On the second and third days of the fire, this helped to push levels of ozone—which can harm people’s lungs and damage crops—over the federal ozone limit at 24 monitoring sites across southern California. Monitors as far away as Las Vegas also saw a spike in ozone on the third day of the fire. The observed exceedances of the ozone standard were unusual for the region for that time period, suggesting that the stratospheric intrusions were a contributing factor.

“Stratospheric intrusions are double trouble for Southern California,” said Langford. “We knew that the intrusions can add to surface ozone pollution. Now we know that they also can contribute to the fire danger, particularly during La Niña years when deep intrusions are more frequent, as recently shown by our NOAA colleagues at the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory. The good news is that with models and observations, we can get an early warning from the atmosphere in some cases.”

The authors note that stratospheric intrusions have previously been implicated in the explosive development of wildland fires in New Jersey and Michigan, but have not previously been connected to fires in southern California or to the Santa Ana winds. The frequent occurrence of stratospheric intrusions above the west coast during the fall, winter, and spring suggests that similar circumstances may have played a role in other major southern California fires, including the series of destructive fires that burned more than 800,000 acres in October of 2003, and burned nearly a million acres in October of 2007, say the authors.

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(UPDATE July 12, 2015: We contacted one of the authors, Andrew Langford, and he sent us a copy of the paper, which has not been copyedited and typeset yet.)

Information about unrestricted online access (Open Access) to research funded by taxpayers.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Barbara.

Researchers link smoke from fires to tornado intensity

Some university and federal government scientists have concluded there is a link between smoke generated by vegetation fires in Central America and the intensity of tornadoes in the southeast United States. Their research was funded primarily by the federal government, but if you want a copy of their results it will cost you $38 — rather than making the government funded product available to taxpayers as an Open Access document.

Below are some highlights of their research.

Can smoke from fires intensify tornadoes?

“Yes,” say University of Iowa researchers, who examined the effects of smoke—resulting from spring agricultural land-clearing fires in Central America—transported across the Gulf of Mexico and encountering tornado conditions already in process in the United States.

The UI study, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, examined the smoke impacts on a historic severe weather outbreak that occurred during the afternoon and evening of April 27, 2011. The weather event produced 122 tornadoes, resulted in 313 deaths across the southeastern United States, and is considered the most severe event of its kind since 1950.

The outbreak was caused mainly by environmental conditions leading to a large potential for tornado formation and conducive to supercells, a type of thunderstorm. However, smoke particles intensified these conditions, according to co-lead authors Gregory Carmichael, professor of chemical and biochemical engineering, and Pablo Saide, Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research (CGRER) postdoctoral fellow.

They say the smoke lowered the base of the clouds and increased wind shear, defined as wind speed variations with respect to altitude. Together, those two conditions increased the likelihood of more severe tornadoes. The effects of smoke on these conditions had not been previously described, and the study found a novel mechanism to explain these interactions.

“These results are of great importance, as it is the first study to show smoke influence on tornado severity in a real case scenario. Also, severe weather prediction centers do not include atmospheric particles and their effects in their models, and we show that they should at least consider it,” says Carmichael.

“We show the smoke influence for one tornado outbreak, so in the future we will analyze smoke effects for other outbreaks on the record to see if similar impacts are found and under which conditions they occur,” says Saide. “We also plan to work along with model developers and institutions in charge of forecasting to move forward in the implementation, testing and incorporation of these effects on operational weather prediction models.”

In order to make their findings, the researchers ran computer simulations based upon data recorded during the 2011 event. One type of simulation included smoke and its effect on solar radiation and clouds, while the other omitted smoke. In fact, the simulation including the smoke resulted in a lowered cloud base and greater wind shear.

Future studies will focus on gaining a better understanding of the impacts of smoke on near-storm environments and tornado occurrence, intensity, and longevity, adds Carmichael, who also serves as director of the Iowa Informatics Initiative and co-director of CGRER.

Paper co-authors are Scott Spak ofthe UI Departments of Urban and Regional Planning and Civil and Environmental Engineering; Bradley Pierce and Andrew Heidinger of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Satellite and Information Service Center for Satellite Applications and Research; Jason Otkin and Todd Schaack of the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison; Arlindo da Silva of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center; and Meloë Kacenelenbogen and Jens Redemann of NASA.

The paper “Central American biomass burning smoke can increase tornado severity in the U.S.” can be found online [for a fee of up to $38].

The research was funded by grants from NASA, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Institutes of Health, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Fulbright-CONICYT scholarship program in Chile.