Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Cremation is a major source of black carbon

Original Press Release.  News article.  Burning is central to human life, and many human after-lifes.  Unfortunately, smoldering fires release soot and toxic compounds which degrade air quality, accelerate snow melt, and warm the climate.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Four of my Favorite Characteristic New Mexico Shrubs

Chilopsis linearis, Desert Willow.  In landscaping, this large-flowered shrub will flower for almost half the year.  It is a dependable riparian tree that can survive in washes that are too hot and dry for cottonwood.

Forestiera pubescens.  New Mexico Privet.  Native shrub in the Olive family can form thickets at the base of canyon walls and along upper benches above rivers.  Birds prize the berries almost as much as the non-native Russian Olive.

Lycium pallidum.  Pale Wolfberry.  Lyciums are widespread in the Southwestern deserts, and Lycium pallidum is the most widespread.  Goji berries are Lycium barbarum (nonnative), and Lycium pallidum has been cultivated for its fruit for 1,000s of years.  The trumpet-shaped flowers attract Sphyngid Hawkmoths and Hummingbirds.  

Robinia neomexicana.  New Mexico Robinia, Fabaceae.  Despite its rapacious thorns, this plant made my list for its tenacity and abundance across a range of habitats.  From riparian area in the South to Ponderosa hillsides in the North, Robinia provides abundant pink blossoms and herbaceous cover. 

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

What does a natural forest fire look like in the Southwest?

What is "natural"?  Ecologists use the range of natural variability to define proper functioning condition (PFC) or minimally disturbed condition (MDC), etc (in the jargon of ecologists -- basically, what was it like before we mucked it up?)  The question is surprisingly hard to answer.

Tom Swetnam has been quoted drawing a distinction between burn severity (high-intensity burns are natural) and extent (but high-severity burns across large landscapes are not natural).  These statements are part of an ongoing debate that, like many debates in ecology, may be dependent on local factors.  

In Arizona, Dr. Wally Covington became famous for championing open park-like Ponderosa forests.  Indeed, many landscapes are dominated by frequent low-intensity grass fires that clear out underbrush and young trees.  But at longer time scales it seems equally clear that these same forests can catastrophically burn.  This has been pointed out by Dr. Baker's work in Arizona, and by Dr. Grant Meyer in Sacramento Mountains of New Mexico.  More evidence is not hard to find.  For example, a study of the geomorphology of the Rio Cebolla river in the Jemez Mountains noted extensive sediments with large burned logs indicative of high severity fire in what must have been extensive headwater areas. 

Dendrochronologists  often focus on the last 1,000 years, whereas geomorphologists have a much larger picture, often spanning not just this interglacial, but also the last several ice ages.  (CF Great Basin Riparian Ecosystems by Miller and Chambers et al)

Fires are transformative, but both more and less impactful than commonly thought.  They accelerate and are accelerated by climate change.  Most large fires are not as bad as news reports indicate -- they are bananzas for wildlife and fire-dependent trees and shrubs like aspen and oak.

Most "megafires" aren't really managed with a full suppression strategy, but a containment strategy -- still not 'let-burn' but pretty close.  Unfortunately, suppression and containment efforts can be as damaging as fire.  

Whether or not fires are natural, the inevitable question is raised as to whether humans can restore the environment better or faster than natural succession would?  This is a loaded question, because of the salvage logging controversy.  One logger expressed confusion about why thinning before a fire is justified, but salvage logging after isn't.  But either may be ineffective in preventing the next conflagration.  If ERC is high enough and there is enough ventilation, anything will burn, even the Olympic Peninsula rainforest! (Cf Dr. Gavin's ESA talk)