Zombie Wildfires Can Rage On For Months

11:34 minutes

Wildfires are becoming more intense. California saw a record breaking wildfire season—burning 4 million acres across the state last year. Scientists say there is an increase in another type of  wildfires called “zombie wildfires.” Forest fires that ignite in the summer and pop back up during the spring. 

Roxanne Khamsi talks about a new study that tracks the occurrence and causes of these wildfires. Plus, a look at a “black fungus” infection in COVID-19 patients in India. 

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Segment Guests

Roxanne Khamsi

Roxanne Khamsi is a science writer based in Montreal, Quebec.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Big electric vehicle news this week. Ford introduced a new truck to their F-150 series called the Lightning, an electric version of the popular truck.

BILL FORD: This is a defining moment for our company, a watershed moment for our industry. It’s a truck that will usher in a cleaner future for our country.

IRA FLATOW: That’s Bill Ford, chairman of the company. The F-150 truck has been the best-selling vehicle in the country for the past 40 years, with sales worth $42 billion per year. That’s more revenue than McDonald’s, Visa, or Nike. And this truck helps the company cruise into the massive EV market.

And this new EV is already sending shockwaves through the entire auto industry. Even Tesla’s Elon Musk tweeted, “Congrats to Ford for embracing an electric future.” Tesla, Chevy, GM, and many smaller brands all have electric trucks in the works. We’ll watch that and see how that all works out.

In other science news this week, wildfires are becoming more intense. California saw a record-breaking wildfire season, burning four million acres across the state last year. Scientists say there is an increase in another type of wildfire, something called zombie wildfires, forest fires that ignite in the summer and pop back up during the spring. Their study was published in the journal Nature.

Roxanne Khamsi is here to fill us in on that story and other science headlines from the week. She’s a science journalist based out of Montreal, Quebec. Welcome back, Roxanne.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Thank you, Ira. It’s great to be here.

IRA FLATOW: So in the Nature study, the scientists were tracking these fires. And what did they find?

ROXANNE KHAMSI: So what they did is they looked at satellite imagery from 2002 to 2018. And you know, there was a lot of variability in how much the zombie fires accounted for fires in the North, but what they did find is that in one year, it was almost 40% of the burned area. So that was in 2008. So these zombie fires really do have an influence.

They found that with hot summers, there’s basically more of these things happening. And interestingly, as the fire burns through vegetation, it’s giving off carbon dioxide. But then when the peat is smoldering after that, it’s producing methane. So these zombie fires are kind of a double whammy when it comes to greenhouse gases. And I think that that’s something that researchers want to highlight and say, you know, these things matter. Not only is climate change or global warming making these zombie fires overwinter more often, but they’re also producing a lot of the carbon and methane that enters our atmosphere.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, and they last– I mean, why are they called zombies? They start, they stop. How come they’re lasting?

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Yeah, so they just don’t go away. And interestingly, there’s other fires that have been lasting for decades. So there’s a fire that has been going for 59 years in Southwest China. And it began when an oil exploration team drilled a natural gas well, but they left it unexplored. And this thing has been going on for decades. So I mean, the fact that– it shocked me, first of all, that we have zombie fires. It is kind of like a horror movie, in a way, that these things kind of keep coming back and keep producing these greenhouse gases.

IRA FLATOW: Where are the zombies, I should ask?

ROXANNE KHAMSI: So the zombie fires that these scientists looked at were in Canada and in Alaska, so actually not that far from where I am. I’m in Montreal. And what they found was that these overwintering fires were really associated with hot summers and burning deep in the organic soils. They’ve become more frequent in recent decades. That’s partly to do with our warming climate.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to another story. India is still experiencing a massive surge in COVID-19 cases, and now there is a black fungus hitting some Indian COVID patients. What is this?

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Yeah, this is so terrible. I mean, India’s already coping with a really tragic and horrible burden with COVID-19. And what happened was this week, the country’s health authorities kind of sounded the alarm about something that’s been increasingly of concern. And it’s a black fungus that is called mucormycosis. It has a mortality rate of around 50%, and it’s affecting COVID-19 patients, so it’s quite terrible.

IRA FLATOW: Is it an opportunistic infection? Is it because you have COVID that you get this?

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Well, this is something that they’re thinking. This is one of the things that they’re wondering, is why are we seeing this huge uptick? What is the link between COVID-19 and the outgrowth of this fungus? And some of the theories include the fact that putting patients with COVID-19 on steroids to help them get through that infection of COVID-19, that might predispose people to getting the black fungus.

And what happens is, oddly, it strikes about 12 to 15 days after recovery from COVID. So something is laying the ground for this fungus to take off. Notably, I should also add that people with diabetes are also prone to these kind of opportunistic infections, as you just mentioned and described them, and that we’re seeing an uptick in fungal infections around the world. So COVID-19 patients not only India, but also Italy, Austria, Belgium, all these different countries, and the US, we’re seeing fungus emerge like other fungi.

IRA FLATOW: This is not good news. I mean, can they be treated with this fungus?

ROXANNE KHAMSI: When it comes to this black fungus, oftentimes the treatment is removal of, like, a jawbone or an eye. So unfortunately, another thing that doctors are saying is that we need to pay attention to the fact that fungal infections are actually evolving resistance to the antifungals that we use against them. So there was a giant cover story in Scientific American this month from Maryn McKenna. And she tackles this topic about how we need to look at fungal infections the way we look at bacterial infections, where there’s antibiotic resistance that’s emerged.

IRA FLATOW: OK, let’s move on to your next story. A group of scientists detected a new coronavirus in humans that originated in dogs. And we’re not talking about COVID-19 or a variant, right?

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Right. And I hate to be the bad coronavirus news update person, but yeah. So unfortunately, you know, we’re seeing a coronavirus that’s emerged in dogs. And in some ways, it’s not all that shocking, because we’ve seen in the last 20 years or so a few examples of a new coronavirus that’s gone from animals to humans. So there was the original SARS about 18 years ago that we think went from civets to people, and then MERS, which was Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome, that went from camels to people, and then of course this coronavirus that we’re living through, the SARS-COV-2. But Duke University researchers developed a test, and they wanted to see what other coronaviruses were out there. And that’s how they struck on this.

IRA FLATOW: We still don’t know the animal source of COVID-19. So what could the source tell us about a coronavirus?

ROXANNE KHAMSI: So I think that this is really interesting from that regard, because there’s a lot of debate about the origin stories of SARS-COV-2. And I think what’s fascinating about this is it really broadens our understanding of the vast difference in types of animals that can pass coronavirus to humans. And you know, this happened in Malaysia. It’s a different geographic location. So we can take that into account as well. Yeah, I think this is going to be something that we might actually see more and more often, is now that we’ve got our antenna up for the coronaviruses around us, I think we’re going to be seeing a lot more of these examples.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to your next story, which is one of the most unusual research I’ve ever seen. I mean, I’ve been doing this for a few years. And it’s a study about testing if mice and pigs can breathe through their rectum. Did I get that right?

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Absolutely. Absolutely. And it is strange. It’s definitely not for the shy. But for sure.

IRA FLATOW: Not for the shy. Yeah. So first, tell us about how they discovered this, or what they’re doing, or what the experiment is like?

ROXANNE KHAMSI: So these are Japanese researchers that did this study, and one of them actually had a father who had some difficulty with his lungs. And so he started thinking, you know, where in the animal kingdom are there examples of other ways we can get oxygen? And he knew that some kinds of fish, for example, are able to pop their heads up above the water and gulp some air, and that they don’t put that air into their lungs, but that it goes through their intestines. And they get some oxygen that way. So he started wondering, how could I make this apply to humans? And what happened was that team in Japan started to do experiments with mice, and moved on to pigs to see, can you breathe through your behind?

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, and so they– this could actually turn into something pretty useful, right?

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Yeah, so what they did with the pigs is they put four of them on these ventilators that– you know, we’re often thinking about ventilators as helping us breathe, but in the case of this science, they were actually able to suppress the breathing of the pigs. And they gave them enemas with this fluid called perfluorocarbon. And it’s kind of highly oxygenated. And what they found is that when the pigs were on those ventilators that suppressed their breathing, their oxygen levels dropped, but then when they got these enemas with this highly oxygenated fluid, their blood oxygen levels went up. So the idea is that this kind of approach might be useful in places where you can’t get the machinery, the ventilators and the equipment, to help people breathe and get enough oxygen, that maybe, maybe, maybe there’s a way to perhaps deliver much-needed oxygen through the rectum.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, we’ll have to keep track of that story. That really is an interesting– and who knows where that might go? Your final story looks at a kind of fountain of youth for ants, and the source is a tapeworm?

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Yeah. So I never– it’s really fascinating to me that ants can be infected with other things, because we think they’re so small. So scientists looked at these ants called Temnothorax ants. And they found that some of those ants were really taking it easy in the colony. Like, they were supposed to be workers, genetically, but they got the day off all the time. They’d have other ants doting on them. And what they found was that these ants that were taking it easy and getting all that extra service from their worker buddies were actually infected with a tapeworm that made them emit a scent that diverted attention away from the queen. So how cool is that?

IRA FLATOW: Wow. So what’s the strategy here for the tapeworm? How does it benefit here?

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Well, isn’t that the interesting thing, right? So it seems like a win-win. Like, the ants get a tapeworm infection from eating this tapeworm egg-infested bird feces, and then they just get cared for.

But what happened was, as the scientists watched the colonies, they found that over time, the queen started getting a little neglected when all of this was happening. So it’s not necessarily a great thing for the entire colony when you have these ants that get infected with a tapeworm. Sure, those ones live longer, but the colony overall doesn’t necessarily benefit.

IRA FLATOW: Roxanne Khamsi, science journalist based in Montreal, Quebec.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Thanks so much, Ira.

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