. . . There’s fire
Flames leap from piles of dead pine branches as dense grey smoke billows into a cloudless sky. It’s an unseasonably warm fall day near the U-M Biological Station (UMBS). Pre-peak foliage of green and gold encircles a 2.5-acre forest plot, where all the trees larger than 5 inches in diameter have been cut and removed.
A fire crew ignites piled logging debris with drip torches containing a mix of diesel fuel and gasoline as transfixed U-M researchers look on. One can almost imagine what it was like here in Pellston, Mich., a century ago, after the land was stripped of its timber and a series of wildfires swept through, leaving a charred, denuded moonscape.
The researchers and firefighters are here to establish the sixth “burn plot” in a long-running experiment that seeks to approximate, on a tiny scale, the epic lumbering and wildfire disturbances that transformed the forest here — at the northern tip of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula — and throughout the Upper Great Lakes region.
“These burn plots are a time machine that allows us to look back at forests of different ages. They are a deliberately manipulated set of forests that have been, and will continue to be, a tremendous teaching and research resource,” said Biological Station Director Knute Nadelhoffer, one of the eager onlookers at the Oct. 10 burn.
Forest for the trees
Starting in 1936 and repeated every 10 to 20 years, researchers at UMBS have logged and burned small, contiguous plots to study how forests recover from these two types of disturbances. In 1936, plant ecologist Frank Gates established the first burn plot in an aspen forest. Other plots were added in 1948, 1954, 1980, and 1998 — and now 2017.
The UMBS burn plots, which are formally known as a forest chronosequence, form one of the longest-running and most exhaustively studied experiments of its kind in the United States. The plots have yielded wide-ranging ecological insights and have provided the raw material for more than 100 undergraduate papers, master’s theses, doctoral dissertations, and articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals.
The nature of the burn-plot studies has changed over the decades as increasingly sophisticated tools enable scientists to address new questions. Currently, one overarching research theme is the amount of carbon stored in forest plants and soils and how that is likely to change as the world continues to warm.
One U-M student using data from the latest burn is Buck Castillo. He is studying how forest disturbances affect fungal communities in the soil. The burn findings will form a chapter in his doctoral dissertation at the U-M Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.
“One of the big concepts in ecology is forest succession, which is the study of how communities change over time in forests,” Castillo said while standing in the latest burn plot. Cleared of large trees in April, the site is surrounded by a forest of aspen, white pine, red oak, birch, red maple, sugar maple, beech, and red pine. The ground in the cleared plot is covered with piles of dead branches, stumps, scrawny pine saplings, bright green bracken ferns, and scattered bushes: blueberry, huckleberry, wintergreen.
“We can get Biological Station students out here in these plots and in one hour walk them through 100 years of forest succession,” Castillo said. “It’s an ‘aha moment’ for these students because they can see exactly what you’re talking about. The teaching tools available in that one-hour walk are endless and very hard to find anywhere else in the world.”
The first group of intrepid students and faculty to trek to the U-M field station when it was established in 1909 never could have imagined the high-tech resources that would be available to future generations of visitors at the outpost near Pellston.
The Biological Station was founded on land acquired from lumber barons after nearly all of the marketable and accessible trees had been cleared. Initially, civil engineers created a camp on the site on the shores of Douglas Lake because the wide-open space was an ideal place to teach surveying.
Fourteen students — four men and 10 women — enrolled in the inaugural class of 1909, according to The Changing Environment of Northern Michigan, (University of Michigan Press, 2010). The book, which chronicles UMBS’ first century, paints a vivid picture of what it was like for those first groups, pitching tents on sandy, charcoal-blackened soil in a blasted landscape.
The first commercial logging in Cheboygan County (UMBS straddles Cheboygan and Emmet counties) began in 1844 and focused on white pine, red pine, and hemlock. Most conifers were gone by 1900, and attention shifted to high-quality hardwoods.
Lumbering reached its peak in Cheboygan County in 1896, when a mind-boggling 200 million board-feet of timber was cut, according to the late Burton V. Barnes. (He was a longtime U-M forest ecologist who wrote about the station’s vegetation history for the centennial book.) That’s equivalent to 12.5 million planks that are each 16 feet long, 12 inches wide and 1 inch thick.
Much of the wood from the region was hauled south to build cities — including Chicago, which burned in 1871 —and to build barns in the Midwest.
After the timber barons left Northern Michigan, wildfires swept through the region and devoured the woody debris — or “slash” — left behind after logging operations. Between 1890-1923, 11 wildfires were recorded in Cheboygan County, according to Barnes. The fires were started by lightning strikes, by embers thrown into the air from locomotives, and by settlers who used intentionally set fires to clear land for farming, said U-M ecologist and biogeochemist Luke Nave.
Burn, baby, burn
In 1936, plant ecologist Gates of Kansas State University, who taught biology and botany at UMBS in the summer, hatched a plan to recreate — on a very small scale — the twin disturbances that transformed the landscape. Gates later served as president of the Ecological Society of America.
“When that first experimental burn occurred, it was done out of curiosity,” said Nadelhoffer, a professor in U-M’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. “Frank Gates was a botanist as well as an ecologist, and he wanted to know what kinds of trees come in immediately after major disturbances, so he decided to start an experiment.”
Today, students working at the Biological Station can go to the fencepost marking a corner of the 1936 burn and observe how the forest has changed since then.
And technological advances allow the current generation of researchers and their students to pose questions that simply weren’t possible to address when the previous burn plots were established.
For example, recent advances in genomics allow Castillo to quickly sequence the DNA of bacteria and fungi living in the soil. And he uses the latest enzyme extraction techniques to see how those organisms process carbon.
“People study mammals, salamanders, wood-decay fungi, forest composition, carbon storage, and more,” Nave said. “These burn plots are a well-studied place.”
Up in smoke
During the Oct. 10 burn, U-M graduate students and colleagues from Aerodyne Research were cruising nearby roads in a mobile laboratory, using a single-particle mass spectrometer and other high-tech instruments to measure the chemical composition of smoke particles 100 times smaller than the diameter of a single human hair.
“Prescribed burns offer an opportunity to study the details of wildfire smoke emissions in a controlled setting where the fuel and burn conditions are known,” said Kerri Pratt, an assistant professor in the U-M Department of Chemistry. Two of Pratt’s doctoral students, Nathaniel May and Nicholas Ellsworth, were in the mobile lab on burn day.
The UMBS burn plots also allow researchers to address critical questions about climate change and the long-term storage of carbon in forests and their soils, said Nave, who studies that topic and who was at the station for the October burn.
The world’s forests remove about one-quarter of the heat-trapping carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere annually through the burning of fossil fuels, Nadelhoffer said. At the U-M Biological Station, the forest removes about a ton of carbon per acre from the atmosphere each year, storing it as newly grown wood and soil organic matter, Nave said.
“This forest removes the carbon equivalent of one to two cords of oak firewood per acre each year,” said Nave, an assistant research scientist at the U-M Biological Station and in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. “That’s one of the many valuable services that these forests provide.”
How will the amount of carbon stored in the world’s forests and forest soils — a carbon “sink” that acts as a natural buffer against human-caused climate warming — change as the world continues to warm? And if wildfires continue to grow in size and frequency, how will carbon storage be affected?
Nadelhoffer, Nave, and other researchers are using the burn plots to help answer some of those questions, in a project funded by the National Science Foundation. They are using data from the plots and from several old-growth stands on UMBS property to determine the factors that control carbon sequestration as forests develop.
“We’ll use this latest addition to the burn plots to get a closer look at how initial forest responses to disturbance set their longer-term trajectories of carbon accumulation,” said Nave as vegetation smoldered nearby.
In addition to the 2.5-acre plot that was added to the chronosequence, two other plots were burned in red pine, bringing the total area burned that day to a bit more than 6 acres. Biological Station researchers are looking into the possibility of re-burning some or all of the plots next spring when the fuels are well-dried, said Jason Tallant, the station’s information manager and the logistics coordinator for the burn-plot project.
The crew is now conducting post-fire tests to determine the burn’s impact on soil microbes and to measure carbon and nitrogen loss.
Total cost for the project, including both the April logging and October’s prescribed burn, was about $15,000. Internal Biological Station funds paid for the project. The logging was done by Tom Knopf, Knopf & Sons Forest Products, Inc.
The U-M Biological Station was recognized by UNESCO as an international biosphere reserve in 1979.