Just about every night, six teens who live in distant corners of the planet are joining forces to try and save the world. These young scientists, who hail from the Philippines, New Zealand, India, Ukraine and the United States, call themselves “the Firebusters” because they seek to limit the extent of wildfires and the damage they do
The Firebusters are participating in the New York Academy of Sciences’ Wildfire Challenge. Twice a year, the NYAS tasks members of its Junior Academy with solving pressing issues affecting communities around the world. The Challenges align with the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals and are designed to give the next generation of STEM leaders skills in research, innovation and—most importantly—collaboration. Thirty-two teams are competing this year; the winners, who will be declared in February 2019, win an all-expenses-paid trip to the NYAS’s Global STEM Alliance Summit in New York City next July, where they’ll network with STEM mentors. Teams conference digitally, through a private online space and weekly video chats, and produce four sets of deliverables, culminating in a final project.
This year the NYAS chose Sustainable Development Goal 13—Climate Action—with a focus on fires. Wildfires contribute to increased emission of greenhouse gases, obliterate forests that soak up carbon, and melt Arctic sea ice with windblown particulates; and they’re projected to increase in frequency and intensity in a warming world. The Wildfire Challenge asks students to build solutions that can identify fire-prone areas, recognize fires early and prevent fires from spreading.
Even before the wildfire that decimated Paradise, Calif., was attributed to faulty PG&E electrical equipment, an overabundance of dry brush, and high winds, the Firebusters delivered a prescient proposal that directly specified each of those factors. They designed a government-run program that would aggregate big data—wind speed and temperature, incidents of downed power lines, maps of fire-prone areas—to produce a real-time simulation of atmospheric conditions and facts on the ground. According to the Firebusters, such a simulation could allow responders to identify a fire early and manage it before it gets out of hand. The program features an educational component, a citizen alert and prescribed burning in high-risk areas.
But as always, the devil is in the details. To collect data on downed power lines, the Firebusters’ proposal originally included gyroscope sensors directly on the lines, which would detect any change in orientation, signaling that a line had fallen. Their mentor nixed the idea because power lines generate electromagnetic forces that would interfere with the function of the sensors. To reduce the risk from buildup of dry brush, their proposal suggested prescribed burning. They had to nix that idea as well because they discovered, to their surprise, that the practice isn’t popular with people who live in high-risk areas.
So, they reworked the details. Their new proposal interfaces the government program with an app that connects the government to ordinary citizens. The power lines are monitored not by gyroscope sensors but by human sensors: firemen, policemen, and forest rangers, as well as concerned citizens using the app. Wind sensors are mounted near fire-prone areas, while prescribed cutting replaces prescribed burning. Cut grasses can be used for fuel and animal feed. “We felt lost when we had to give up the sensors,” says 17-year-old team leader Archi Parekh, from Iselin, New Jersey, “but an app empowers people to make sure their environment is safe for everyone.”
Given that the Firebusters are in the first generation to grow up with anthropogenic climate change, their decision to entrust the safety of the environment to people is both unexpected and remarkable. It reflects the kaleidoscopic nature of their feelings about the future. “I think of climate change every time it snows in April,” says Angelina Kharchenko, 17, from Sumy, Ukraine. “Crops can’t ripen in time, so it leads to food scarcity. Most of the people here would rather blame hunger and weather changes on politicians than look for the real reason. But as a species, we have our great brains and cognitive skills to help us fight climate change.”
Firebuster Aimee Lin, from Auckland, New Zealand, believes that politicization is the greatest obstacle to fighting climate change. John Chew, from Quezon City, Philippines, believes it’s ignorance and a lack of attention. Says Anagha Honnali, from Mysore, India, “It’s people’s atitudes that get in the way. Most aren’t ready to take active steps to alleviate the problem, so the problem intensifies.”
But all agree that the Wildfire Challenge has taught them that politics, ignorance and inaction can be defeated when people come together. “When people disagree on fighting climate change, we see civil and social disruption,” says Johan Jeson, 16, from Virginia, who leads workshops for fellow students on climate change and reforestation. “A house divided against itself cannot stand, according to Abraham Lincoln, but this research has taught me that we can do great things when minds unite.”