Could Wildfires Affect Marine Life, Too?

Scientists are aware of the impact wildfires have on wildlife on land, but what about the effect of these disasters on marine life?

For the first time ever, researchers took a weeklong expedition in mid-December to find out. Student scientists from UC Santa Barbara conducted experiments aboard the Sally Ride – a research vessel from UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography that’s named after the first American woman in space — to see how ash blown into the ocean affects the ecosystem.

This was not the original purpose of this expedition, which had been planned for over a year.

Led by graduate students Kelsey Bisson and Nick Huynh, a team including graduate and undergraduate students, an elementary schoolteacher and faculty advisors were supposed to study round-the-clock zooplankton movements in the Santa Barbara Channel, an 80-mile area of the Pacific Ocean that’s “nationally recognized as an incredibly diverse and biologically sensitive ecosystem,” according to the nonprofit organization Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, which adds that its waters form “one of the most biologically productive ecosystems found on Earth.”

Every night, the zooplankton rise from the ocean floor to the surface in order to feed. The “biggest migration in the world happens not on land, but in the ocean,” notes the Scripps Institute of Oceanography regarding the process, known as diel vertical migration (DVM).

The researchers were originally going to study how zooplankton and other organisms in the upper ranks of the food chain impact lower-level organisms like phytoplankton, and how this affects the ecosystem.

But those plans were changed at the last minute because of the record-breaking wildfires in California – including the Thomas fire, the largest blaze in the state’s history. It has burned nearly 282,000 acres in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties as of late December, with flames and smoke that can be seen from space. Because of climate change, California’s fire season may become never-ending. “We’re facing a new reality in this state,” Governor Jerry Brown warned after surveying the damage from the Thomas fire.

“The ash plume has been moving in different directions, but for a long period of time it’s been focused over the Santa Barbara Channel,” Bruce Applegate, who oversees Scripps’ fleet of research vessels, told the San Diego Union Tribune. “We don’t really know what kind of impact that smoke from California fires has on the offshore ecological communities.”

In an effort to determine that impact on organisms up and down the marine food chain, the students on the expedition collected ash-covered seawater samples from the ocean’s surface as well as water from deeper depths.

“Whenever you take a breath, 80 percent of the oxygen you breathe is produced in the oceans,” Applegate told KCAL9. “So we should care very much about the health of our ocean ecosystems, because that’s where the air that we breathe comes from.”

Previous studies have examined how dust affects ocean life. Since dust contains many nitrates, it can actually be beneficial to plankton. “But dust is very different from ash, and ash is burned from materials that are potentially hazardous,” Bisson told Popular Science.

Since theirs is the first study of its kind, the UC Santa Barbara team doesn’t know what their experiments will reveal. Don’t hold your breath: Results from the study could take months, according to KCAL9.

Photo credit: NASA Earth Observatory

56 comments

Marie W
Marie W24 days ago

thanks for sharing

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Anna R
Anna R6 months ago

Thanks for posting

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Paulo Reeson
Paulo Reeson6 months ago

this is bad. ty

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Danuta W
Danuta W6 months ago

thanks for sharing

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Marija M
Marija Mohoric6 months ago

Scary...tks for sharing.

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Pietro M
Pietro M6 months ago

Domanda molto interessante, c'è ancora tanto da studiare ma bisogna fare presto!!

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Ann B
Ann B6 months ago

think of all the chemicals they are spraying on the fires they have to wash someplace????

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Arlene C
Arlene C6 months ago

Merci Laura

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Cathy B
Cathy B6 months ago

I believe wildfires would negatively affect oceans on some level. Thank you.

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Sheila Miller
Sheila Miller6 months ago

Fires cause problems for the environment, including the oceans. Thank you for the article. We must care and respect the land, water, and animals.

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