From swamps to deserts and from mountains to the cold Northwoods, soil is a common denominator across all types of ecosystems. In September, our feature stories dig into soil, including a study that was part of the West Virginia Long-term Soil Productivity Studies, a partnership focused on how fire affects soil, and a scientist focused on what he calls the “tactile” science behind soil.
Explore what happens underground with the Soil Tent, a traveling educational exhibit.
His office is located in the Northern Research Station’s lab in Houghton, MI, but Soil Scientist Evan Kane’s career is more layered than office space might suggest. As an associate professor in Michigan Tech’s College of Forest Resources and Environmental Science, teaching dominates Kane’s schedule throughout the school year, however an arrangement with Michigan Tech University allows him to devote the summer months and alternate spring semesters to Forest Service science. Research has a way of filtering through other work, however, and Kane stays engaged in research throughout the year.
Much of Kane’s research centers on carbon and exploring how to keep it in the soil rather than the atmosphere, where it becomes a greenhouse gas and a significant contributor to global climate change. One of the aspects of soil science that Kane especially appreciates is that soil science is hands-on, from transplanting peat to a research facility in Houghton to measuring the water table. “It’s a very tactile science,” Kane said.
Kane’s interest in forests developed over the course of a childhood spent in the northern tier of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. His interest in climate change science was more sudden. As an undergraduate student in Michigan Tech University’s forestry program, Kane had envisioned himself working with landowners on forest health projects; he even had a job offer along those lines. But then Kane happened across an article about permafrost and links between higher temperatures and increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide in the magazine Scientific American, and he had a change of heart. “After that, I went hook, line, and sinker for research,” Kane said.
Teaching was not Kane’s career objective, but his approach to talking about science makes him sound like a natural. Take for example his description of carbon: “It’s the cracker that most of the other elements are served on,” Kane describes. Ask what it is about forests that attracts carbon, and Kane describes a tray of appetizers where, it is clear that forest litter or moss inputs are “the yummiest snacks on the tray” for carbon, with inorganic material often being served on those crackers.
Teaching has grown on him, but research remains his passion. “I love the work we’re doing at the Northern Research Station,” Kane said. “I love the important questions we’re asking.”
More about Evan Kane >>
Tree Death and Life in Forests
Trees are increasingly being looked to as key components in fighting climate change through their ability to sequester carbon. When a tree dies, sequestering, as well as many other beneficial services ceases. In a recent study, scientists sought to better understand tree mortality in two forest types in West Virginia. This knowledge may help managers improve productivity of these diverse forests.
The study occurred in the context of the West Virginia Long-term Soil Productivity (LTSP) Studies in the central Appalachians and over 20 years of observation. Scientists selected two locations to represent distinct forest types and site conditions: mixed mesophytic (a diverse, closed canopy forest) and cherry-maple. Over two decades, they found differences in patterns of mortality (number of trees dying) and ingrowth (number of new trees) between the two sites. Generally, ingrowth exceeded mortality at the mixed mesophytic site, while the reverse was true at the cherry-maple site.
While tree death is a natural part of forest dynamics, increased intensity of disturbances can accelerate mortality. The observed differences in mortality and ingrowth in this study likely reflect differences in tree species composition related to soil and site characteristics and differences in disturbances, particularly windstorms.
“Forests are dynamic systems managed for many purposes and services. Understanding differing trajectories of tree death and life helps us manage stands sustainably into the future,” said Mary Beth Adams, soil scientist emeritus with the Northern Research Station and study lead.
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Working Together to Restore Pine Barrens in the Great Lakes
Pine barren ecosystems once covered millions of acres across the Great Lakes Region. Today, just a few thousand acres, or less than 1 percent, remain. Historically shaped by frequent wildfires, pine barrens are found in areas with sandy, nutrient-poor soils, and are defined by a diverse savanna-like plant community characterized by grasses, herbs, and low shrubs, like wild blueberries and sweet fern, below a scattered canopy of pine trees.
The Northern Research Station, (NRS), Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest (CNNF), and Michigan State University, with funding provided by the Joint Fire Science Program, worked together to understand how treatments such as burning and brush-cutting restore and maintain these rare but important ecosystems. More specifically, they investigated how prescribed fire impacts soil properties, linking soil heating patterns to soil chemistry, seedbank vitality, and vegetation response with the ultimate goal of optimizing pine barren restoration.
Forest Silviculturist Matt Bushman, with the CNNF, has been working for over a decade to restore pine barren communities in northwestern Wisconsin. “Pine barrens are important for ecological, recreational, and cultural values,” explains Bushman. “They are also key to the health of many uncommon and rare native plants and animals.”
While many pine barrens have disappeared due to human development, fire exclusion, and land conversion to croplands and pine plantations, the Moquah Barrens in northwestern Wisconsin remain a prime example of a healthy, intact pine barren community. It is here where researchers and scientists have teamed up to study this often-overlooked ecosystem that exists within a mosaic of woodlands and forest. “We knew going in that in many places, these habitats had been lost, and fire is an essential restoration tool,” said Northern Research Station Research Ecologist, Brian Sturtevant. “What we don’t know is how intense and how frequent fires should be and when (what season) they should be implemented.”
“While we have the capacity to implement controlled burns across thousands of acres,” said Bushman, “we are unable to monitor and quantify the effects of controlled burning at the same scales. Partnering with research (NRS) expands our abilities to understand how different management prescriptions can result in different outcomes.”
By playing on the strengths of the many partners involved, researchers and land managers are working together to understand how controlled burning can ensure the persistence of Great Lakes pine barren ecosystems for future generations.