A Michigan State University-led research team received a $750,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture to study how the burn severity of wildfires affects soil health.
Associate professor in the Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences and core faculty member in the Ecology, Evolution and Behavior Program Jessica Miesel is leading the project. Miesel specializes in fire and ecosystem ecology.
Ecologist of the U.S. Forest Service Matt Dickinson, ecologist of the University of Nevada, Reno Erin Hanan and MSU combustion engineer Indrek Wichman will work alongside Miesel on the project.
Natural wildfires can have beneficial effects on ecosystem services such as clearing the forest floor of underbrush and debris which allows the soil to allocate nutrients to the development of larger, healthier trees. Fires can also rid areas of thick brush and allow for the growth of plants that serve as food and shelter for animal species.
However, when fires occur in extreme conditions and burn at high intensity, they can be devastating. These types of fires have increased dramatically in recent years, with California seeing 4.1 million acres burned just in the last year.
Catastrophic wildfire is the single biggest threat to ecosystem services delivered by forests, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
The project will investigate how the severity of wildfires affect soil. Burn severity will be measured by either remote sensing or field-based observations of soil and vegetation post-fire, factoring in the intensity and duration.
Hanan emphasized the importance of this research, as it measures how ecosystems are able to recover from a fire.
“One of the key factors that influences how an ecosystem is going to recover from fire is the soil. Fire can totally transform soil physical and chemical properties, and that can have a huge influence on how plants recover and how habitat recovers,” Hanan said. “So, being able to understand the effects of fire and different types of fire on soil health is really important for understanding recovery, water quality, habitat, things like that.” (1:28)
Researchers theorize that soil health is further negatively influenced the longer and hotter a fire burns.
The research team seeks to identify and describe the relationships among fire characteristics, burn severity and soil heating, determine the resistance and resilience of biological, chemical and physical indicators of soil health to fire, burn severity and soil heating and discern the key factors that drive soil responses to wildfire to continue to improve tools that guide forest and fire management decisions.
The team will use a blend of field and laboratory approaches to accomplish these goals.
Dickinson said that this project will examine soil more comprehensively than studies done in the past.
“There’s not a whole lot of data on soil and there’s also a limited ability to predict the effects of fires on soils, which is one of the key benefits of doing the kind of laboratory experiments that Jessica has proposed,” Dickinson said. (2:24)
In the lab and with outdoor table-top setups, researchers will perform controlled experiments to replicate wildfire scenarios.
In the field, the team will utilize ongoing work by the Fire Behavior Assessment Team of the U.S. Forest Service. The work includes 15 years of pre-, active- and post-fire data on forest biomass, composition and structure from wildfires in California. The MSU-led research team will incorporate resilience of soil health in the long term to the previous work.
“We’ve done some preliminary work and measurements in trying to understand the direct effects of fire on soils, and this (funding) is going to enable us to go out and do a much more comprehensive study where we are able to directly link heating that occurs during fire with below ground responses,” Hanan said. “That’s really important for being able to predict how different ecosystems and watersheds are going to respond to fire as fire becomes more severe, and or more frequent.” (2:24)
One of the main objectives of the project is to create statistical models that characterize undesirable wildfire outcomes such as solid transformation and shrub conversion. These models can then be used to create management plans as they define the response thresholds needed to avoid long-term forest damage. The team plans to develop a guide that summarizes the sites, soils, fuels, fire characteristics and burn severities that lead to negative effects on soil health.
The data collected by the researchers will be available via online fact sheets, presentations and webinars.
“Hopefully this project, which will involve a lot of careful experimentation, will lead to future projects that are focused on measurements on both prescribed fires and wildfires,” Dickinson said. (4:43)
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