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A fireside chat: large wildfires are a looming threat to US lakes
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  • Ian McCullough,
  • Kendra Cheruvelil,
  • Jean-Francois Lapierre,
  • Noah Lottig,
  • Max Moritz,
  • Patricia Soranno
Ian McCullough
Michigan State University

Corresponding Author:[email protected]

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Kendra Cheruvelil
Michigan State University
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Jean-Francois Lapierre
University of Montreal
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Noah Lottig
University of Wisconsin Madison
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Max Moritz
University of California, Santa Barbara , UC Cooperative Extension
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Patricia Soranno
Michigan State University
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Wildfires are becoming larger and more frequent across much of the US due to a combination of climate change and land use activities. Increasing wildfires have begun to raise concerns about effects on fresh waters, including water quality and other ecosystem services. Despite this, previous research mostly consists of short-term case studies and focuses on streams and rivers rather than lakes and reservoirs (hereafter, lakes). Using the Monitoring Trends in Burn Severity (MTBS) database, we show that 4.5% of lakes ≥ 1 ha in the continental US experienced at least one watershed wildfire from 1984-2016. Interestingly, lake watershed fires are not restricted to the western US. Of all the lower 48 states, Florida, Texas and Kansas were the top 3 states with the most lakes experiencing wildfire, whereas Idaho, Arizona and Nevada were the top 3 states by percentage of lakes in respective states experiencing wildfire. Using the LAGOS-US database, we present new regional-scale findings demonstrating effects of large wildfires on lake water quality. For example, we found a negative correlation between post-fire lake water clarity and the proportion of a lake’s watershed burned in 11 Minnesota and Wisconsin lakes (r = -0.61). We highlight the urgent need for more broad-scale studies that encompass an ecologically diverse set of waterbodies, landscapes and fire regimes, particularly in landscapes in which humans depend on lakes for fresh water. Finally, we emphasize that growing data sources such as MTBS and continental-scale water quality databases (e.g., LAGOS-US) offer prime opportunities for research advances that can help scale up findings from local case studies.