The smoky skies in late August left many Bellingham residents wondering what the heck we were sucking into our lungs.
A Western Washington University researcher now has some idea, after looking at particles he collected under a scanning electron microscope, or SEM.
“I thought that people would be interested to see what the things they were breathing looked like,” said research associate Mike Kraft, a geologist and a scanning electron microscopy specialist.
Smoke from wildfires in British Columbia and elsewhere fouled the skies across the Puget Sound region for more than a week in mid-August, at times sending air in Whatcom County into the “hazardous” range for particulates.
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Kraft used WWU’s new SEM to image smoke particles that he collected on a tiny grid, then colorized them for easier viewing.
His results were an amalgam of science and art, magnified up to 80,000 times.
“I figured that it was something that everybody’s dealing with,” Kraft said.
“I started looking at these (particles) and they were a lot smaller than I thought. A lot of the particles were smaller than what the masks would filter out.”
Kraft said he gets lots of wide-eyed reactions from people who view his images.
“We use (the SEM) for research — that’s its primary purpose. But part of the educational mantra involves the broader community,” he said.
As he produced his work — with the help of some students and a WWU worker who provided a filter — Kraft said he was thinking of images created by astronomers and geologists, photographs that celebrate the wonders of nature and the universe.
He found particles of woody plant debris, soot, and a tar-like goo.
Seth Preston at the Northwest Clean Air Agency, which monitored air quality during the smoke emergency, said that’s pretty much what smoke is — the unburned products of combustion.
Kraft said that collecting the samples was pretty simple.
“I went out with that little grid and waved it around outside. I drove off the hill and I couldn’t see across the bay at all,” he said.