We Didn’t Start the Fire, but we did research it

By Emily Wasen

In the cold months of spring semester 2022, I was sitting in my 8:30am Conservation Biology lecture dreaming of the warmth of summer, wondering what was in store just a few short months when I was told about an undergraduate research assistant job exploring the effects of wildfire. An announcement that would soon change the trajectory of my senior year of college. Little did I know at the time, my summer heat would be coming from a Minnesota wildfire.

In June 2022, I was fortunate enough to begin as an undergraduate research assistant with Dr. Ian McCullough in the Data Intensive Landscape Limnology Lab at Michigan State University. Going into this experience, I was very nervous. I had no prior lab experience except in a few of my classes and did not know what to expect. I am a Zoology major with a concentration in Zoo and Aquarium science and minors in Environmental Sustainability Studies and Marine Ecosystem Management. That being said, my previous knowledge about wildfires was fairly limited to what I have been told by Smokey the Bear. With my natural love of animals and constantly learning more about their biology in my classes, the chance to focus more on the environmental side of an ecosystem sparked my interest in applying for this position. Reading more into the project, I thought it was fascinating to look at not only what happens to the environment after a drastic change, but also how that environment can bounce back in the coming months and years.

Sign with Smokey the Bear, showing fire risk in Superior National Forest, Minnesota.

Our project focuses on the repercussions of the 2021 Greenwood wildfire in Isabella, Minnesota. The main goal of this project is to understand the effects wildfires have on lake water quality. This study is the largest of its kind as we are looking at 30 different lakes (15 in burned watersheds, 15 in unburned watersheds, i.e., control) over five months. Lots of wildfire research has been done in the Western US, but not much has been looked into in the Midwest where wildfires are becoming increasingly more common. The summer of 2021 marked especially high temperatures paired with very dry weather. This fire in particular is recorded as one of the largest in state history.

A side-by-side comparison of the differences between the shoreline of a burned lake (Stony Lake) and a control/unburned lake (Flathorn Lake).

I was very excited to be granted the opportunity to go out to the burn site and aid in collecting data. The MSU team and I were able to travel up to Minnesota in both June and July of 2022. In the field we traveled out lake by lake via canoe or pontoon, collecting water samples to take back into the lab to further look at different variables such as phosphorus and nitrogen. In looking at these variables we expect phosphorus and nitrogen to increase in burn lakes due to the runoff from the burn area. This is significant to other measured variables as well as it promotes primary productivity, as measured in chlorophyll. We also recorded different characteristics to aid in putting together different lake profiles, of which included dissolved oxygen content. This variable shows direct correlation to lake stratification and how nutrients runoff from the burn area affects the lake’s water quality. It was so cool to be able to be out in the field and see how the wildfire has visibly affected the environment, especially seeing the regrowth that had already begun. My favorite part was canoeing out onto each lake. The scenery was beautiful to look at whether burned or unburned; it was so peaceful to be out continuously immersed in nature.

Working alongside Dr. Jennie Brentrup in MN collecting a water sample on Stony Lake.

This position allowed me to gain my first lab experience as well as my first field experience. I learned so much this summer and I am continuing to do so with the help of all the amazing people I have had the privilege of working side by side with. This has been such a great experience so far and I am happy to have the opportunity to be continuing our research this semester. Having been out in the field this summer makes it that much more interesting when we have new data coming in that we get to analyze. I am grateful for all the important skills I have learned over the past six months. Working on this project has opened me up to new possibilities and potential career paths I can explore post-graduation. I am looking forward to continuing my work in the lab and am excited to see how the data will play out and how it will influence other studies in the years to come. 

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