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Fire and Water
My Father lives in Los Alamos New Mexico and I live 5 miles from the Missouri River. One location this summer was dealing with the largest forest fire in New Mexico history and the other was facing a 100+ year flood event, fire and water. Both are amazing forces of nature and both provide a great ecological lesson.
There were fires in Yellowstone about 20 years ago. Nova did a great job of telling the story of how fires are part of the natural pattern of keeping the forest in good shape. When fires get near human structures there is a whole new set of issues. Having kids discuss these issues helps them not only learn the ecology of fires but also gives them an idea of the complex nature of the decisions that are made when environmental issues collide with people.
Many plants need fire to control disease in times of drought and allow the healthier plants to come back stronger. Some of the lodge pole pines in Yellowstone need fire to melt the resin that seals the seeds in the cones. Fire actually helps these trees to reproduce. I do know that after the Cerro Grande fire in New Mexico 10 years ago the aspen trees came back quite strong. The problem with forest fires comes when there are none for a long period of time. This allows a huge pile of fuel to develop and lots of plants and downed trees to make any fire that is ignited much larger. The smaller regular fires burn the underbrush and fuel and leave the older mature trees generally OK. The larger fires burn it all.
Because of all the new knowledge about the relationship between fires and healthy forests the US Forest Service began to set fires in the forests to burn the excess fuel. In most of the National Parks the plan was to let fires that were started by lightening and other natural causes to burn. They did try to control these burns in some ways. The recent fire in Los Alamos was caused by a large tree falling on a power line up in the mountains, far from the city. The fire 10 years ago was started as a controlled burn by the forest service. The older fire came into the city and burned hundreds of homes. The second did not enter the city. Both have impacted the forest surrounding Los Alamos in ways we will be studying for decades.
The Twitter traffic and updates on the recent fire (#nmfire) have been an amazing use of technology. Students could follow the emerging fire stories and the stories of people impacted by the fire by simply following the Twitter feed. The Yellowstone and the Cerro Grande fire did not have that tool.
Now water is a different set of ecological issues. Floods have shaped and formed the landscape forever. The US Army Corps of Engineers have built dams and levees to control the floods. That has a cost and a benefit. The cost is that the floods often enrich the land near the river and the benefit is that people can live near the river and farm in the rich river bottom land without having the devastation of floods on a regular basis. The richest sites come from FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers but the new sources can also give a great picture of the issues related to flooding.
Several of my students have asked over the summer if there isn’t a way to move the flooding of the upper Midwest to the drought stricken southwest to help with the fires. The movement of water over those 800 miles would be an engineering feat. I do not want to step on the creative thinking of my students. So, I directed them to examine the issue of moving water from a flood zone to the fires. One student sent me the following e-mail:
I found out that it would cost a fortune for every mile of pipeline partly because of the pipe and also because the land between here and there is owned by so many different people and you have to work with each one of them to make it work. I thought maybe trucking the water would work but then my Dad told me the cost to transport one truckload of water to New Mexico. I think they would need thousands of truckloads of water even with the largest tankers. Then I thought that we might have a drought too and we could not send water then. But, we have a pipeline that delivers oil and gas from the Midwest to the refineries in Texas. If we piped oil most of the time and piped some water during the times when we have lots of water and Texas and New Mexico do not have much. The first water through the pipes would have some oil but it could still be used for something.”
What this tells me is that this student is thinking, asking questions and working through the issues. That coupled with the fact that this is summer makes me smile. If this student comes up with a really great idea there are a number of folks on th web to connect with this student. Some of the best ideas can come from these young bright students. The big question for the fall will be the discussion of pros and cons of both fires and floods. I think the discussion will be rich and the science will be valuable. A bit of science and some current events can be a powerful force for learning.