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Megan Johnson

Graduate Student | Department of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering | North Carolina State University

2020 – 2021 Global Change Fellow

Statement of purpose:

Growing up in the Western US, I experienced a slate of events that sparked my interest in environmental science and engineering – most notably, wildfires nearly every summer, unique air quality issues, and the impacts of climate change on forests and snowpack. Over the years, I have studied facets of each of these topics as I earned degrees in environmental engineering and atmospheric science, and worked at a continental-scale ecological observatory and at a state air quality agency. My current research topic seems to have finally brought these three major environmental subjects together as I am now researching impacts on air quality and human health due to smoke from wildfire and prescribed fire.

Description of research:

My research aims to merge the goals of land and air quality management to better guide fire prevention and use in the Southeastern US. Particulate air pollution (PM2.5) is the leading environmental risk factor for adverse health impacts, including premature death. In the US, wildland fires (wildfires and prescribed fires) are one of the largest sources of PM2.5, especially as emissions from other controlled sources continue to decline. However, suppressing all fire to reduce public exposure to PM2.5 is not a reasonable solution. Fire is important in maintaining healthy ecosystems and, when used in a controlled manner, it becomes a vital tool for reducing the risk of greater fire danger. While smoke management is an important consideration when planning prescribed burns, current land management practice does not quantify actual smoke exposure impacts. My research includes evaluating the uncertainties in quantifying smoke-related health impacts; surveying public perception and knowledge of wildfire, prescribed fire, and smoke; and evaluating smoke modeling tools available to land managers when planning prescribed burning activities. By jointly considering these aspects, I aim to create educational and computational tools and assessments that will aid managers in prioritizing sustainable fire management practices that also minimize public health impacts from smoke.

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