Posts Tagged ‘ecology’

After the Morgan Fire

Joan Hamilton joined us on March 22nd at The Rotary Nature Center in Oakland. You can read her article on the fire and its after effects on Bay Nature Magazine’s website and other related articles. All with more details and better pictures than my summary below.


Investigating the after effects of the Morgan fire on Mount Diablo was the best article assignment Hamilton said she has ever had. For two years (and another year on now) it brought her to Mount Diablo to witness what happens after a fire here in California. She had been working in Perkin’s Canyon on an audio guide, but now that project was literally toast. But Mount Diablo has a fire interval of 40 to 70 years, so this was pretty much a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to study the effects of fire in-depth.

“Nature is pulling back the curtain. Let the play begin. We’ll see who shows up and gives the best performance.”
— Nomad Ecology botanist Heath Bartosh

The fire started on September 8th 2013 when a young man doing target practice hit a rock which sparked a grass fire which then lit a grey pine and then from then took off through the mountain.

Joan visited a few days after the fire, and the ground was still smoking, oak leaves were toasted, meadows were black, and the chaparral burnt. They found themselves being bit on the necks and hands by beetles a species that firefighters know well. The beetles only show up after fire, looking to lay their eggs in the smoldering trees. Apparently, way back mid-20th-century, used to show up at Cal games, drawn to cigarette smoke.

The fire had gone clear to the top of the mountain. Fire fighters had dumped lots of fire retardant to keep it from going over the summit, but they spent much of their effort (hundreds of firefighters, 6 planes, and 25 bulldozers) protecting homes and communities outside the park. The state park wanted the fire to take its natural course inside the park.

On first look, it seemed like it might have been too much. Some oaks had burned down to the roots, and slopes seemed like they might erode away from lack of vegetation. But even that first visit they noticed that rodents were already at work disturbing the burnt soil.

By the 9th day, plants were poking out: grass, vetch, mustard and others. At 6 weeks, shrubs were beginning to resprout at their base. By April, there was skullcap, baccarus, deerweed, and a fire follower called whispering bells (because of the sounds it makes when it is dried up).

Researchers Heath Bartosh and Brian Peterson decided to do a study of this “fleeting abundance” to see what wildflowers would come up three years running after a fire. They set up a series of 1m square research areas across the mountain listing every species and the % of cover. They did this out of curiosity not because someone was paying them.

What they found were 28 opportunists — species like the Mt. Diablo globe lilly — which were are commonly found there, but came on strong because of the extra space and sunlight the fire afforded them. But there were also 17 fire followers like the whispering bells, and golden ear drops. The species that everyone wanted to see, the flame poppy, was elusive at first, but eventually showed itself.

The second year made the work of this research difficult as a native morning glory flourished (they referred to it as trip vine). There was also some nice surprises: Kellog’s climbing snapdragon which hadn’t been seen 80 years, and the sleepy catchfly which hadn’t been seen in 125 years. Bulb plants went crazy: mariposa lilies, fremont star lily. California poppy, Mt Diablo jewel fire were both abundant.

The burnt chaparral was where the diversity seemed richest.

There were other researchers out there as well. Mandi McElroy got a grant for remote cameras and began a study of mammals on the mountain. The cameras have so far caught the obvious ones: black tailed deer, wild pigs, and coyote. But it will take a while longer to sort out the effect on smaller animals. The pigs seem to be doing well from what they have seen so far.

Entomologist Kip Will began a 5 year study of arthropods in the area. Setting out to trap insects on land in the air, day and night, to be as an detailed as possible to get baseline data. So far, beetles are two times as numerous in burned areas, and 16 new species of moth have been recorded on the mountain including the sphinx moth with a whopping 4” wingspan.

Lindsey Hendricks began looking at the effects of the fire on the previously dominant Chamise, looking at growing chamise in different fire affected soils. It turns out the Chamise likes it hot. It only sprouted in soil that was moderately to severely burned soil. In unburned soil the enormous numbers of seeds that chamise produces simply did not germinate.

At the tree level, the oaks came back. Only small handful did not survive the fire. In some cases, the trees were resprouting from the trunk and biggest branches. A lot of big grey pines on the other hand did not make it… Their chemical makeup is such that they burn up quicker and easier than other pines having a chemical similar to gasoline. But they are coming back from seed.

There were few problems with invasives, even in areas where they thought it was more at risk (the bulldozed zones in particular), erosion turned out to not be a problem because the root systems of many plants were still intact holding the soil together (and until this year we had below level rainfall probably did not hurt).

All in all seeing the mountain change from year to year was an amazing opportunity for Hamilton. She had a few suggestions for places to go if you want to check out the burn sites:

  • The North Peak Trail from Devil’s Elbow down to Prospectors Gap. From there, you can either head up to North Peak or down to the park boundary along the Prospectors Gap fire road.
  • Green Ranch Road from Oak Knoll picnic area down to Rhine Canyon and Frog Pond.
  • Perkins Canyon on Ray Morgan Road and Perkins Canyon Trail.

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The good news, according to redwood ecologist Dr. Emily Burns, is that climate change seems to be working in Redwoods favor — for the moment at least, doing a lot of carbon sequestration. Over the last century growth rates are increasing for Redwoods all over California but Northern California in particular. No one knows the answer but leading answers are longer growing seasons, less fog/more sunshine, and more CO2. 

But it’s difficult to say if that will last, or it will be good in some places and bad in others, the Redwoods live amongst and between many microclimates. Redwoods demand a pretty high volume of water — and if the amount of fog continues to decrease (fog has decreased by ~33% over the last century) it’s hard to say when redwoods might feel the pinch. Scientists do not know what the tipping point would be.

Redwoods, and 80% of the plants that live within a redwood forest, take in much of their moisture through their needles and leaves through a process called foliar uptake. The amount of water they get is dependent on how much fog sticks around, but the process is readily visible if you are climbing into a redwood when the fog comes in — as Dr. Burns attested from her experience up in the trees.

Overall, the last 144 million years have been a rough period for redwoods. There has been a massive reduction in their population since the Jurrasic, their range contracting due to a combination of geological and climatic changes. Of course, the last couple centuries has seen the last remnants of redwood forests under immense pressure from mankind’s agriculture and urbanization.

The 2009  Redwoods and Climate Change Initiative has set out to study the last 30 years of Redwood history, and compare it against the 1900-1980 historical baseline that we have, to try to make predictions, and understand the patterns that are driving change in the area — and how that will affect Redwoods. This is done through historical records, but most importantly the redwoods own record — it’s tree rings.

Tree rings give a picture of how a tree has done over the years. Tree ring studies have been around a long time, but redwoods are notoriously difficult. Researchers have taken care to take cores from different heights, and cross reference them both across the tree and across forests looking for patterns.

One thing that they’ve been able to see with these kinds of studies is how trees respond to droughts and floods. The tree record shows that the response is immediate. All this data is being submitted to a national archive, and plans are afoot to compare data across species.

Researchers are also measuring branches — 40% of growth occurs in branches. And these big trees can grow! The superstar tree is the Emerald Giant which produces wood sufficient for 2 million pencils in a year. Once they thought old trees grew slower because their tree rings got thinner — but it turns out it is just the tree putting more wood over a greater surface area. Old trees it turns out, grow faster.

Of course, climate change also affects more than just the Redwood tree, but the whole Redwood forest ecosystem. Maybe the trees grow well, but what if the rest of the forest plants don’t cope as well… what would happen then. The forest is a very complex ecosystem — and there is a lot more data to be had.

Dr. Burns invites everyone to join in to help with the Redwoods. One simple thing, is to help find them all — look for the Redwood Watch iPhone app.

You can also find out more about Dr Burns work at her website, or by following her on twitter.

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Living with Mountain Lions
Guest Speaker: Zara McDonald
7:30pm, Thursday, Feb 20th, 2014
FREE at the Randall Museum, 199 Museum Way, San Francisco, CA 

Mountain Lions are keystone predators and play a critical role in maintaining the health and biodiversity of our ecosystems. Zara McDonald, President of the Felidae Fund, will discuss their ecology, history, and the challenges of sharing habitats with them.

Cougaroriginally posted to Flickr as Those Eyes, by Art G.

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Fog and the Future of Redwoods

Fog and the Future of Redwoods
Guest Speaker: Emily Burns
7:30pm, Thursday, Jan 23rd, 2014
FREE at the Randall Museum, 199 Museum Way, San Francisco, CA 

Redwood ecologist Emily Burns will describe how climate change is affecting the growth of our ancient redwood forests. From less fog to warmer weather, see how the tallest and largest trees on Earth are responding to today’s novel climate.


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