MagLab analyzes the environmental impact of Maui wildfires



A vial containing water collected from the site of a Maui wildfire in August 2023.

Scientists at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory analyzed soil and water samples taken from the site of a wildfire that destroyed parts of Maui in early August to determine how the fires affected soil and water chemistry. We plan to support efforts to investigate whether and what kind of impact this has had. It affects the larger ecosystem of the area.

What started the blaze, how long and how hot the fire burned, what burned, and what was used to put it out can all affect water quality. Burnt organic matter is one of the most complex mixtures on Earth.

The water sample has arrived at MagLab. Researchers are working with Hawaiian authorities to obtain soil samples soon.

“If you want to know how any of these parameters affect the environment, you have to look at it at the molecular level,” said Amy McKenna, a research chemist in MagLab’s Ion Cyclotron Resonance Facility. I am.

The institute’s 21 Tesla ion cyclotron resonance system is the best in the world for analyzing complex mixtures. McKenna describes it as a “molecular microscope,” allowing scientists to classify tens of thousands of unique molecules.

“These are the molecules that are here. You can understand how they impact agriculture, the landscape, the environment,” McKenna said after the fire. “How much will this affect crop yields in the coming years? Can we prevent these fires from becoming an environmental disaster?”

As wildfires burn longer and at higher temperatures, the extreme heat can produce toxic compounds. If a building burns, dangerous chemicals can leach into the environment, and flame retardants used to put out the fire can contaminate soil and water.

“The hotter and more severe the fire, the longer it may take for the soil to return to its pre-burn condition,” McKenna said.

Previous MagLab research has helped scientists better understand the effects of fires. McKenna analyzed soil from wildfires in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and other wildfire-prone regions such as Congo in Africa. There, fires caused by lightning strikes are part of the natural cycle and can replenish the soil, clear underbrush, and generate new growth. McKenna said the study could help pinpoint the factors that differentiate healthy fires from wildfires that can cause long-term damage.

Because Maui has a unique landscape and fewer fires, the impact could be quite different than in the western United States.

“Maui has a different type of soil, volcanic soil. How does that affect fire impacts and ecosystem recovery?” McKenna asks. “Just because it’s a fire doesn’t mean it’s the same as a fire somewhere else.”

Characterizing Maui’s water will allow scientists to study water rebound and recovery.

“We’re trying to expand our world at the molecular level to understand how these fires affect us in the long term,” McKenna said.

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