Reducing Risk of Wildfires Ignited by Power Grids; Life in the Late Triassic in Wyoming; How Glaciers Move; Rural Medical Training

Explore the Unknown!


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19 May 2021


Hi WN@TL Fans,


Growing up in northern Illinois, where prairie fires have been suppressed for a century and a half, I was largely oblivious of wildfires.  I’d heard of the horrifically deadly Peshtigo Fire in 1871 on the same exact date as the Chicago Fire.  I watched TV coverage of brush fires fanned by the Santa Ana winds in southern California.  In 1988 we all gaped at the video of Yellowstone burning.


The memory of a pristine place as it was before it burns makes for a terrorful anvil upon which our hearts are hammered.  The lush woods of the Falls Chain in the Quetico Park in Ontario that my friend and I paddled & portaged through in 1994 had been a fairy-tale book of cascades among the pines, right out of the Hamm’s Beer scenorama sign.  And then, much of the Chain was incinerated in August 1995. When we returned in the summer of 1996 I first felt the hollow stomach one gets walking through a forest of charred cadaver trees.

Twice since then (Ham Lake fire in 2007; Pagami Creek fire in 2011) large stretches of the Boundary Waters have been laid low by flames.  Those times I was on the lakes and could smell the smoke and see the billows on the horizon.  Like the gallows, the prospect of a wildfire rushing upon your camp marvelously focuses ones senses, so much so that you make contingencies for bugging out of camp and paddling out to the middle of a lake in the hope the oxygen will be high enough, and the toxic gasses and heat low enough, that you might live to enjoy another shore lunch.


These sylvan visions didn’t prepare me for imagining the horror of a firestorm running through a rural neighborhood, a town, a city.  At Christmastime 2017 my family flew to San Francisco to visit relatives in Mendocino.  I took the opportunity to drive up to Santa Rosa to see what I could see of what was left of neighborhoods torched by the Tubbs Fire in October 8-9 (same dates as Peshtigo & Chicago in 1871), which was started by sparks from a homeowner’s power line.


All that remained were the hulks of burnt cars, the metal framing of garage doors, the occasional brick wall or fireplace.  The destruction stretched for lot after lot after lot.  Houses in Sonoma County apparently don’t have basements, because concrete pads but no craters marked the footprints where homes once stood.  This and other fires in 2017 in the Wine Country were the worst on record for California.

Santa Rosa, December 27, 2017.  Tom Zinnen


The worst, that is, until just thirteen months later, when on November 8, 2018 the Camp Fire blew through Paradise, California, and environs, killing at least 85 people and destroying 95% of the buildings there.  The fire started with faulty power line owned by Pacific Gas and Electric, and the liability for the fire drove PG&E into bankruptcy and led to the company to being convicted of 84 cases of involuntary manslaughter.


We like our campfires, we love our houses in the woods, we crave our electricity.  The California fires of 2017 and 2018 brought into focus a confluence of climate-change-fueled drought, housing development among the trees, and the desire for uninterrupted & convenient electric service. It’s a flammable trilemma.

On May 19 Professor Line Roald of the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering will be here to speak on “How to Reduce the Risk of Wildfire Ignition from Power Grids.”


Description: Even the best run grid is not completely fault-free, meaning that there will occasionally be sparks from power lines. In situations with high wildfire risk, this means that utilities are caught in a really hard position: Should they turn off the power grid and face public outrage (and possible fines) for power outages? Or should they keep power on, facing potential financial liability of starting a fire?

In the presentation, we will discuss how a power grid ignites wildfires, what electric utilities can do to prevent it and how this may cause power outages to customers. I will present our recent research on how to minimize both wildfire risk and power outages in situations with high wildfire risk, which begins to answer the question of how to find the right trade-off between the two.

Bio: Line Roald is an Assistant Professor and Grainger Institute Fellow in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in University of Wisconsin—Madison. She received her Ph.D. degree in Electrical Engineering (2016) from ETH Zurich, Switzerland and was a post-doctoral fellow at Los Alamos National Laboratory. She is the recipient of an NSF CAREER award and the UW Madison ECE Outstanding Graduate Mentoring award. Her research interests center around modeling and optimization of energy systems, with a particular focus on managing uncertainty and risk from renewable energy variability and component failures.



On May 26, Dave Lovelace of the UW Geology Museum and Dept of Geoscience will share his recent work on dinosaurs in the Late Triassic of Wyoming.  His is a saga how basically of puzzle pieces: each piece is a story, but as each piece is put together a broader picture is formed of Life in the Late Triassic, including how we know WHEN in time our rocks are, and why knowing that is important.

Bio:  Dave Lovelace is a vertebrate paleontologist specializing in Triassic-aged rocks of the Rocky Mountain West (252-201 million years ago). He joined the UW Geology Museum team as a research scientist after completing his PhD at UW-Madison’s Department of Geoscience in 2012. Dave combines the study of ancient bones, trackways, and soils to build a picture of what ecosystems looked like 230 million years ago — when the first mammals, turtles, crocodiles, lizards, dinosaurs, and birds evolved. Since becoming a member of the museum team, Dave had made several exciting discoveries including: the oldest known turtle tracks in the world, two mass-death-assemblages of Late Triassic amphibians, and the oldest dinosaur tracks in Wyoming.



On June 2 Professor Luke Zoet of Geoscience will slide back to WN@TL with the latest drift on “How Glaciers Move” based in part on his two recent papers in Science (2020) and in Science Advances (May 14, 2021).


Description: While glaciers are often thought of as static bodies of ice infamous for melting, steady glacial movement is constantly at work. Many of Earth’s largest glaciers are flowing into oceans, and the rate at which they contribute to sea level rise directly depends on their speed of flow. We will discuss how glaciers physically flow, the various factors that impact those processes, and resulting speeds.

Bio: Luke Zoet is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Geoscience, who holds an appointment in Geological Engineering, and the American Indian Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

His primary field of research focuses on understanding the physics of glacier motion through field observation, laboratory experiments, numeric modeling and theoretical analysis. His work sits at the intersection of glaciology and glacial geology. He uses a variety of geophysical and geological methods to explore glacial processes in modern glaciers as well as landforms left behind by Pleistocene glaciers. He also works on coastal processes using a range of instruments and new field and modeling techniques to estimate bluff stability and nearshore sediment transport processes.







Remember, we now meet by Zoom, since we can’t gather all in one room.


Hope to see you soon at Wednesday Nite @ The Lab!


Tom Zinnen
Biotechnology Center & Division of Extension, Wisconsin 4-H