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TERC studies smoke impacts on Lake Tahoe

The glider on its initial descent under smoky skies on Saturday, September 10.
Provided/ TERC

INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. — As smoke blanketed the basin earlier this week, the UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center jumped at the opportunity to study the impacts. 

With the outbreak of the Mosquito Fire in Placer County on Tuesday, Sept. 6, and its subsequent spread into El Dorado County, dense smoke once again engulfed the Tahoe basin. 

During the 2021 Caldor Fire, TERC and researchers from five other research institutions collaboratively studied various aspects of wildfire smoke impacts on the lake and its surrounding watershed.



TERC’s focus was on the smoke particles (and the nutrients) falling directly onto the lake, as well as their impact on clarity and ecosystem changes. This relied on TERC’s network of sampling stations, the precision of their labs to analyze minute changes in lake chemistry, and the expertise of phycologist Lidia Tanaka, who spent countless hours looking into a microscope identifying the changes in the algal community.

TERC professor Alex Forrest and graduate student Kenny Larrieu deployed one of their underwater robotic gliders to spend three weeks going back and forth across the lake continuously measuring water quality changes. They learned many things from that glider deployment including that ultra-small particles that were introduced by the smoke were removed far quicker than we had expected. Unfortunately, because that project started towards the end of the Caldor Fire, they missed measuring the initial impacts of the smoke.



This time they were ready. Once the potential of the Mosquito Fire was realized, Larrieu sprang into action, getting a glider ready for a one-month deployment is a complex procedure.

The first opportunity to launch came on Saturday, Sept. 10. After two short test missions, the glider was launched on a one-month deployment at 11:30 a.m. That was not a moment too soon as the air quality index was 200 at the time of launch and within two hours, had jumped to over 500.

Over the next month, the glider will run north-south and east-west transects across the lake, oscillating between a depth of 10 feet to 500 feet. It will measure water temperature, algal concentration, and the size and concentrations of particles in the lake. 

Once or twice every day it will come to the surface to communicate, at which time Larrieu can provide it with new instructions if mission plans change. During this interval it is on the surface for about 3–4 minutes. In the unlikely event that you happen to be on the lake at the same time and location when this banana yellow “rocket” is at the surface, please don’t touch it or try to help it.

This story was taken from a TERC Talk written by TERC.


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