Food for all? Wildfire ash fuels growth of diverse eukaryotic plankton

Proc Biol Sci. 2023 Nov 8;290(2010):20231817. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2023.1817. Epub 2023 Nov 1.


In December 2017, one of the largest wildfires in California history, the Thomas Fire, created a large smoke and ash plume that extended over the northeastern Pacific Ocean. Here, we explore the impact of Thomas Fire ash deposition on seawater chemistry and the growth and composition of natural microbial communities. Experiments conducted in coastal California waters during the Thomas Fire revealed that leaching of ash in seawater resulted in significant additions of dissolved nutrients including inorganic nitrogen (nitrate, nitrite and ammonium), silicic acid, metals (iron, nickel, cobalt and copper), organic nitrogen and organic carbon. After exposure to ash leachate at high (0.25 g ash l-1) and low (0.08 g ash l-1) concentrations for 4 days, natural microbial communities had 59-154% higher particulate organic carbon concentrations than communities without ash leachate additions. Additionally, a diverse assemblage of eukaryotic microbes (protists) responded to the ash leachate with taxa from 11 different taxonomic divisions increasing in relative abundance compared with control treatments. Our results suggest that large fire events can be important atmospheric sources of nutrients (particularly nitrogen) to coastal marine systems, where, through leaching of various nutrients, ash may act as a 'food for all' in protist communities.

Keywords: California wildfires; marine microbial communities; nutrient fertilization; protists; wildfire ash.

MeSH terms

  • Carbon
  • Eukaryota
  • Fires*
  • Nitrogen
  • Wildfires*


  • Nitrogen
  • Carbon