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US appoints biodiversity envoy to tackle species issues abroad

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Thursday, September 29, 2022

The United States appointed a new advocate for issues relating to animal and plant species conservation.  Monica Medina will serve as a special envoy for biodiversity and water resources, working on global matters related to these issues, the State Department said Wednesday.  Medina is currently the State Department’s assistant secretary for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs. She’ll remain in this role while also taking the envoy post. The envoy is expected to allow the State Department to play a greater role in the White House’s plan to bolster access to safe water and sanitation services around the world. She’ll also provide leadership before the United Nations Conference on Water next year, the department said. The department’s press release specifically pointed to issues including climate change, and crimes such as illegal logging, mining and wildlife trafficking, as some of the biggest biodiversity issues.  In 2019, the United Nations found that as many as 1 million animal and plant species are at risk of going extinct.  The appointment comes as the Biden administration seeks to return to the U.S. to a global leadership position on climate change and environmental issues, following Trump administration efforts to withdraw from these challenges.

The United States appointed a new advocate for issues relating to animal and plant species conservation.  Monica Medina will serve as a special envoy for biodiversity and water resources, working on global matters related to these issues, the State Department said Wednesday. Medina is currently the State Department’s assistant secretary for oceans and international environmental...

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Save the axolotl: Urgent "Adoptaxolotl" campaign begins in Mexico

Here's how to "adopt an axolotl" — or buy it dinner and help fix its adorable little house

They're calling it Adoptaxolotl. It's the latest relaunch of a fundraising campaign by ecologists at Mexico’s National Autonomous University to save the endangered (and adorable) type of underwater salamander known as the axolotl. The amphibian critters have become popular household pets in the U.S., but as reported by the Guardian Thursday, almost all 18 species of axolotl remain critically endangered as their main habitat is threatened by increasing water pollution and invasive species. With Mexico's environmental department facing an 11% funding cut, scientists are turning to the public for help.  “What I know is that we have to work urgently,” ecologist Alejandro Calzada told the Guardian. "We lack big monitoring of all the streams in Mexico City ... For this large area it is not enough.”  That monitoring is the first spending priority for ecologists, who hope to begin gathering an updated headcount on the animals in March. It would be the first since 2014, though a recent international study found less than 1,000 Mexican axolotls left in the wild, whereas Mexican scientists could once find an average of 6,000 per square kilometer in the country. Last year, the scientists managed to raise more than $26,300 for an experimental captive-breeding program. This year, you can virtually "adopt" an axolotl for $35, and you'll be sent live updates about your axolotl's health along with an adoption certificate. Those on a budget who still want to help can also buy an axolotl a virtual dinner or help one fix up its little house — a donation rewarded by a personalized letter of axolotl gratitude. 

10,000 naps a day: how chinstrap penguins survive on microsleeps

Scientists studying the birds in Antarctica have found they snooze for 11 hours a day without falling deeply asleepSpending your nights sleeping for just four seconds at a time might sound like a form of torture, but not for chinstrap penguins, which fall asleep thousands of times a day, new research finds.Scientists studying the birds on King George Island in Antarctica found they nod off more than 10,000 times a day, allowing them to keep a constant eye on their nests, protecting eggs and chicks from predators. In total, the birds manage 11 hours of snoozing a day – without ever slipping into uninterrupted sleep. Continue reading...

Spending your nights sleeping for just four seconds at a time might sound like a form of torture, but not for chinstrap penguins, which fall asleep thousands of times a day, new research finds.Scientists studying the birds on King George Island in Antarctica found they nod off more than 10,000 times a day, allowing them to keep a constant eye on their nests, protecting eggs and chicks from predators. In total, the birds manage 11 hours of snoozing a day – without ever slipping into uninterrupted sleep.“Humans cannot sustain this state, but penguins can,” said lead researcher Paul-Antoine Libourel from Lyon Neuroscience Research Centre. “Sleep is much more complex in its diversity than what we read about in most textbooks.”Researchers previously looked at penguin sleep in the 1980s, which involved capturing them, putting them in a shelter and watching them. They reported fragmented sleep for short periods of time, which they called “drowsiness”. In the latest research, experts found that this fragmented sleep was sustained for the whole day, showing the penguins are not “nodding off” into deeper sleep.“Sleep in breeding chinstrap penguins was highly fragmented under all conditions and positions on land,” researchers wrote in the paper, published in the journal Science. The findings suggest “microsleeps can fulfil at least some of the restorative functions of sleep”. The penguins studied could sleep standing up or lying down.Chinstrap penguins ‘sleeping’ on King George Island in Antarctica. Photograph: Paul-Antoine Libourel/ScienceSleep seems to be ubiquitous among animals, but it makes them vulnerable to predation because they lose the ability to respond quickly to the outside environment. Libourel said: “Sleep is at the core of animal behaviour, and is also under selective pressure. Most sleep research is conducted in rats, mice and humans, but working on other species shows us at what point sleep is affected by environmental change.”The researchers studied chinstrap penguins in the wild using electroencephalogram (EEG) monitoring and continuous video footage. Microsleeps were shown by sleep-related brain activity and eye-closure. They noted a slight increase in the depth of sleep at around noon, when risk of predation could be at its lowest.For chinstrap penguins, one parent sits on the nest for several days at a time while the partner is away feeding. Extended sleep may put their eggs or young at risk of predation by brown skua birds or other penguins.The researchers studied 14 penguins incubating eggs, out of a colony of more than 2,700 breeding pairs. The discovery that these birds are doing thousands of microsleeps lasting only four seconds is “unprecedented, even among penguins,” researchers wrote.Fragmented sleep is thought to enable the penguins to stay more alert while protecting their eggs and young. Photograph: Christian Åslund/GreenpeaceStudies have shown some species routinely sleep very little, seemingly without negative costs to their performance while awake. African bush elephants sleep on average for two hours day, and mostly while standing up, one study found. Sometimes they went 48 hours without sleeping.In some species there are differences between the sexes: male fruit-flies need more than 10 hours sleep a day, while females are fine on four, and can survive on less than 15 minutes’ sleep without it seeming to impact their chances of survival.Giant frigatebirds can spend months on the wing during ocean migrations. During this period they can sleep for less than an hour a day, while still navigating and hunting. When they get back to the nest they stock up on sleep, snoozing for nearly 13 hours a day.Researchers wrote in the paper, published in the journal Sleep Advances: “Taken together, these systems challenge the prevalent view of sleep as an essential state on which waking performance depends.”“The data reported by Libourel et al could be one of the most extreme examples of the incremental nature by which the benefits of sleep can accrue,” the researchers Christian Harding and Vladyslav Vyazovskiy wrote in a related article published by Science. They say the paper calls into question how much sleep can be altered before the benefits are lost.They added: “Proving that sleeping in this way comes at no cost to the penguin would challenge the current interpretation of fragmentation as inherently detrimental to sleep quality.”

Chinstrap Penguins Sleep Over 10,000 Times a Day—for Just Four Seconds at a Time

The amazing microsleep strategy may be an adaptation to group living and lurking predators in a harsh Antarctic environment

Chinstrap penguins incubate eggs. Wolfgang Kaehler / LightRocket via Getty Images The meeting drones on, and you feel your eyes getting heavy, your mind drowsy. Suddenly you snap into a very attentive wakefulness—did anyone see me doze off? You’ve fallen into a microsleep, a very brief slip out of consciousness that ends almost as soon as it begins. When you’re trying to be awake and active, these episodes may make you feel anxious or, if they happen behind the steering wheel, justifiably terrified. Microsleeps don’t make us feel rested or restored, like longer periods of uninterrupted slumber would. Yet a study published Thursday in Science shows that nesting chinstrap penguins sleep just this way more than 10,000 times a day. They take a continual series of dozes that last just four seconds but add up to more than 11 hours of slumber. Incredibly, this strange sleep cycle seems to do the birds no obvious harm, despite the common interpretation that fragmented sleep is bad-quality. In fact, the extreme strategy must preserve at least some benefits of sleep, because the flock is fit and successfully reproduces. “What is really weird is that the penguin can sustain this in-between wake and sleep state constantly,” explains co-author Paul-Antoine Libourel, who studies the biology of sleep at the French National Center for Scientific Research’s Neuroscience Research Center. Simply watching the penguins nod and blink gave the appearance that they were drowsy, he adds, but the extent of their sleeping was a surprise. “Only by constantly recording brain activity, for days, have we been able to highlight this interesting sleep phenotype.” The extreme adaptation may be driven by environmental factors at King George Island, off Antarctica, where penguins flock together to incubate eggs and protect their young from predators. The need to sleep briefly could simply be a consequence of living in a bustling, noisy group where sleep is constantly interrupted. It might also help the birds remain constantly vigilant for predators. The penguins’ successful microsleep strategy raises interesting questions about how variable fruitful sleep can be among different species and in different environments. It also suggests that our bias toward the importance of longer, uninterrupted sleep may not be accurate—some species may also benefit from fragmented sleep. “Sleep provides a lot of benefits, but we don’t know whether it’s the same benefits for all species,” Libourel says. “And we don’t know at what point we can disturb sleep, with or without cost to the animal.” A chinstrap penguin sleeps. Won Young Lee For the experiment, the scientists implanted electrodes into 14 penguins’ brain and neck muscles. For two weeks, they constantly recorded electroencephalogram (EEG) data to measure the birds’ sleep-related brain activity. Other sensors recorded the birds’ positions (standing, lying, diving); tracked their location via GPS; and captured environmental data like ambient temperature. The authors also deployed continuous video monitoring of the same nesting birds so that their observable behaviors could be matched with simultaneous data on their brain activity. EEG recordings of brain activity showed when the birds engaged in slow-wave sleep, the most common type of sleep in birds. Here, researchers discovered that the birds nodded off thousands of times per day, engaging in microsleeps that averaged just four seconds each but added up to more than 11 hours of sleep per day. As is normal among nesting penguins, paired parents took turns guarding and incubating the nests on land, and heading to sea on foraging trips—with each shift averaging about 22 hours. At sea, the birds did experience some slow-wave sleep while apparently resting at the water’s surface. However, they spent far more time awake and active on these forays. They were awake perhaps two-thirds of the time, but immediately upon returning to land, the birds spent the first few hours catching up on sleep along the shorelines. When the birds returned to lying or standing at the nests, they rested by shifting into the novel microsleep strategy. Why would the birds adopt this fascinating sleep cycle? The constant vigilance may help keep the nests safe from predators like the brown skua bird, which feeds on penguin eggs and chicks. Snatching only seconds of sleep at a time would allow the birds to be remain relatively alert to any possible dangers. Vladyslav Vyazovskiy, a sleep physiologist at the University of Oxford not affiliated with the research, theorizes that one might think of the colony as a kind of superorganism. Because each individual bird is constantly alternating between sleep and wakefulness, the entire group is at all times only half asleep, and also remains half awake. “I’ve been thinking a lot that we should not consider sleep as an individual phenomenon,” he says. Sleepers are influenced by the environment in which they doze, he explains. That can include the social environment: the actions of others within a group. Interestingly, sleep patterns varied among birds based on their location. Penguins nesting on the fringes of the colony had longer, deeper sleeps than those in the middle. That may be because penguins in the center occupy noisy real estate. “There are more neighbors and passers-by in the center positions, so their sleeps are more likely to be interrupted,” suggests co-author Won Young Lee, a behavioral ecologist from the Korea Polar Research Institute. The birds on the periphery must be more vigilant for predators, which exacts a cost. “The more intense your wakefulness, the more intense your sleep needs to be,” Vyazovskiy says. “Wake quality effects sleep quality. So maybe the birds on the periphery need to be extra vigilant, and they get tired, and then they sleep a bit longer and in a deeper way.” Lee also wonders whether there are seasonal or other variations in the way the entire flock sleeps. “It would be interesting if we can estimate their sleep after breeding,” he notes. “I wonder if they continue microsleeps for their entire life or change sleep patterns with their breeding stages or life stages.” Most sleep research takes place in controlled settings like laboratories. But as technology makes it more possible to study the brain in real-time, real-world environments, valuable new possibilities emerge. “We need to be open minded that sleep is so exquisitely sensitive to the environment, and therefore environment must be a very important part of the picture,” Libourel notes. For example, a recent study among jackdaws explored seasonal sleep variation and found the birds sleep some five hours less during the summer than they do in the winter. Their sleep appears highly sensitive to environmental changes like shorter days. Nocturnal primates called Javan slow lorises sleep in long stretches like humans. But they also shift their sleep rhythms to match changing daylight hours and are sensitive to temperature changes, which disrupt their daytime sleep and prompt more frequent naps. Many interesting types of sleep have evolved as traits unique to an animal’s lifestyle. Some birds, for example, can sleep on the wing, but Libourel wonders how flexible and adaptive sleep can be while still delivering essential benefits. How quickly can species adjust their sleeping habits when their environmental situations shift? That’s an important question in a world where wildlife is experiencing change at a very rapid rate. As for the penguins, Christian Harding, an interdisciplinary bioscientist who focuses on sleep studies at the University of California, San Diego, health system, says their microsleep strategy may have evolved to provide some fitness advantages suited to life in Antarctica. It isn’t yet known whether such a cycle could also benefit other species. “Are chinstrap penguins simply the best at utilizing a strategy available to us all?” he asks. For humans, at least, the prospect isn’t very appealing. While a short nap is often welcome, a constant succession of four-second sleeps sounds more like the stuff of nightmares. 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Zombie Deer Disease' Documented in Yellowstone for the First Time

The neurological condition, called chronic wasting disease, has a 100 percent fatality rate in the deer, moose and elk it infects

A mule deer carcass in Yellowstone National Park tested positive for the fatal neurological illness known as chronic wasting disease. NPS / Neal Herbert Yellowstone National Park has confirmed its first documented case of chronic wasting disease in the carcass of a mule deer. Sometimes called “zombie deer disease,” the sickness causes brain degeneration in elk, moose and deer. It is 100 percent fatal with no known vaccine or treatment—currently, biologists have “no effective strategy to eradicate it once established,” per a statement from the park.  “We anticipated that we were going to get a detection,” John Treanor, a National Park Service wildlife biologist with the Yellowstone Center for Resources, tells Billy Arnold of Jackson Hole Daily. “There were likely positive animals in the park.” Chronic wasting disease (CWD) was first detected in a captive deer at a Colorado research facility in the late 1960s and found in wild deer in 1981. It has since spread to at least 31 states in the continental United States and has also been reported in Norway, Sweden, Finland, Canada and South Korea.  Yellowstone estimates about 10 to 15 percent of mule deer near Cody, Wyoming, which migrate into the park during the summer, have chronic wasting disease. Dan Vermillion, former Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks commissioner, tells Mountain Journal’s Laura Lundquist it was “only a matter of time” before the illness was detected in the park.  The buck that tested positive for CWD was originally captured near Cody and fitted with a GPS collar in March as part of a population study. When the animal stopped moving for more than six hours in October, biologists received an email alerting them that it may have died, per Jackson Hole Daily. They retrieved the animal’s carcass from the landmass separating the south and southeast parts of Yellowstone Lake. “It was extremely emaciated, very, very skinny,” Tony Mong, a wildlife biologist based in Cody, tells the publication. “It had not been scavenged on, did not look like it had been predated on. It was pretty obvious that it had succumbed to chronic wasting disease.” Scientists believe that chronic wasting disease is caused by misfolded proteins called prions. CWD prions accumulate in the brain and other tissues and most likely spread through body fluids, either via direct nose-to-nose contact or through indirect environmental contamination. In late stages of chronic wasting disease, animals may show symptoms such as drooling, droopy ears, lack of coordination, listlessness, emaciation and a lack of fear of humans. But the disease has a long incubation period of about 18 to 24 months, so “the majority of CWD positive animals that are harvested appear completely normal and healthy,” per the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.  As of now, researchers have not found any strong evidence that CWD can be passed to humans, and it’s unclear whether people can get infected with CWD prions. The disease has experimentally been shown to infect squirrel monkeys and lab mice that carry some human genes. As a precaution, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends avoiding consuming meat that has tested positive for CWD and suggests hunters take precautions such as testing deer or elk taken from CWD-infected areas, staying away from animals with noticeable symptoms and using latex gloves when dressing the animal or handling the meat.  Yellowstone is now planning to increase monitoring for the presence of CWD in other deer, elk and moose in the park and to ramp up the investigation of carcasses and collection of samples for testing, per the statement. Biologists will also update the park’s 2021 Chronic Wasting Disease Surveillance Plan in light of this new case, which it anticipates will be done next year. “What we learned on a personal level from Covid-19 is it’s hard to control a disease when transmission occurs before symptoms appear,” Paul Cross, a USGS research biologist at the Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center, tells Mountain Journal. “So, this is a challenging question that will take us a long time to empirically answer. But national parks serve an important role in providing places to observe and study how ecosystems function.” Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.

Why Wildfires Are Burning Hotter and Longer

As conflagrations become more difficult to contain, a citizen movement to try to manage them through “prescribed burns” is growing

In 2023, wildfires ravaged communities in Canada, Hawaii and elsewhere across the globe. Illustration by Emily Lankiewicz The 2023 United Nations climate change conference, known as COP28, begins today in the United Arab Emirates. A new topic on the agenda this year is how wildfires are emerging as a serious health risk not just to those in their immediate vicinity, but even to people thousands of miles away. Last summer, smoke from Canadian wildfires drifted not only as far south as the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States, but even across the Atlantic Ocean. On the latest episode of the Smithsonian podcast “There’s More to That,” I speak with John Vaillant, whose book Fire Weather: A True Story From a Hotter World recounts a 2016 wildfire in Canada that dislocated tens of thousands of people and caused billions of dollars in damage. That natural disaster seemed like a terrifying outlier when John began his reporting, but 2023’s unprecedented fire activity suggest that it was merely the shape of things to come. John explains how climate change is making wildfires hotter and harder to contain. Next, photojournalist Andria Hautamaki, who observed a “prescribed burn” in Plumas County, California, shares how these kinds of carefully planned, intentionally set fires can be a useful tool for preventing more destructive blazes. A transcript is below. To subscribe to “There’s More to That,” and to listen to past episodes on the OceanGate Titan disaster, Killers of the Flower Moon, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission and more, find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. Chris Klimek: On a cool, damp day last fall, Andria Hautamaki traveled to the Sierra Nevada region of Northern California. Andria Hautamaki: I drove up here in this majestic pine forest, low-hanging clouds and mist still in the trees. Klimek: She was there to meet a special kind of neighborhood association. Hautamaki: It felt like a group of friends hanging out in a morning to do something together outside. They had some music playing. The fellow whose house it was brought out a table and set up a little umbrella, and brought out some pizza and some cold drinks. Klimek: All around this group of people were piles of burning wood, but this wasn’t a campfire. This was a prescribed burn. Prescribed burns, or controlled burns as they’re sometimes called, are planned, mini-forest fires that can actually prevent larger, more destructive fires from occurring. Andria recently wrote about them for Smithsonian magazine. She also photographed this group of people responsible for overseeing the burn. Hautamaki: Each person was taking over a couple of different piles, and as the fire goes down, they’re throwing on some extra leaves or some branches. Sitting around and just catching up, keeping an eye on a fire, but also enjoying some pizza. Klimek: Prescribed burns are gaining momentum as a possible solution to dangerous wildfires. The idea is to thin out things like underbrush and low tree limbs that are so good at stoking wildfire. Hautamaki: So when a forest is too dense, it’s also less resilient to fires and to the changes that we’re seeing in today’s climate. Prescribed fire is really about pre-emptive management, so by clearing out those thick underbrush and fuels, they’re able to have less intense wildfires. Klimek: It’s been a record year for wildfires, with horrific blazes all over the globe. Maui, Canada, Australia, just to name a few. Even those of us that live far from the epicenter of these fires spent a lot of the summer breathing their smoke. You may have read about the COP28 U.N. climate conference that’s happening now as we release this episode. Well, things have gotten so dire that this group is currently talking about wildfires and other climate-related events as major public health issues. So what do we do? Are prescribed burns the answer? And how do we get here in the first place? From Smithsonian magazine and PRX Productions, this is “There’s More to That,” the show where we try to predict the future by learning from the past. On this episode, how to fight fire with fire in the change in climate. I’m Chris Klimek. Before we get back to Andria and the prescribed burns, let’s find out more about why wildfires happen and why they seem to be getting worse. John Vaillant is a writer and journalist based between Canada and the U.S. His latest book, Fire Weather: A True Story From a Hotter World, was a 2023 National Book Award finalist. The book is about the devastating 2016 wildfire in Fort McMurray, Canada. John Vaillant: It was so big, it created a pyro-cumulonimbus cloud, which are these huge fire-born storm systems that puncture the stratosphere. They are these massive entities that generate their own lightning. Biblical apocalypse, volcanic chaos. Ragnarok-type stuff. The power of this fire, despite the fact that the local lakes were still frozen, that there were car-sized blocks of ice on the Athabasca River while this fire was raging around it. … This Southern California-intensity fire was sweeping through this community that literally had frost five days earlier. So I thought, “This is really weird.” Klimek: John’s book was published before the massive fires that plagued Canada over the summer. Vaillant: I certainly never imagined that Fire Weather would actually come out the same year that Canada would burn as it never had before. Klimek: We turned to John for some on-the-ground reporting about these intense fires. Vaillant: We’re getting a respite finally, and this is after an absolutely relentless season that really started at the end of April. It was going full blast across the country by May and never stopped, so this has been a historic season for us. We burned ten times the average amount of forest this year, and we had a quarter of a million citizens evacuated, tens of thousands more standing by ready to run, and several communities burned to the ground. So it’s been an absolutely terrible summer, really the worst ever. Klimek: I’m speaking to you from Washington, D.C. We were reading a few months ago that the source of a lot of the smoke that was palpable in our atmosphere was originating from Canadian wildfires. How is that possible? Vaillant: Well, when you get as much of Quebec burning and as much of Ontario burning and as much of Nova Scotia burning as was burning in late May and early June, you can’t believe the emissions. Just to give you an idea, Canada is a massive emitter of industrial CO2, because we’re one of the biggest petroleum producers in the world. And we also have the tar sands, which are uniquely heavy emitters. The fires of 2023 in Canada produced three times our industrial emissions, and that is just way off the charts. You get that much smoke in the air, and then it’s air currents. The jet stream is a factor, which is really like a conveyor, but these are all these kinds of compounding issues around climate change. Because one of the very strong indicators of a climate in distress is our now-unpredictable jet stream, which used to go around the Northern Hemisphere in a fairly consistent conveyor belt-like way. Now, it’s moving more like a Mississippi River meander. It goes up and it goes down, and smoke along with temperature can get pushed into places where it wouldn’t ordinarily be. That said, I think even without a wonky jet stream, so much forest was burning in late May and June that everybody was going to get something. Spain got it. France got it. And that was Canadian smoke that literally crossed the Atlantic Ocean and shrouded the west side of the European continent. It was a massive smoke pall, and, I’m sorry to say, the Eastern Seaboard really got caught in the middle of it. Klimek: Are we getting to a place where even the expression “fire season” is an antiquated idea—where it’s no longer confined to these specific months? Vaillant: I’m afraid so. I think in California now … you can talk to members of CAL FIRE, which is the state firefighting agency, and you can talk to people who’ve been there 20 years, and even in the past 20 years, they will say, “Well, we used to have a four-month fire season, and now it pretty much runs year round.” And the difference now would just be intensity. They had 300 percent snowpack in the southern part of the state. And so they’ve had one of the lightest fire seasons they’ve had in years, because all the reservoirs filled up after nearly a dozen years of drought. We have no idea if that will be predictable. It’s almost certain though that it won’t be, so we’ll get some other extreme. Right now, even in Alberta, which is a sub-Arctic province—so you’re way up there—they’re having fires up there now in the winter, because snowfall is reduced. There’s been a steady trend of that, and then that’s exacerbated by El Niño systems, which impact interior continental weather. Now, we’ve got another El Niño coming, and they tend to move in two-year pulses, if you will, the second year being even more severe than the first. So that all points to Alberta, which had a terrible fire season this year, having a potentially even worse season in 2024. And that’s a daunting prospect. Klimek: I’m sure it’s a confluence of factors, but can we identify a few things that might be responsible for the wildfires this year being so much more intense and difficult to contain? Vaillant: We certainly can. We’re crossing invisible thresholds that we are barely aware of. Our climate is changing in some obvious and measurable ways, but it’s having effects that are not obvious. Really, for the past 50 years, there has been a steady warming. And that warming became more pronounced in the late ’90s, and then we really started seeing some significant spikes and departures through the early 2000s. 2023 has been a signal year for bizarre climate indicators, and Canada’s fire season was one manifestation of that. One of the ways these thresholds manifest themselves is in quiet ways that are not so obvious to us, but are very obvious to fire. One example would be in the Alberta boreal. These are these northern forests. Lots of poplar, lots of aspen, lots of black spruce, but there’s also a lot of bog in there, a lot of swamp. We call it “muskeg” in Canada. People have been doing test pits in some of these muskeg bogs in Alberta, and they have been dry six feet down. And that is super strange and deeply alarming, because most of the tree roots are shallow. That means all the tree roots are dry, and when you dry out a bog, you get peat. When you think of what Irish people have traditionally burned, what people all across Northern Europe have burned in past centuries, it’s dried peat. Ordinarily, in order to dry it, you dig it out of the ground. It’s sort of decayed plant matter that’s on its way to becoming coal, but that’s going to take thousands and thousands of years. But right now, it’s decayed, compressed plant matter that if you dry it out in the air and the sun, you can burn it like wood. Now, that stuff is drying in situ, which means you have this reservoir of fuel that can burn 12 months a year virtually endlessly. You can’t put them out. This is, again, a long journey into the weeds, but a huge amount of Alaska, a huge amount of Northern Canada, a huge amount of Northern Europe is composed of this kind of bog. When it dries out, not only does it release methane and CO2, but it also can catch on fire and stay on fire in really durable ways. Klimek: Beyond just, “My home is threatened by a wildfire,” what are the human health effects of increasing prevalence and intensity of wildfires? Vaillant: They’re really dramatic. When New York and the Eastern Seaboard was shrouded in smoke around the beginning of June, the number of people reporting to emergency rooms for pulmonary and cardiac issues spiked. If you are a relatively healthy person who doesn’t have asthma, you can just weather it. You might cough a little bit and you might blow your nose and get a funny color, but generally, you’re going to be fine. But elders, babies, people with any compromised health … when you add that much smoke to the system, it can put people over the edge, from a stable-but-not-ideal health situation to a really grievous health risk. What it does, the same way many disasters do, the most vulnerable parts of the landscape, the most vulnerable species, and the most vulnerable people will be hit first. And that’s what we’re seeing. Likewise, in the case of prolonged smoke inhalation … for example, if you were in Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories, that’s a small city of about 20,000 people way in the far north of Canada that evacuated due to the fires in August, I believe. But they were in smoke basically all summer long. And so, there are going to be measurable health impacts, not just on the old and the young and the vulnerable, but on the general population. Klimek (narration): During our conversation, John identified one surprising reason for the increase in intense wildfires. He said that we don’t let some forest fires burn enough. Vaillant: Fire suppression is a legitimate culprit for one of the reasons our fire seasons have been so bad in North America. The good fire, as some people call it, has been taken off the land. Generally, what you see in a healthy forest where fire has been used in a seasonal and rhythmic way is a lot more space. When a small fire can go through, it’ll burn the small brush, it’ll burn the grass, but it won’t run up into the trees and start a crown fire, which is what’s almost guaranteed to happen now, because there’s so many ladder fuels—as they’re called—choking the forest floor. That’s what you see less so on the East Coast, but in the west, people clearing out the underbrush in between the larger trees in a forest, and then burning at safe times of year smaller fires through the forest floor to clean it up. It’s a kind of sweeping, really. Fire used properly and rhythmically acts as a broom in the forest. Klimek: I was a little confounded when you named fire suppression as one of the factors we were facing here. Forest firefighting organizations, broadly, how do they decide when they want to intervene directly and when it would be better to just let a fire burn itself out? Vaillant: That whole culture is really changing. Klimek (narration): John said the catalyst for this shift came in 1988, when Yellowstone National Park caught fire. Vaillant: Half the park burned, and there was a huge debate then: “Do we let it burn? Or do we put it out?” You’re younger than I am, but growing up in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, Smokey Bear was an icon right up there with Mickey Mouse. Klimek: I remember Smokey Bear. Vaillant: You put fires out every time you saw one, and that’s what the Forest Service did, too. Letting Yellowstone burn back in that terrible fire — I think it was ’86 — was a historic event. All this to say, since then, there has been a more open and often heated, if you’ll pardon the pun, debate around whether to let the fires burn or not. In 2023, we’re at a place where there’s an increasing tendency to let the fire burn unless it’s going to intrude into settled areas and threaten important infrastructure. There’s a better understanding now that a healthy forest is one that has fires in it. Right now, because there is this massive buildup of forest due to nearly a century of quite successful fire suppression, the forests are now overloaded. And then, you have rising temperatures and dropping humidity, and that skews the way fire would naturally burn in several different ways that create these catastrophic conditions that we increasingly find ourselves in. Klimek (narration): To learn more about the history of these prescribed burns and how they work, we called Andria Hautamaki, who you heard at the beginning of the episode. Andria seemed to live light-years away from my Washington, D.C. apartment. Hautamaki: I used to have to ride a horse to be able to make a phone call, so to be able to sit here and talk to you is fantastic. Klimek (narration): I couldn’t help but notice an unfamiliar noise behind her on the call. Klimek: What are we hearing in your office right now? Hautamaki: You’re hearing a wood-burning stove. I live on a cattle ranch in southern Chile most of the year. No relation, necessarily, with the story—it’s just how we’re able to keep our off-grid house warm. Klimek (narration): We began our conversation by getting into more of the benefits and mechanics of prescribed burns. Klimek: Can we talk about any animals living in the forest where a controlled burn is initiated? Do we know how they’re affected by this? Hautamaki: Yeah. Controlled burns happen at particular times of year, usually either in the spring or in the fall. The timing of the burns takes into account bird migration as well as the direction the smoke is going to travel, and the large mammals in the controlled burn context are generally able to leave or escape the area, because it’s a slower-moving fire. Now, the fire itself, though, is actually helpful for the wildlife, because instead of having these thick areas of dense vegetation where maybe a deer can’t get through, you’re opening up those areas and creating more of a mosaic. There’s different vegetation and different spaces for the animals to go. It’s also really good for the pollinators and for the bird populations. You’re opening up that forest floor and you’re being able to release some seeds, and when those wildflowers are able to come up, that’s a really important nectar source for your pollinators. It rejuvenates the forest. Klimek: Let’s talk about that a bit more. Why do forest ecosystems need fires to thrive? Hautamaki: Wildfire and fire has always been part of the North American landscape. Most of the North American ecosystem is actually fire-dependent. Even from the East Coast down to Florida, across to the Great Plains, and into the Western United States, all of that landscape used to have fire on it. Now, traditionally, Indigenous peoples would light fires or allow a lightning strike to burn out. That historically was the way that these ecosystems were managed. When fire was taken off the landscape in the early 1900s, that’s when we started seeing an increase of all this vegetation and an overgrowth, both in the forest context and in the grassland context. Now, as we’ve increased our cities and the spread of where humans live, it becomes a more challenging situation. Now we’re dealing with wildfire not just going through a forest, but communities. And so, it’s really important to bring back that fire to these landscapes and recreate, under a controlled system, the type of fire that naturally occurred. Klimek: When Andria says that fire was taken off the landscape in the 1900s, she’s referring to a federally controlled burn ban, which lasted for decades. But now, Andria says, there’s been a shift, and government agencies responsible for land management are once again considering prescribed burns as a fire-prevention tool. Hautamaki: What we’ve transitioned to now today is less so much of a suppression focus, but there’s an increased focused on including “good fire”—so, that would be the prescribed fires—into the management that’s used across the U.S. It’s a technique also that ranchers have used. Particularly in California, ranchers used fire to clear out healthy areas for grazing for livestock. As far as Prescribed Burn Associations, that’s a little bit newer development. Klimek: Prescribed Burn Associations, or PBAs, as they’re sometimes called, started popping up in the 1990s. First, in the Great Plains and then beyond. PBAs are a group of ordinary citizens that get together to share their resources and collaboratively prevent fires by setting fires on privately owned land. Don’t worry—they do this with proper training, and these fires are very closely planned and monitored. Hautamaki: Oftentimes, the barriers to fire is that you need to have enough knowledge, you have to have the right equipment, you have to have the resources to be able to do it safely. With the PBAs, the neighbors are coming together and they’re pooling those resources, so that they can undertake these prescribed fires on their own land. Klimek: Do we know where the idea for PBAs came from? Hautamaki: In the mid-’90s, John Weir was an extension specialist at Oklahoma State University. He frequently did prescribed fires out at the Oklahoma State University research range. Neighbors were repeatedly calling him and asking for help, and what he realized is that he didn’t actually need to go and burn for these people. He needed to educate them on how they could go and do a prescribed fire safely on their property. From the Great Plains area, he kind of started to develop this PBA model. Klimek: Plumas Underburn Cooperative is a direct descendant of that model. Today, it’s one of an estimated 22 Prescribed Burn Associations in the state of California. Andria photographed the Plumas Underburn Cooperative for her article, traveling to Plumas County, a forested mountainous region of Northern California about two hours north of Lake Tahoe. Hautamaki: It’s in the Sierra Nevada mountains, and you’ve got steep slopes. We’ve got some beautiful pine forests and rivers. It’s a place where you would maybe want to go to camp or to hike, and a beautiful community-oriented place to live. It seems like a place where everybody knows everybody. Klimek: What is their relationship to wildfires in Plumas County? Hautamaki: Plumas County had an extremely destructive wildfire in 2021, and that was the Dixie Fire. It unfortunately engulfed the town of Greenville. I think the Dixie Fire was the second-largest fire in California history. When I went and photographed the prescribed burn that’s in the story, there was, at least on a local level or a neighbor level, a really renewed focus by folks who are interested in incorporating prescribed fire into their communities. They saw that that was something that could be helpful as a way to protect themselves by creating buffer zones or safe spaces around their homes and around their towns. The Dixie Fire was a very hot and very intense fire. Now, when you have a forest fire that’s a catastrophic or an extremely intense fire, instead of preserving those old-growth trees, it’s just going to incinerate everything in its path because of the intense heat. These prescribed burns are controlled burns. The benefit is that it’s a low-intensity fire. It’s not scorching everything in its path. Oftentimes, it’s called an underburn. That’s when the fire creeps across on the bottom of the forest floor, cleaning up some old leaf litter. It’s cleaning up this layer of forest duff, and it’s about creating a healthier environment for those trees and for the plants on the forest floor. Klimek: What makes these groups effective versus government agencies or more formal organizations? Why do PBAs seem to work? Hautamaki: PBAs are a complement to the agencies. The agencies do a lot of work on public land. The prescribed burn associations are really helpful both in states that have a lot of private land—like Nebraska or Oklahoma, where if you’re actually going to get prescribed fire on that land, an agency can’t go into it, because they don’t own that land. But private property owners can. And then, the other reason that PBAs can be really effective, especially in areas like Plumas County, is that we’re talking about an area that people are living within a wilderness-type area. They’re able to do fire around their land and their homes on a micro scale in a closer-in area to protect these urban areas that the agencies wouldn’t be getting into. Klimek: Many of the members of the Plumas Underburn Collective remember the Dixie Fire well. Hautamaki: There’s one gentleman who is in the story. His name is Jeff Greef. He has a really unique story about how he used that preventative work to actually save his home when the Dixie Fire came through. He did this prep work on his property where he had completed an underburn, and he’d done some thinning to increase the health of his forest. And so, when the Dixie Fire came up over the ridge where his house is situated, it just died down when it got to his property. You can’t say that sort of prep work is always going to save your house, but it definitely helped the resiliency of his home. And if he hadn’t done that work, the outcome might’ve been different. Klimek: What do you do to prepare for a prescribed burn? Hautamaki: All of the prescribed burns have a burn plan, and they also often have an experienced leader who’s called a “burn boss.” That would be the point person or the person who is in charge of the fire that day. The major factor that they’re taking into account would be the weather: Is it an appropriate temperature? What’s the humidity? And then, also, the wind speeds. If there’s too much wind, then it wouldn’t be safe to burn that day. They’re taking into account the description of the area. What’s the topography? Is it steep? Is it flat? That’s going to impact the direction that the fire is going to go. Different states have different rules about when you can burn and what paperwork needs to be turned in, but the burn plans that folks have to turn in before they do this prescribed fire require a lot of thought and planning. They have to state the objective: “Why do we want to do a burn on this particular property, and how is it going to benefit?” That’s just the planning stage. After that, then they have to do the prep work, where they need to make a perimeter around the outside of where the prescribed burn is going to happen to make sure the fire doesn’t go outside of that area. And then, on the inside of the burn area, they might also be trimming the lower limbs of trees, so that the prescribed fire doesn’t climb up the trees. Or they might be piling up some downed logs and really preparing the ground before they even go in and burn that day. The individual that I photographed in the story, he said he spent, I think, over 40 hours of prep work getting ready for the pile burn that happened, for just a few hours one morning with some friends. Klimek: A pile burn is a type of controlled burn. It’s almost exactly what it sounds like: After the precautionary clearing of the area, logs are stacked up and burned in piles. Andria told us it was lucky she got to photograph one at all. Hautamaki: One of the challenges, both to photograph prescribed fire and also for the folks who do prescribed fire, is that weather is such a huge factor. There were several times where I was planning to go out and photograph, and to get the call that morning or on your way driving to a prescribed fire, and it’s like, “Oh, we called it off.” And it’s good that they do that, because it’s all about making sure that the burn can be done safely. But that is one of the challenges both of reporting on prescribed fire and also for the folks that are doing the on-the-ground work. The pile burn that happened this day was adjacent to a neighboring property, so you could definitely see where Saylor [Flett], who is the landowner, how he’d done the prep work. You could see where he’d cleaned out some small trees and you could see where he’d cut off some lower-limb branches on some of the mature trees. You could see where he’d piled up logs and cut big logs up into chunks, so that they were movable. Because if you looked on the adjacent property, you could see where there were logs still strewn over the forest floor. It looked more unkempt, I guess you could say. Klimek: How did they actually start the fire? Hautamaki: They use blowtorches! You can smell the drip torch fuel. And then, it also was a damp day, so you’ve got that wet forest smell that just is really nice. You can hear the crackle of the pine needles. They kind of make a crackling sound when they burn. You can smell that earthy singe of that coming up. And then, you’ve got the burning of the logs. You can hear them falling down on each other inside the pile. And then, there was that music that was going on in the background, where it just felt like a bunch of people hanging out in the woods and enjoying a morning, listening to some music. As you’re photographing, you don’t want to get too close to the flames, but you’ve got those gases coming off the fire. And so, it’s creating a nebulous-looking effect of the people that you’re photographing through the fire. You can hear the crackle and the snap of the wood burning. On a controlled setting like this, it kind of feels like you’re at a giant campfire. I was glad that I had arrived early, so that I could photograph the piles when you could still see them. Because when it was all done, you could see some little bits of smoke coming off the hillside from where the piles were, but it was not nearly as impressive as seeing all of the stacked wood that they’d prepared to burn that morning. Klimek: As the fires died down and the music played on, Andria found herself witnessing a sense of community. Hautamaki: There was one fellow, I think it was his 70th birthday, and that was what he was doing that morning. And then, in the afternoon, he was going to go celebrate with family and friends. I feel like from talking to folks … prescribed fire, especially in the PBAs, it’s a way for people to connect. It maybe gives them a reason to get together, and that they wouldn’t necessarily make the time to go and hang out with their neighbors unless they had this group project that they were doing together. Klimek: Are there any drawbacks to prescribed burns? Hautamaki: When you’re working with fire, there’re always challenges. There are incidences of when prescribed fires have escaped their boundaries. Maybe one of the more recent ones would be the Hermits Peak Fire that was in New Mexico. Some unexpected erratic winds caused the fire to jump outside of the boundary. But from my conversations with the people who work from the academic side of research and forest health, the benefits, the need for the forest to have fire outweigh the risks. When these agencies or when these landowners are taking all the responsible preconditions to be willing to burn safely, generally, the prescribed fire has a good safety record. Klimek: We know wildfires seem to be increasing. Do you think controlled burns will increase in a commensurate way as a way of controlling them? Hautamaki: There’s a lot of interest right now. In October of 2021, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill 332 into effect, and that was to encourage more prescribed burning by minimizing the associated liabilities. The interesting thing about prescribed fire is that it’s bringing together some really diverse groups. On that particular bill, you had support from the California Cattlemen’s Association. You had support from the Karuk Tribe. You had support from the Defenders of Wildlife. All of these different organizations, from the ranchers to the environmental groups to the Indigenous groups, see and value prescribed fire and the benefits that it can bring to the land. Klimek: Andria Hautamaki is a photojournalist. Thank you so much, Andria, for speaking with us today. Hautamaki: Thanks. It was great to be here. Klimek: To read an excerpt of John’s book, Fire Weather, and to see Andria’s photographs of the Plumas County Underburn Collective, head to We’ve also put links in our show notes, along with a list of resources where you can learn more about prescribed burns. Before we let you go, we have a “dinner party fact” to send you off into the rest of your week. We’re hoping you can use this week’s fact instead of a cheesy pickup line, although it’s not about something conventionally romantic. Jennie Rothenberg Gritz: Hey, there. I’m Jennie Rothenberg Gritz. I’m a senior editor at Smithsonian magazine, and my dinner party fact might come in handy if you find an attractive person at the next dinner party you attend. It’s a seduction technique I learned from an article I recently worked on about birds. Apparently, when a male roadrunner sees a female that he wants to court, he comes forward with a dead animal hanging from his beak. It could be a dead lizard or a centipede or a dragonfly. Or even a dead smaller bird. Apparently this is a very effective seduction technique, because roadrunners mate for life, so you might want to try this. Klimek: Okay, Jennie. What else you got? Rothenberg Gritz: Another bonus fact I’ll give you is that in spite of everything we’ve learned from cartoons, roadrunners cannot actually outrun coyotes. A roadrunner is fast. They can run about 25 miles an hour, but coyotes are even faster. They can run 35 to 43 miles per hour. Keep enjoying Looney Tunes, but please keep coming to Smithsonian for your science information. Klimek: “There’s More to That” is a production of Smithsonian magazine and PRX Productions. From the magazine, our team is me, Debra Rosenberg and Brian Wolly. From PRX, our team is Jessica Miller, Genevieve Sponsler, Adriana Rozas Rivera, Ry Dorsey and Edwin Ochoa. The executive producer of PRX Productions is Jocelyn Gonzales. Our episode artwork is by Emily Lankiewicz. Fact-checking by Stephanie Abramson. Our music is from APM Music. I’m Chris Klimek. Thanks for listening. Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.

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