Tahoe scientists study smoke | SierraSun.com

Tahoe scientists study smoke

Annie Flanzraich
Sun News Service

Jen Schmidt/Sun News ServiceVisitors to Sand Harbor rests on a rock Monday. The mountains in the background are barely visible through smoke from wildfires west of Lake Tahoe in Placer County.

With smoke wafting into the Tahoe Basin for the past two weeks from Northern California fires, scientists are adding another sampling station to monitor the smoke’s composition.

“We’re trying to understand the effect of the smoke, not only on the air quality and visibility but also on lake clarity,” said Tom Cahill, a U.C. Davis professor emeritus of physics and atmospheric sciences who is working on the project.

Scientists this week will install a third monitoring system at the Tahoe Environmental Research Center on the Sierra Nevada College campus. Currently there are three other measuring stations around the lake ” in Tahoe City, another at the research center building and a third on a buoy in the lake.

The continuing smoke is part of the reason scientists decided to add a new measuring system, Cahill said.

“It affects our ecosystem,” he said. “The persistence of the smoke is not a good sign here for the people, environment and the lake.”

While the Basin will see a decrease in smoke today because of a high-pressure system and east-blowing winds, the smoke will probably return by the weekend, said Jim Wallmann, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Reno.

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Wallmann said there is no way of knowing when the smoke will dissipate.

“It depends on how active the fires continue to be,” he said.

However, some think the smoke could persist throughout the summer.

“We’re going to have days that are better than others with smoke in the Basin, but because of the number of fires in Northern California … we’re probably going to experience on and off areas of smoke,” said Norb Szczurek, division chief of the North Lake Tahoe Protection District.

The new sampling stations will measure the organic matter and toxic compounds in the smoke such as partially burned resins from trees. Smoke and haze contain fine particles and nutrients ” the biggest enemies to lake clarity.

“Part of what enters the lake and affects water quality comes from the atmosphere,” said Geoff Schladow, Tahoe Environmental Research Center director. “Even on a clear day there is always deposition from the air, so when there is smoke there are more particles.”

Increased nutrients in smoke landing in the lake have caused algae blooms in the past, both Schladow and Cahill said.

Last year, scientists saw increased algae blooms on the South Shore after the Angora fire, but the blooms returned to a normal level about a week later, Schladow said.

Now, scientists hope to see if significant smoke over a short period of time, such as that from the Angora fire, has a different effect than less smoke over a longer period of time, which the basin is experiencing now.

“We don’t know, it’s something we are watching,” Schladow said. “When the smoke finally clears we will have a good data set. When things like this happen, it is a natural experiment, we don’t plan them but we can observe them.”