IDRE Fellow: Dr. Olivia Sanderfoot (Postdoctoral Scholar)
Faculty Mentor: Dr. Morgan Tingley (Associate Professor)
Department: Ecology & Evolutionary Biology
Climate change coupled with a legacy of fire suppression is driving an increase in the frequency, intensity, and severity of wildfires1,2, prompting the United Nations to declare a worldwide “wildfire crisis3.” The record-breaking 2020 wildfire season in the western United States serves as a poignant example of just how devastating fires can be in a hotter, drier world. More than four million acres burned in the state of California alone4, and cities from Los Angeles to San Francisco were engulfed by toxic smoke pollution. California recorded the five most extreme air pollution days in the state’s history5 – for weeks, millions of Californians were exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution, contributing to hundreds of excess deaths6,7 .
As global wildfire activity intensifies, wildfire smoke is considered an increasing risk to public health8,9 — and yet, we know very little about the effects of smoke on birds and other wildlife10. Only five studies have even considered how wildfire smoke may affect the health and behavior of birds, a taxa known to be highly sensitive to air pollution. To safeguard avifauna in an increasingly smoky world, we must rapidly advance understanding of smoke impacts on birds and identify actionable conservation opportunities.
To that end, we are leading an innovative, interdisciplinary research project to study the impacts of wildfire smoke on birds in California. We believe that the data needed to address several key knowledge gaps already exists, yet disciplinary divides have limited opportunities for investigation. To remedy this, we are building cross-departmental collaborations to connect experts in ecology, atmospheric science, and environmental policy. Together, we will combine data from long-term ecological monitoring programs with output from high-resolution atmospheric models to generate novel data sets linking observations of birds to robust estimates of air pollution. We will then use analytical tools from quantitative ecology to investigate wildfire smoke as a driver of species occurrence patterns and demographic rates. Our findings will help identify vulnerable species and inform wildlife management and land use policy, helping to bolster bird populations in the state of California.
1. Westerling, A. L., Turner, M. G., Smithwick, E. A. H., Romme, W. H. & Ryan, M. G. Continued warming could transform Greater Yellowstone fire regimes by mid-21st century. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 108, (2011).
2. Abatzoglou, J. T. & Williams, A. P. Impact of anthropogenic climate change on wildfire across western US forests. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 113, (2016).
3. Zhong, R. Climate Scientists Warn of a ‘Global Wildfire Crisis.’ The New York Times. February 22, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/23/climate/climate-change-un-wildfire-report.html
4. 2020 Incident Archive. Cal Fire. https://www.fire.ca.gov/incidents/2020/
5. Kerlin, K. California’s 2020 Wildfire Season: Report Summarizes Record-Breaking Fire Year and Calls for Shift in Strategy. UC Davis. May 4, 2022. https://www.ucdavis.edu/climate/news/californias-2020-wildfire-season-numbers
6. O’Dell, K. et al. Estimated Mortality and Morbidity Attributable to Smoke Plumes in the United States: Not Just a Western US Problem. Geohealth 5, (2021).
7. Briscoe, T. Pollution from California’s 2020 wildfires likely offset decades of air quality gains. The Los Angeles Times. June 17, 2022. https://www.latimes.com/environment/story/2022-06-17/2020-california-wildfires-offset-decades-of-air-quality-gains
8. Aguilera, R., Corringham, T., Gershunov, A. & Benmarhnia, T. Wildfire smoke impacts respiratory health more than fine particles from other sources: observational evidence from Southern California. Nat Commun 12, (2021).
9. Liu, Y. et al. Health Impact Assessment of the 2020 Washington State Wildfire Smoke Episode: Excess Health Burden Attributable to Increased PM2.5 Exposures and Potential Exposure Reductions. Geohealth 5, (2021).
10. Sanderfoot, O. V. et al. A review of the effects of wildfire smoke on the health and behavior of wildlife. Environmental Research Letters vol. 16 Preprint at https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ac30f6 (2021).