Associate Editor

Ash from California’s wildfires like the Thomas Fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties is settling in the ocean. Researchers are trying to determine what that means for sea life. Photo: US Department of Defense

The Inertia

When a team of researchers made arrangements to study the diverse marine ecosystem in the Santa Barbara Channel last January, the plan had nothing to do with wildfires. But when the team led by Kelsey Bisson and Nicholas Huynh, doctoral students in oceanography at the University of California at Santa Barbara, saw the devastation wrought by the Thomas Fire, the plans for their week-long expedition on Sally Ride, a research vessel, changed.

“We decided to supplement the cruise to answer questions about the effect of ash on the ocean environment,” Bisson told Popular Science. “To the best of our knowledge, this has never been done before.”

At time of publication, the Thomas Fire was officially the second largest wildfire in California’s recorded history and was 55% contained. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection doesn’t anticipate it being fully contained until January 8th. And Governor Gerry Brown has called the increased threat of wildfires across California the state’s “new reality.” That’s precisely what makes Bisson and her team’s research so timely.

“The ocean’s health supports so much of our livelihood,” she said. “This type of research helps so we can predict and plan and do our best to understand how fire affects the systems that we rely on.”


The research team wants to understand how marine organisms respond to different kinds of ash that collect on the water’s surface, and if and how organisms change as a result.

“The ash has organic matter in it, and chemicals from burning houses and cars,” Bisson told Popular Science. “We’ve sent some of it out for analysis, which can tell us the range of chemicals and their compositions found in the ash, so we know what’s actually going into the sea water.”

Many of the species of plankton the team plans to observe rely on sunlight and smoke from the fire has been blocking out the sun. And while the team doesn’t have a baseline from which to draw, they’re hopeful that the study will yield interesting results.

“I think it’s a cool thing that we don’t have any expectations,” Bisson said. Previous studies found that dust blowing into the ocean has a high concentration of nitrates, which would help the plankton, she told Popular Science. “But dust is very different from ash, and ash is burned from materials that are potentially hazardous.”

The team is currently onboard Sally Ride, and time will tell what discoveries they make.

“We’re not excited that the fire happened,” said Bisson. “But even though it’s a terrible thing we’re going to use it to learn as much as we can.”

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