Skip to main content Skip to navigation
CAS in the Media Arts and Sciences Media Headlines

Wildfire season is lasting longer, burning different

The number of acres burned so far in Washington’s wildfire season this year is on trend with what ecologists predicted. But the damage has been catastrophic, and it could be weeks before fire danger subsides. Dryer, hotter summers and changes to the state’s vegetation mean the fire season spans longer than it once did.

Mark Swanson.

In the 20th century, fire suppression and exclusion in the American West by European colonizers prevented a lot of fires that would have otherwise naturally occurred.

“If you look at historic averages in the West, we don’t match the acreage of fire that would touch the West precolonization,” said Mark Swanson, a fire ecology professor at Washington State University.

Nowadays, where fires ignite, they tend to burn in ecosystems where fire was excluded for much of the 20th century. A buildup of grown vegetation as a result means those fires will likely burn at a higher intensity and severity — intensity being heat release and severity being what the flames do to the vegetation.

“We deliberately excluded fire, or suppressed it, for much of the 20th century in the West in the belief that fire was bad,” Swanson said. “The irony is that it allowed fuel to accumulate.”

Read more:
Seattle Times
The Spokesman-Review
The Daily News

3 CAS faculty awarded WSU seed grants

Washington State University has awarded 10 New Faculty Seed Grants (NFSG) to encourage the development of research, scholarly, or creative programs. The program supports projects that will significantly contribute to the researchers’ long range goals by kick-starting a more complex project or idea. The seed funding to junior faculty helps build the foundation for their research programs, allowing recipients to gather preliminary data, build collaborations, or establish creative programs. The funding also effectively provides a basis for faculty to seek extramural funding as well as opportunities for professional growth.

The Office of Research, the Office of the President, and the Office of the Provost fund the NFSG program. The 10 proposals selected this year represent the range of scholarly activity taking place at WSU. The total amount of grant funding is $212,524.

Awarded faculty and their projects include:

  • Deepti Singh, School of the Environment, will analyze the influence of multiple climate factors that govern the extent, severity, and duration of the impacts wildfires have on air quality and water resources.
  • Joe Hedges, Department of Fine Arts, will create and exhibit a new body of innovative intermedia art works that combine oil painting and new media objects, such as flatscreen televisions and tablets.
  • Rock Mancini, Department of Chemistry, will develop a new type of reaction to generate synthetic-biologic hybrids, enabling the synthesis of many new biomolecule therapeutics.

Find out more

WSU Insider


Environmental DNA helps researchers track pythons and other stealthy creatures

It’s no secret that Florida has a snake problem. The Burmese python, which can reach up to 200 pounds and stretch to more than 20 feet, first became common in the Everglades in the late 1990s, likely as escaped pets. The snake quickly settled into its new home, breeding and taking down rabbits, bobcats, and other native animals in its path.

Biologists thought the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge was one place that was safe. But from 2014 through 2016, scientists combed the waters in and around the refuge for environmental DNA (eDNA) — the trail of DNA left behind by an organism in sources such as feces, mucus, gametes, and shed skin or hair. The results suggested that the python’s DNA was, in fact, widespread throughout the refuge.

Caren Goldberg.

But interpreting eDNA results can be tricky. Tiny amounts of cross contamination in the field and lab could result in positive detections where animals aren’t present. “You can get these low signals that are either critically important or not reflecting the truth,” says ecologist Caren Goldberg of Washington State University, whose team has developed eDNA tests to monitor for a wide range of amphibians, including the endangered Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog. In those cases, the eDNA is there, Goldberg says, but the interpretation of what that means can be wrong. Goldberg, for example, cannot control for moose that carry water in their coats from one pond to another, potentially transferring DNA of fish and other species.

Find out more


Dr. Universe: How do earthquakes happen?

We’ve had a lot of earthquakes on our planet this year. Maybe you’ve learned about them from the news or felt one shaking up your own neighborhood. Earthquakes can happen in a few different ways.

Sean Long.First, it is important to know a bit about the Earth’s outer layer, or crust. The crust is made of seven big pieces called “plates.” They are about 60 miles thick and sort of float on the molten rock beneath them. That’s what I found out from my friend Sean Long, a geology professor at Washington State University who knows a lot about earthquakes.

These massive plates move very, very slowly—about one or two inches a year. But when plates slip over or under each other, collide or break away, an earthquake happens. Usually, they last just a few seconds but really big quakes can often last anywhere from 10 to 30 seconds.

After a big earthquake, we often feel a bunch of small earthquakes, or aftershocks. They happen as the crust adjusts to its new location, or settles into its new spot on the Earth’s surface. If one of the plates is under the ocean, sometimes an earthquake will trigger a wave called a tsunami. Depending on the earthquake strength, the wave can be massive or even just a few centimeters high.

Find out more

Dr. Universe

After a Long Boom, an Uncertain Future for Big Dam Projects

The rise of wind and solar power, coupled with the increasing social, environmental and financial costs of hydropower projects, could spell the end of an era of big dams. But even anti-dam activists say it’s too early to declare the demise of large-scale hydro.

The International Hydropower Association (IHA)—which represents dam planners, builders, and owners in more than 100 countries—touts dams as a clean technology, but that’s not quite true: Many reservoirs emit substantial amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas released by decomposing vegetation and other organic matter that collect in oxygen-poor reservoirs.

John Harrison.
John Harrison

A 2016 study in BioScience found that methane emissions from reservoirs constitute 1.3 percent all of global human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, and the highest-emitting reservoirs rival coal-fired power plants⁠. It is commonly assumed that methane emissions occur chiefly in shallow, tropical reservoirs, as if it’s a problem for only a small number of dam projects. But according to John Harrison, a professor at Washington State University’s School of the Environment and one of the study’s authors, “There is strong and growing evidence⁠ that temperate reservoirs can produce methane at rates comparable to those reported from tropical reservoirs.”

Even so, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which sets standards for measuring nations’ greenhouse gas emissions, doesn’t include reservoir emissions in its calculations; the IPCC is considering changing that policy next year. Growing understanding of the factors causing reservoir-generated methane could at least guide decisions about siting dams, avoiding places certain to produce high emissions.

Find out more

Yale Environment 360