Just what impact did the heavy wildfire smoke that blanketed vast regions of Canada and the United States have on plants?  We wondered. The news media warned of smoke’s impact on people and pets and cautioned us to stay indoors and limit physical activity. But what about plants?

For many June days smoke from Canadian fires settled over Winding Pathways and a vast area of North America. With the Western United States likely to ignite later in the summer, it’s time for Smokey Bear to get ready for more action these growing-season days.

Impact on Photovoltaics

We watched the real-time production monitor on our photovoltaic system during smokey days. It indicated that smoke was reducing our collector’s ability to turn solar energy into electricity. Was something similar happening with crops, trees, and lawns?

We turned to wildfire and smoke experts at our alma mater, the University of Idaho’s College of Natural Resources, for answers.

Blood red sun rising through smoke.

Smokes filters light.

Dr. Charles Goebel, Professor of Forest Ecosystem Restoration, explained, “Yes, smoke can impede photosynthesis. There is some research that indicates that short-term smoke exposure can reduce photosynthesis by as much as 50%. This is, in part, due to the reduced light intensity, destruction of chlorophyll, and reducing the flow of carbon dioxide through stomata.”  He added that lower levels of smoke can help plants by increasing the carbon dioxide level and diffusing the light that some plants use better than direct sunlight.

How Plants React to Smoke

Dr. Goebel added fascinating aspects about plants and smoke. “Plants can filter out some smoke particles but probably not enough to make much difference during heavy smoke events.  Smoke particles that settle to the ground may have some beneficial impact on plants. Smoke contains calcium, magnesium, and potassium, which are essential plant nutrients,” he added.

Wait…There Is More!

Sun peering through smoke.

Wildfires are common in the West.

Dr. Lena N. Kobziar, Associate Professor of Wildland Fire Science, added: “We know that fires emit microbes (fungi, bacteria, archaea) along with other gaseous and particulate matter. Smoke transmits these living microbes that can colonize damaged soil and begin to grow and multiply. This can help the soil,” she said.

Want to learn more?  Dr. Kobziar’s Fire Ecology Lab website has an enormous amount of current information on wildfires and their impact on forests and people.

The University of Idaho

 We’re Vandals……meaning graduates of the University of Idaho. Our immediate family earned four degrees there. We’ve joke that the “real” U of I is not in Iowa City but in Moscow, Idaho. The Vandals are its mascot.

We enjoyed our academic careers at the U of I.  Knowledge gained there helped our lives and careers and we humbly thank its faculty for continuing to answer our nature-related questions, like about smoke, years after graduation.

It’s a great institution. Take a look at the University of Idaho’s website. Go, Vandals!