Intermediate level

18 July 2018

Episode 180718 / 18 Jul 2018

The story…

Wildfires in the UK

Learn language related to…


Need-to-know language

smoulder – burn slowly without flame but with smoke

wildfires – fires that burn out of control in the countryside

smoky – with a lot of grey, black or white cloud made by something burning

plume – tall thin cloud of smoke or dust that rises into the air

driftingbeing moved along by air or water

Answer this…

Which chemicals do the on-board instruments show in the smoke?


More than two weeks after the fire on Saddleworth Moor started, it continues to smoulder. And scientists say the summer drought could bring many more wildfires in the UK and across Europe. So, these researchers are taking to the smoky air, in a laboratory on a plane, to find out what that will mean for the air that we breathe.

Professor James Lee, University of York

So, this is obviously… it's a converted passenger plane… would normally seat about a hundred people, but most of the seats have been ripped out and replaced with the load of instruments that you can see, basically, so that we can sample the constituents of the air.

Entire ecosystems have been wiped out in two major fires that are still burning in the north of England. Incidents that the fire service has described as some of the worst it’s ever seen.

Shona Wilde, atmospheric chemist

We look at live data from the aircraft to identify when we think we’re going through a plume. And once I think we’re in a plume, then we hit a button and that will take a sample of air from outside the aircraft, which we collect for analysis.

On-board instruments show some of the chemicals in the smoke, including methane, an important greenhouse gas, and the air pollutant carbon monoxide. Only back on the ground will the team be able to work out its exact chemical makeup and how it affects the air that we’re breathing.

This flight is part of a much bigger global study of greenhouse gas emissions. Today though, it’s captured samples that will eventually reveal exactly what's drifting into our towns and cities.

Did you get it?
Which chemicals do the on-board instruments show in the smoke?

The on-board instruments show methane and carbon monoxide are in the smoke, among other chemicals.

Did you know?
In order to ignite, a fire needs three things: a flammable material, such as wood, a source of heat, and oxygen. Fires naturally happen when these things exist in the right proportions. The removal of one of these elements will extinguish the fire.