Earth, Wind and Wildfire

My name is Andrea Paul and in May of 2022, I joined the Data Intensive Landscape Limnology Lab at MSU to work as an undergraduate research assistant with Dr. Ian McCullough. My major is Fisheries and Wildlife with a minor in Environmental Studies and Sustainability. I have had a strong interest in animals since I was born and as I got older I began to appreciate the complex ecosystems behind them. My deep interest in animals combined with the knowledge of the disastrous effects humans and climate change have had on the world has sparked my passion for conservation and sustainability. I didn’t know what direction this would take me in my career, but I knew that I wanted to take advantage of the research opportunities this university provides. I am a strong believer in the idea that you don’t know what something is like until you try it, so I wanted to see first-hand what research was like and if it would be something I could see myself doing in the future. This position in freshwater and fire ecology aligned with my interests and matched my goals of gaining research experience, building technical skills and enhancing my knowledge of ecology.

The research project I joined is studying the effects of wildfires on lakes. Wildfires are becoming more and more prevalent in the American West due to climate change and lots of research has been targeted to that location, but not a lot has been involved in the Midwest. Many research projects on wildfire and limnology (the study of inland waters) have solely looked at rivers and streams, but this project is unique in that it focuses on freshwater lakes. Specifically, we looked at how the 2021 Greenwood fire in Isabella, MN affected the water quality of 30 surrounding lakes in the Superior National Forest. We had 2 field trips to Isabella, MN where we sampled the lakes for nutrient concentration, acidity, chlorophyll and more. We expected that the forest would have intense burn marks with little of the past vegetation left. Instead what we found was patches of burnt areas interspersed with unburned areas. It was very surprising to see how mixed the landscape was in terms of fire damage. We also expected that our water quality data would show an increase in nutrient concentration between May and June, as the burned nutrients run-off into the water after the snow melts. This prediction did hold true and I’m excited to see what the following months show us. That was my first experience doing research in the field and it was so much fun! I learned how to use sampling instruments, I met some amazing researchers and I got to experience what a huge effort it requires to conduct a research study. Now we are using the data we collected, along with data from LAGOS, a public database of all US lakes, to determine the relationships between variables such as burn severity, nutrient concentration, time since fire in R, a freely available statistical analysis platform. 

My experience this summer working on this project has been eye-opening and very rewarding. I really enjoyed sampling the lakes, seeing the Superior National Forest and contributing to research on limnology. Understanding historical fire regimes, past studies on how wildfires affect lakes and wildlife while building my knowledge and skills around research was very enjoyable and I believe it will help me in my future career. I am continuing to work this semester in the lab while the project comes to a close and I am eager to see how the project wraps up and the implications it will have on future research in understanding the effects of wildfires on lakes. 

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