Wildfire smoke can transport microbes and likely has for millions of years

Wildfire smoke is a major source of pollution in Northern California, but relatively new science is showing how billowing plumes can also transport life of the tiniest size from one region to another. For the past several years, Leda Kobziar with the University of Idaho has been working on furthering the scientific community’s understanding of how smoke can loft and carry microscopic bacteria and fungi from one region to another. She says given that wildfire is a natural part of the ecosystem in the West, this phenomenon has likely been occurring for a long, long time. “The phenomenon isn’t new, but our understanding of it is, Kobziar said. “And it’s likely that this transport affects everything. It’s probably been acting as a microbial dispersal agent for many millennia.” Scientists like Kobziar have only really started to dig deep into this area of ​​fire science in the last 5 years. Because of how new these discoveries are, it’s unclear whether the presence of microbes in smoky air has a noticeable effect on human health. As climate change continues to influence drought cycles in the West, Kobziar said it is possible that higher concentrations of microbes may be found in smoke plumes in the future. “When fuels are drier and soils are drier, it’s easier for them to get picked up in the convective currents that fire creates,” Kobziar said. “We’re hypothesizing that soil-borne organisms are being mobilized in smoke plumes more than they have in the past just because the soils are drier.” Kobziar and other scientists at the University of Idaho will continue their research by gathering smoke samples using drones and other remote sensing devices. At the same time, health scientists at UC Davis will look into potential future health impacts. Kobziar said that exactly what kinds of microbes are in a smoke plume can vary widely with each fire. “It really depends on where they’re coming from and what they are. It’s just a very, very broad world of unknowns at this point in time,” Kobziar said. But the idea that different wildfires can transport microbes into environments where they otherwise wouldn’t exist can have implications for the agriculture industry.” That brings up some really interesting questions about places that we know have crop pathogens,” Kobziar said. “If that area burns, there’s the potential for those things to be transported.” The two main questions then are whether or not those microbes would survive their smoky journey and what would happen to the new environment they land in. Kobziar plans to seek answers to both with future research.

Wildfire smoke is a major source of pollution in Northern California, but relatively new science is showing how billowing plumes can also transport life of the tiniest size from one region to another.

For the past several years, Leda Kobziar with the University of Idaho has been working on furthering the scientific community’s understanding of how smoke can loft and carry microscopic bacteria and fungi from one region to another.

She says given that wildfire is a natural part of the ecosystem in the West, this phenomenon has likely been occurring for a long, long time.

“The phenomenon isn’t new, but our understanding of it is, Kobziar said. “And it’s likely that this transport affects everything. It’s probably been acting as a microbial dispersal agent for many millennia.”

Scientists like Kobziar have only really started to dig deep into this area of ​​fire science in the last 5 years. Because of how new these discoveries are, it’s unclear whether the presence of microbes in smoky air has a noticeable effect on human health.

As climate change continues to influence drought cycles in the West, Kobziar said it is possible that higher concentrations of microbes may be found in smoke plumes in the future.

“When fuels are drier and soils are drier, it’s easier for them to get picked up in the convective currents that fire creates,” Kobziar said. “We’re hypothesizing that soil-borne organisms are being mobilized in smoke plumes more than they have in the past just because the soils are drier.”

Kobziar and other scientists at the University of Idaho will continue their research by gathering smoke samples using drones and other remote sensing devices. At the same time, health scientists at UC Davis will look into potential future health impacts.

Kobziar said that exactly what kinds of microbes are in a smoke plume can vary widely with each fire.

“It really depends on where they’re coming from and what they are. It’s just a very, very broad world of unknowns at this point in time,” Kobziar said.

But the idea that different wildfires can transport microbes into environments where they otherwise wouldn’t exist can have implications for the agriculture industry.

“That brings up some really interesting questions about places that we know have crop pathogens,” Kobziar said. “If that area burns, there’s the potential for those things to be transported.”

The two main questions then are whether or not those microbes would survive their smoky journey and what would happen to the new environment they land in. Kobziar plans to seek answers to both with future research.