Research on wildfire smoke hits close to home

Emily Fischer
Atmospheric chemist
Colorado State University

Emily Fischer, featured in 2020, is in the midst of one of the most comprehensive analyses of wildfire smoke ever attempted. Since we last chatted with Fischer, her wildfire research and the way she talks about it have become more personal.

Have you started any projects since 2020?
We’re looking at the impact of smoke on the visible light range where photosynthesis occurs. There’s smoke blanketing the U.S. in summers now. Regardless of whether it’s at the ground, it’s somewhere in the atmosphere between the sun and the plants on the ground. In the Midwest, for example, over our corn and soybean belt, there’s smoke between a third to half of the days on average in July and August, during peak growing season. What does that mean for crops? How is that changing the light at the surface? If it’s boosting the diffuse fraction of radiation, and not decreasing the total radiation, that’s a boost to productivity.

Last year, you helped launch a national group called Science Moms. What is that?
We are a nonpartisan group of scientists who are also mothers. The goal of Science Moms is for us to speak directly [via a website, videos and events] on climate change to other mothers in ways that are accurate, digestible and also engaging. While roughly 60 percent of the U.S. population is worried about climate change, like 85 percent of moms are worried about climate change. But they don’t feel comfortable talking about it, or know how to talk to their representatives about it or even talk to their book club about it.

How have people responded to your outreach efforts?
I get all sorts of messages: “This is so different than any other climate communication that I’ve ever seen.” We’re trained as scientists to take the emotion out of things, but actually it’s very important for people to understand the feeling of climate change.

Last summer [2020], extreme fires impacted my own home. We had smoke here for multiple months, and my family ran from the Cameron Peak Fire.… For me, there was a shift from “These are the numbers, these are the graphs,” to “Oh, this is what my graphs feel like, this is what this trend feels like.”

Did your experience fleeing a wildfire shift your perspective around your science?
I’m the kind of person who studies what I see.… And so I should not have been surprised by that fire. I was out backpacking with my family, and it started one range over and my kids and I ran out, and we made it. So it was OK, but I was not sure it would be OK. When something like that happens to you, you have to respond to it. [Now] I think, when we calculate a change in something going forward, what does that mean? What are all the impacts that that could have?

Also, seeing the incident management teams working together to help people [during the fire] was very inspiring. I would say to my husband, “These teams are beautiful. They are functioning at such a high level under such hard conditions. If we could just harness this level of cooperation toward climate change action, or toward eliminating the pandemic, we [could] do anything.”

— Interview by Cassie Martin

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