Living With Fire Podcast

Smoke & Water

September 13, 2022 Living With Fire Season 2 Episode 1
Living With Fire Podcast
Smoke & Water
Show Notes Transcript

Wildfire smoke can seriously impact humans' health, but scientists have discovered that it can also affect the health of ecosystems. On the Living With Fire Podcast, Professor Sudeep Chandra, director of the Global Water Center at the University of Nevada, Reno, talks about how scientists have been working to understand these impacts on Lake Tahoe's aquatic ecosystem. 

Stakeholders in the Tahoe Basin have been working for decades to “Keep Tahoe Blue,” and have been trying to control algae growth in the lake. Chandra explains that one direct effect wildfire smoke can potentially have on the lake is stimulating algae growth.  

"So just like Miracle-Gro has a nice combination of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium to grow our garden plants, it turns out smoke has a ratio of nitrogen to phosphorus. Sometimes it's optimal, and sometimes it's not," explains Chandra. 

In addition to providing nutrients for fertilizing algae, Chandra explains that smoke can also affect the amount of light hitting the lake, potentially reducing the amount of ultraviolet light, which kills algae cells. 

With wildfires occurring more frequently and becoming more intense, Assistant Professor Christina Restaino, director of the Living With Fire program, explained what it's like for scientists working in fire right now. 

"We're entering this new era of no analog experiences, where these ecosystems are experiencing this smoke every single year or fire every single year. We don't have an analog from the past to understand that. So yeah, it's exciting, and it's really unknown."

To learn more, check out the resources below: 


Megan Kay:

This is the living with fire podcast brought to you by the living with Fire Program at the University of Nevada Reno extension.

Sudeep Chandra:

And what's happening today, as everyone is noticing, five years ago, we had a fire four years ago, we had fires three years ago, we had fires two years ago, the frequency or the amount over a particular period of time of these fires is increasing a lot. That is where the hot sciences right now because historically, the lake could recover because the fires didn't occur as much. But now year after year, you're getting poked in the in the chest. Does your body eventually respond probably.

Megan Kay:

Hi there, I'm Megan Kay, your host and Outreach Coordinator for the living fire program. And you're listening to the first episode of season two of the living with fire podcast. It's been a while since we've released new episodes, and we're excited to be back. We've been busy this year, traveling all across the state of Nevada, working with communities and educating folks about how to prepare for wildfire. We've also been working on some new and exciting projects, which we'll tell you more about later on the podcast. So with these episodes that we're putting out in 2022, we really wanted to focus on aspects of living with fire that are maybe not always visible, that are unseen. And so that made us think about wildfire smoke and its impacts not only on health, but ecosystems. You just heard from Professor Sudeep Chandra

Sudeep Chandra:

Sudeep Chandra at the University of Nevada, Reno, I'm a professor in the biology department and I direct the University's Global Water Center and the Aspen Institute for Global Studies.

Megan Kay:

So last August, August 2021, when the Kaldor fire was burning and threatening Lake Tahoe, I became aware of some research that the Global Water Center was doing about wildfire smoke and its effect on Lake Tahoe. So I kind of filed that away in my memory. And when we were putting together topics for this season of the podcast, I really wanted to get to talk to Professor Chandra about that research. We're also joined by Dr. Kristina Rossano, the director of the living with FIRE program, I'm so glad she was only interview she offered a lot of insight was able to kind of expand on some topics. So enjoy that conversation and enjoy this episode. Thanks. So how long have you been with you? And

Sudeep Chandra:

yeah, so I've been here at the University of Nevada, for 16 years, I had a little stint where I left for a little bit to go to Washington, DC, but then came back. And most of my work involves these kind of interconnectedness of trying to understand water systems, whether rivers or lakes as a as a limnology list and what that means for society. But then we do some basic research on the influence of climate or wildfires on lakes. So it's somewhat societal, but it's also just kind of what happens to natural biodiversity or the functioning of ecosystems. So

Megan Kay:

So what have you can I just want to back up real quick and describe not just studying water and biodiversity but water in people?

Sudeep Chandra:

Yeah. So when we end up thinking, so some of our global projects and our local projects, when we try to put them into context, water is just critical for life. But it's not just drinking water is the sometimes is the services out of water, the fisheries, sometimes it's the inherent value to of biodiversity. And so we always try in our projects to connect some fundamental process within water to see why it may be changing or not. Or maybe it's just dynamic, it doesn't change in a bad or good way. It's just altering because of climate change or or land use development. And what we try to do is pin it to try to understand what happens to societal response. So for example, when we look at Lake Tahoe is an excellent example of this. We we spent 15 years trying to understand the influence of different types of invasive species at the lake. Why study invasive species just to study them? In this case, we tried to understand what it does to the water quality of the near shore of the lake increased algal growth. Is there interactions with him warming temperatures? And does that make stuff at the lake get worse or better? And by doing that, then we connect into the policymakers. And through this new for example, tower Science Advisory Council, we can provide information to this council and to the managers that are part of the council to make policy changes that will help improve Lake Tahoe

Megan Kay:

and how does wildfire intersect with that.

Sudeep Chandra:

So wildfire is a great topic to be studying right now. Not just inherent study of what the well Fire impacts are but how is the community going to respond or how's the biology going to respond in the lake. And we've had a series of papers now the last three years, thanks to our researchers at the Global Water Center. And they've been focusing on not the direct effects of fire, which is what most of us are accustomed to the runoff from ash and what goes into water, which is very important. But in this case, what I call the tele connective effects, the smoke goes up into the atmosphere, and it can move hundreds to 1000s of miles away. And as the smoke plume goes into the atmosphere from a wildfire, the smoke ash particles and where they're deposited can't and the quality of these particles can change. So something closer to a fire might be different. And then something 300 miles away, those smoke particles might have different properties. Humans know this inherently. Because when you take deep breaths, you know whether you're getting kind of choked out from the wildfire one day from the smoke and that's generated, or maybe it's a better day for air quality and you can breathe a little easier, while Lake ecosystems and rivers respond the same way. But what we don't have an understanding is how bad that response can be or how good it good quote unquote, it might be for the ecosystem.

Megan Kay:

I wanted to take a quick break to talk about the living with Fire Program. Maybe you found this podcast and you're wondering what is the living with FIRE program? Well, we've been around since 1997. We're managed by the University of Nevada, Reno extension. And we're really a collaborative effort amongst federal, state and local firefighting agencies as well as resource management agencies to help people adapt, prepare and live more safely with wildfire. So if you haven't already, check out our website living with feiyr.com where you'll find all of our resources and tools that will help you live more safely with wildfire. Okay, back to the show.

Sudeep Chandra:

So I'll give you an example. Lake Tahoe had fires last year the Dixie and Kaldor fires, there was smoke generated all around us some of that smoke went north, some of it went south, some went east west. But when it landed on the lake, particularly the calendar fire smoke, the the amount of smoke that landed on the lake was much higher towards the south end of the base and closer to the Kaldor fire. And the north end of the basin were inclined villages are my favorite place, the alibi brewery, the where we had one of our sampling locations, the amount of smoke that deposit on the lake was less compared to the south side and closer to the fire. So but if you look at the quality of that Ash, our colleague from Utah State University as a collaborator was able to find out that the quality of that smoke was much lower, meaning less nitrogen and phosphorus in that smoke closer to the Kaldor fire where there was more fire where there was more deposition or placement of the ash onto the lake. But if you go to the North Shore again, incline village alibi brewery area, there were less particles deposited but had a lot more nitrogen, phosphorus, it was super reactive in the laboratory. So nitrogen is good. Yeah. And so now why are we worried about nitrogen phosphorus? Well, it turns out if nitrogen phosphorus is given at the same at the right ratio, then you grow more algae. That's one direct effect. And at Tahoe, we're trying to actually control our algal populations. So just like Miracle Gro has a nice combination of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium to grow our garden plants. It turns out smoke has a ratio of nitrogen to phosphorus. Sometimes it's optimal. And sometimes it's not. And so we're able to try to connect what wildfire smoke might do for nutrients of nitrogen phosphorus coming to the lake to stimulate algae, and those are the experiments were running. Now. I will mention just one alternative effect. So that's the fertilization of the lake through the nutrients. The second one is the smoke, as everyone knows, when you go in the West, at least when you get impacted by Wildfire smoke, you can't see as far across your watershed. You can't see across the city, you're getting amazing sunsets, but the particles in the air are thick. Well, that thickness of particles in the air from wildfire smoke affects the amount of light hitting a lake. And light is needed for plant growth, or ultraviolet light in these clear water lakes, which which actually kills algal cells, helps control algae. And so when you have smoke in the atmosphere, you might influence the amount of ultraviolet light that was cleaning the Lake of algae. But instead, it reduces the ultraviolet light and you might get more algal growth. And so there's these these tugs and pulls between the fertilization and the light change that might affect the quality of

Christina Restaino:

that so incredibly fascinating. Is there anything mitigation wise that that you can do if like, okay, there's a huge fire like Tahoe is a special protected Lake. What is there anything that can be done to counteract that outgrowth?

Sudeep Chandra:

Yeah, and so that's a great question. And often our reaction in society is to figure out like, oh, okay, now that something's occurring, let's try To fix it, but I tried to provide this analogy that it's kinda like when you're, when you have a heart attack, it's not about fixing the heart attack immediately, it's more about making sure you don't get the second heart attack. And I think for now, there aren't the technologies of scrubbers and things that might remove smoke from the atmosphere or adding things to a lake that can help clean it up immediately. So what we need to do and what we were suggesting that we should work on is, rather than having just watershed protection of Lake Tahoe, where the agencies focus on the watershed itself, because of the properties of runoff that go to the lake, the agencies should be broadening their scope to do regional Wildfire Protection hundreds of miles around the basin. And that would allow us to then have buffers around the amount of wildfire smoke that can be generated a couple 100 miles around the base, and then the quality that's deposited because

Megan Kay:

if it's coming from further out, like right now, there's a fire in Yosemite. If it's coming from there, then the quality of that Ash

Sudeep Chandra:

might influence us more so then, than if it was directly next to us.

Christina Restaino:

So why I missed why exactly that happens. Why what changes in the chemical property of the smoke as it moves further away? Yeah,

Sudeep Chandra:

we're not entirely sure. But what we suspect is that when burns happen hot, then they're actually burning up and transforming the chemicals within the ash. So they're put into the atmosphere and aerosolized and not in the particulate. That basically means that hot burning stuff has less elements in it. And it's all been transformed into gases or other types of, because it's been like emissions, it's obliterated, exactly, versus the stuff that is, the particulates that are super fine is the remnant of that hot burn, stuff that didn't, that didn't burn, but it can get because they're fine particles can get transported much further distances by the atmosphere by the wind.

Megan Kay:

Interesting. And then with smoke, is density a thing like for like when I think about like, a low intensity fire, just the amount of vegetation that's consumed versus high intensity fire, where you could just be like consuming a bunch of vegetation at the same time. So is that something you

Sudeep Chandra:

know, absolutely, those are sort of the next steps in this type of research productivity, or research focus area. So we were focusing directly on the ash outputs, taking advantage of the fires, in some ways to try to understand what the ecosystem impacts impacts are. But these would be next case scenario is we really need to do collaborative science, with people who study the vegetation and the density of vegetation on landscape. And as fires move through how much ash is generated, we need collaborators that study atmospheric physics, to understand how those particles are actually transported and how far they might go across the landscape of Nevada, or all the way to New York, in some cases through the jet stream. So so this type of collaborative science is what makes fire science in some ways, the most exciting of sciences, because it really is going to involve multiple disciplines. And we need to ramp up on that very quickly. We can't just wait, I hope we don't just wait a generation to get all the groups together to talk. The nice thing about, you know, working with you has been that we were on a team meeting last summer with the National Science Foundation, to think about true collaborative science around fire science. And we need to push that even further in a timely manner where we have all these disciplines breaking down their boundaries. And I think that's the great time for us in science right now is just across those disciplines.

Megan Kay:

Speaking of wildfire smoke, we actually just put out a guide called Living with smoke, how to be prepared for smoke exposure. In our guide, we talk about what is in wildfire smoke, and why it's potentially hazardous to your health. We also talk about how you can prepare for wildfire smoke, and stay safe indoors and outdoors during smoke events. You can find that guide in the resources section of our website at living with feiyr.com. Can you like has Is there any hypothesis that you have is to you know, how maybe the lake has handled extreme ash events or lakes have animals slash events?

Sudeep Chandra:

So just to clarify, don't get me wrong I what I'm suggesting is we don't want to when fires occur, we don't want to develop tools and technologies just like we can respond to them. That's just hard to do. Right? We need to treat this thing at just a much larger scale because the burns are big and they're going to be continuing to continuing to occur, but kind of in relation to what fire has done to these aquatic ecosystems in the past and how important is it? That's an emerging area of science as well. That right now in our paleo scientists are some of the best scientists on the planet here at the University of Nevada. My colleague, Paula noble, for example, has studied sort of she geologic history of Lake Tahoe over time, and she collects cores from Lake Tahoe or from the lakes in the north that I described earlier, or are small mountain lakes. And then she can look at changes in the amount of algal growth in the lake over time, which is an indicator of water quality. And what we do know not just in relation to fire, but we do know, these historic big change events around climate which might lead to fire droughts, that would change the level of productivity in a lake, less runoff might lead to less production. Some of the cores, for example, at crater lake that they've taken, or that other other folks have taken, will have ash in them. So we know that periodic history and review of what those fire events and frequencies are that affect the lake. What's different about those studies where you might see the effects of regional or global fires on lakes is you see them as many perturbations, meaning many changes in the lake over time. But the lake comes back to an equilibrium. And often people say, well, the lake will come back to an equilibrium, right? And you're like, yes, it does. But the frequency and the amount of those fires was far less over the historical record. And what's happening today, as everyone is noticing. Five years ago, we had a fire four years ago, we had fires three years ago, we had fires two years ago, the frequency or the amount, over a particular period of time of these fires is increasing a lot. That is where the hot sciences right now, because historically, the lake could recover because the fires didn't occur as much. But now year after year, you're getting poked in the in the chest, does your body eventually respond probably, like you get a bruise eventually, and maybe eventually, after a bruise, you might get angry. And then after getting angry, you might get a stroke. And so that analogy is similar to what we think could be happening in like a river system, smoke comes in one year, smoke comes in the second year, smoke comes in the third year, after a while a lake can't purify itself over and over again.

Christina Restaino:

We've learned so much in science from the past and how ecosystems have responded to disturbances like drought or fire, etc. In the past, but we're we're entering this new era of no analog experiences, right? Where were these ecosystems are experiencing this right smoke every single year of fire every single year. That's, we don't have an analog from the past to understand that. So yeah, it's exciting, and it's really unknown.

Sudeep Chandra:

Here's another way to think about it, too, is it's like, it's exciting and unknown. But we live in a world full of humans today, compared to where we had lived in these systems years and years ago. So the question is also, how do we want our lakes and rivers to be? And where do we want to manage?

Christina Restaino:

100%? We don't always need to be thinking that oh, well in the past, are our ecosystems were in a certain state? And that's what we always need to be going for, we need to be thinking about what's, what's an adapted ecosystem to our current human needs and wants for ecological integrity and thinking a lot about ecosystem services, and what are the ecosystem services that we need from our ecosystems and our lakes and our in our air? And we always talk about Megan, how humans are a part of our ecosystems, and they always have been, and we've always been land tenders and stewards of the land through 1000s of years. And contemporarily, it feels like we talk a lot about well, humans are over here. And ecosystems are over here. And ecosystems need to be functioning in this way that is separate from humans, because humans are adulterating those ecosystems. But we're part of the ecosystems and so we really need to be thinking about land management and policy and decision making moving forward in the future. That is really integrating that human ecological relationship and making it on the forefront of how we're making decisions.

Sudeep Chandra:

The exciting thing about science today is that ecological Sciences and Natural Sciences is basically we're doing science like we've never done it before. There is more I'm a pretty upbeat person on science and and humans and society more than 100 years ago, when you look at the literature 100 years ago from ecology, we were just studying ecology and ecosystems. But today, we have such opportunities with agencies that want the information or societies that want the information on science. And so I think this integration is a great time. What you're just pointing out is a great time for us as scientists to be fully immersed into you wanting to use our information to make better policy and improve our society. So I'm pretty actually hopeful. I know fire is a challenging subject, and so is climate and drought. But there are also many opportunities out there. And scientists and engineers can guide this way forward, if we cross our boundaries, and if our society and communities willing to listen to the information, absolutely, and

Christina Restaino:

if we allow room for innovation in technology and engineering, and these, you know, more material sciences, if you will, to help us come up with adaptive solutions. And I think that you know, it's really that interdisciplinary transdisciplinary any kind of term you want to use for it, where we're, you know, working across different boundaries, in science in society to really kind of CO produce these tools and knowledge sets that that we can use to solve problems.

Megan Kay:

Thank you for listening to the living fire podcast. You can find more stories and resources about wildfire and our website living with feiyr.com The living with FIRE program is funded by the Bureau of Land Management, the Nevada Division of Forestry and the US Forest Service, and were managed by the University of Nevada Reno extension, an equal opportunity institution.