Scientists flew through the plumes of smoke rising from the Greater Manchester moor fires to sample pollution levels last week. Operating the UK’s specially adapted research aircraft, a team of atmospheric scientists have measured and sampled the air pollution released from the moorland fires at Winter Hill and Saddleworth.

The recent heatwave has left the UK’s peaty moorlands vulnerable to burning, contributing to global warming in the same way as burning fossil fuels. The blazes broke out on the moors in late June during this hot, dry weather and have continued throughout the heatwave despite ongoing efforts from the Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service.

Samples from the fire plumes were taken on Thursday 5 July by a team of researchers from the National Centre for Atmospheric Science (NCAS) on board the UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and Met Office aircraft operated by FAAM (the Facility for Airborne Atmospheric Measurements).

The team has previously used the airborne laboratory, a modified BAE-146-301 aircraft, to measure methane levels from tropical fires in Africa, but are now using the same techniques to understand the UK moorland fires. The samples are now being analysed to identify gases like methane coming from the burning peat, and will identify the other pollutants being released. This work is part of Project MOYA – the global methane budget, which is a major project funded by NERC.

Flight Lead Professor James Lee, NCAS atmospheric chemist based at the University of York said: “Molecule for molecule, methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. The amount of methane in the air is rising fast, but scientists do not yet know why. This study of methane released from peat fires will be very helpful in identifying how much of the rise is from the burning of organic material such as peat and plants, and how much from other sources like gas leaks, coal mining, swamps and cows.”

“More hot dry weather due to climate change is likely to lead to more moorland fires in the UK and worldwide, so it is important that we begin to understand the effects on global greenhouse gas levels and air pollution problems.

“The measurements taken on board the research aircraft will also give us a much better insight into the significant air pollution caused by these fires, and allow us to investigate the potential effect of future fires on the quality of the air people are breathing downwind from fires.

“In many parts of the world, burning forests, peatlands and agricultural waste create extensive and long-lasting air pollution events that have large impacts not only on public health, but also on transport systems and industrial productivity.” 

The National Centre for Earth Observation have also released satellite images of the fires over the past two weeks. You can see them here:

Victoria Gill, BBC science correspondent, interviewed James Lee about the moorland fire sampling. Watch the interview here:

For more information please contact Harriett Richardson, NCAS Communications Manager at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.