Duke University researchers used radiocarbon analysis of 82 soil charcoal samples dating from 1977 to more than 4,000 years ago to reconstruct the fire history of a 25-acre site in the Nantahala National Forest in western North Carolina. Their study, the first of its kind, appears on the cover of the current issue of the peer-reviewed journal Ecology, published March 31.
"These are the first hard data showing that fires have occurred relatively frequently over much of the last 4,000 years and have played an important role in the health, composition and structure of southern Appalachian forest ecosystems," said Norman L. Christensen Jr., professor of ecology at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment. "Prior to this study, people presumed fire had long played an important role, but tree rings were the only available tool to study it, and they allowed us to look back only a few hundred years."
Analysis of soil charcoal samples demonstrated that fires became more frequent about 1,000 years ago. This coincides with the appearance of Mississippian Tradition Native Americans, who used fire to clear underbrush and improve habitat for hunting, Christensen said.
Fires became less frequent at the site about 250 years ago, following the demise of the Mississippian people and the arrival of European settlers, whose preferred tools for clearing land were the axe and saw, rather than the use of fire. Active fire suppression policies and increased landscape fragmentation during the last 75 years have further reduced fire frequency in the region, a trend reflected in the analysis of samples from the study site.
The relative absence of fire over the past 250 years has altered forest composition and structure significantly, Christensen said.
"The vegetation we see today in the region is very different from what was there thousands or even hundreds of years ago," he said. "Early explorers and settlers often described well-spaced woodlands with open grassy understories indicative of high-frequency, low-intensity fires, and a prevalence of fire-adapted species like oak, hickory and chestnut, with pitch pines and other (low-moisture) species on ridgetops. Today we find more species typical of moist ecosystems. They've moved out of the lower-elevation streamsides and coves, up the hillsides and onto the ridges."
The study was funded by the U.S. Forest Service. It was conducted at the Wine Spring Creek Ecosystem Management Area on the western slope of the Nantahala Mountains, at elevations between 1280 and 1430 meters.
Aside from historic and scientific interest, knowing more about pre-settlement fire regimes in the region may help forest managers today understand the likely responses of species to the increased use of prescribed fire for understory fuel management, Christensen said.
However, he cautioned that because of widespread changes that have occurred in the forests as a result of centuries of fire suppression and other human activities, as well as climatic changes, "prescribed burns may or may not behave similarly to fires that occurred in the past. Fires today likely would burn hotter and more intensely than fires did in the past.
"Also, although history tells us what could be restored, it doesn't tell us what should be restored," he added. "That depends on which species, habitats and ecosystem services we wish to conserve."
The study was co-authored by Kurt A. Fesenmyer, a former student of Christiansen who is now a geographic information systems (GIS) specialist with Trout Unlimited in Boise, Idaho.
Christensen is working now to develop more sophisticated tools that will allow him to analyze the microscopic anatomy of soil charcoal samples – including one dating back more than 10,500 years that was collected at the Wine Spring Creek site but excluded from the current study. This analysis, he hopes, will allow him to identify the species of plant the samples come from, and the intensity and behavior of the fires that created them.
"Reconstructing Holocene fire history in a southern Appalachian forest using soil charcoal," Kurt A. Fesenmyer and Norman L. Christensen Jr., Ecology, March 2010. http://www.esajournals.org/doi/full/10.1890/09-0230.1
Tim Lucas | EurekAlert!
Multi-year study finds 'hotspots' of ammonia over world's major agricultural areas
17.03.2017 | University of Maryland
Diabetes Drug May Improve Bone Fat-induced Defects of Fracture Healing
17.03.2017 | Deutsches Institut für Ernährungsforschung Potsdam-Rehbrücke
Astronomers from Bonn and Tautenburg in Thuringia (Germany) used the 100-m radio telescope at Effelsberg to observe several galaxy clusters. At the edges of these large accumulations of dark matter, stellar systems (galaxies), hot gas, and charged particles, they found magnetic fields that are exceptionally ordered over distances of many million light years. This makes them the most extended magnetic fields in the universe known so far.
The results will be published on March 22 in the journal „Astronomy & Astrophysics“.
Galaxy clusters are the largest gravitationally bound structures in the universe. With a typical extent of about 10 million light years, i.e. 100 times the...
Researchers at the Goethe University Frankfurt, together with partners from the University of Tübingen in Germany and Queen Mary University as well as Francis Crick Institute from London (UK) have developed a novel technology to decipher the secret ubiquitin code.
Ubiquitin is a small protein that can be linked to other cellular proteins, thereby controlling and modulating their functions. The attachment occurs in many...
In the eternal search for next generation high-efficiency solar cells and LEDs, scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory and their partners are creating...
Silicon nanosheets are thin, two-dimensional layers with exceptional optoelectronic properties very similar to those of graphene. Albeit, the nanosheets are less stable. Now researchers at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) have, for the first time ever, produced a composite material combining silicon nanosheets and a polymer that is both UV-resistant and easy to process. This brings the scientists a significant step closer to industrial applications like flexible displays and photosensors.
Silicon nanosheets are thin, two-dimensional layers with exceptional optoelectronic properties very similar to those of graphene. Albeit, the nanosheets are...
Enzymes behave differently in a test tube compared with the molecular scrum of a living cell. Chemists from the University of Basel have now been able to simulate these confined natural conditions in artificial vesicles for the first time. As reported in the academic journal Small, the results are offering better insight into the development of nanoreactors and artificial organelles.
Enzymes behave differently in a test tube compared with the molecular scrum of a living cell. Chemists from the University of Basel have now been able to...
20.03.2017 | Event News
14.03.2017 | Event News
07.03.2017 | Event News
24.03.2017 | Materials Sciences
24.03.2017 | Physics and Astronomy
24.03.2017 | Physics and Astronomy