A Tale of Fires and Ghost Logs - Fieldwork in Yellowstone Pt. 3

Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt
— John Muir

Adventure Tuesday

That summer of Dreams

A lot of different things happened during the summer of 2017. I went to Montana and Yellowstone not only once, but twice. I got to go to Puerto Rico for fieldwork and spent almost two weeks in the rain forest. I went on a roadtrip with dad through Badlands National Park, Beartooth Highway and then eventually through Yellowstone. We got married, well technically we were already, outside Butte on a fiery afternoon. After that we went camping with friends before we headed back towards Wisconsin. Once there we packed for yet another wedding and headed out to a summer camp. But what do we really do when I say fieldwork? If you have been reading my blog since it started way back when, you know I used to roam around in the interior of Alaska, studying fires, stream water chemistry, climate change and the list goes on. W also studies fires and we have helped each other doing field work through the years. So 2017 I spent part of my vacation by flying to Jackson, Wyoming to spend a couple of weeks with W and his advisors field crew.

The Start of the Large Fire Era

1988 one of the largest forest fires raged through Yellowstone National Park, and many people probably wondered if anything would be left after that large fire. 35% of Yellowstone National Park burned that summer, and that fire marked the beginning of a new era, the large fire era in the west. One of the many questions that fire overall poses in the north west, not only in the Rocky Mountains and Yellowstone, but also in Alaska is: What will happen if and when fires become so frequent that there is not enough time for trees to regenerate. The normal fire return interval is every 100-300 years, and the area we worked at in 2017 was burned in the 1988 fire and then again in 2016.

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I have seen burned areas in Alaska before, but nothing quite like the the area I saw that summer. Everything was basically gone. Everything was black. Even though we still could see vegetation already growing in the black soil. We counted tree seedlings (Douglas fir and Lodge pole pine) , downed wood, logs and ghost logs. Ghost logs are basically a line in the ground that indicates that a log once laid there, but has completely been burned up. Those logs were most likely leftover from the 1988 fires.

The ghost logs can be seen as the light lines in the black soil above

The ghost logs can be seen as the light lines in the black soil above

Fires in the Rocky Mountains and Alaska are very different. The fires we see in Yellowstone are mostly crown fires, while the fires in Alaska are mostly surface fires. In Alaska the thick organic layer, which also serves as an insulator to permafrost, is a good indicator for how intense the fire has been. Often there is still a large portion of the organic layer left after a fire has gone through, and you will also see this patchiness of the thick moss on the ground. One thing the fires in Alaska and the Rockies have in common though is that when it burns it burns, and it can spread extremely fast if the conditions are perfect.

Smoke in the field and the after math of fires in Alaska:

The ground was completely bare when we arrived at the Maple Fire in Yellowstone National Park. The temperature was in the 90’s and the black soil didn’t make it cooler. We used measuring tape and compass directions to set up sampling plots. Large portions of this fieldwork was to count how many tree seedling we could see growing in the bare soil, and we did see quite a few. We also recorded signs of ghost logs, tree stumps and dead standing trees within all the plots. This work is sometimes hard on you, it’s hot, you’re on your knees and you are also high up in elevation. On top of that you have to hike, sometimes also carrying heavy equipment. You’ll get sunburned real easy and have to make sure you carry and drink enough water.

The Maple Fire in the Cougar Meadow:

Many tree species are evolutionary adapted to regenerate after fire, they produce cones that are serotinous, because the cones need heat to open up and release its seeds. But to regenerate the tree needs energy, and time to develop enough seeds, and on top of that they need to be lucky. Anyone who has planted a seed probably know that sometimes the seed germinate, and sometimes it doesn’t. This is the reason why this questions is so relevant, how successful are coniferous trees to regenerate throughout the Rockies and Alaska if the fire return interval gets shorter? The other problem is the local climate. Will it become drier or wetter, how warm will it get? These are factors that also play a role in the tree regeneration.

Springtime and the case of Phenological Mismatch

March 30th, 2019. Central Park

March 30th, 2019. Central Park

Signs of Spring

Budburst and Leafout

When I lived in Alaska the timing of spring was maybe more apparent compared to what it is here, in New York City. Fairbanks usually has a snow cover that lasts from October to April, sometimes even May. There are two main factors that drive the budburst and leafout in plants, temperature and light. In Fairbanks you get the right amount of light pretty early, so most of the time the plants are just waiting for the temperature to rise. Once the warmer weather comes along and the plants accumulate enough warmth you will see bud burst and leafout. Leafout is so apparent around Fairbanks that you can see a change in the color of the deciduous trees between morning and afternoon. You can leave town for a week during end of winter and come back to summer. I have posted the video below before, and it shows how fast spring comes and evolve in Fairbanks.

May 26th, 2013 Alaska:

April 26th, 2014 Alaska:

May 3rd, 2014. Alaska:

April 25th, 2015. Alaska:

2017 we went back to Alaska and skied in Denali on April 1st, it was an extraordinary warm spring there then, something that keeps repeating itself again, and again, and yet again.

April 1st, 2017. Alaska:

Currently Alaska is experienced the highest increase in temperature world wide, and it is projected to increase into the future as well. In a state where light usually is not a problem, a shift in temperature in the early spring can be devastating for certain species. Scientists often talk about the phenological mismatch. Phenological mismatch is about life cycles of certain species that generally overlap, all of a sudden don’t overlap any longer. What this mean is that certain species are dependent on other species, let it be insects that are crucial for certain bird species once they arrive or native bird species that depend on the insects for their hatchlings. Or insects that hatch on time to get their life-cycle timed with the flowering of plants. If one or the other is delayed or sped up, and synchrony is disrupted, it can be detrimental for certain species. We know that changes in the lower level of the ecosystem chain, can have huge effect on the upper level. Just last week Alaska broke the record of the earliest warmest day when it hit 70 degree F.

Flowering Magnolia in Madison 2018:

This past weekend we walked through Central Park and got a first look at spring here. The Magnolia is already blooming, in Madison that didn’t happen until mid-April and in Alaska snow is usually still on the ground right now as I mentioned earlier. But, then again, it’s all a matter or temperature once the sunlight is sufficient. This was also one of the first times I really felt like a New Yorker. The feeling that I am not just here for the weekend, the week, this month or the next 6 months. I never know how to identify myself after I move to a new city, especially now when I have been in the US for so long. If people ask me where I am from, should I say Madison, Fairbanks, New York or Stockholm. Who am I really, and why do we always identify ourselves with the origin of our lives? I guess in one sense we are all shaped by our origins, but at one point we will have lived longer somewhere else other than our birth place, and who are we then? There is a quote that I really like, from a Salomon running movie about Anna Frost, about home that really identifies how I feel about Home. I don’t know where the quote originated from, or if it’s a mix of several quotes put together.

Maybe your country is only a place you make up in your mind, something you dream about and think about. Maybe it’s not a place on the map at all, but just a story full of people you meet and places you visited. Maybe Home is just a collection of memories and our roots, based on nostalgia

Central Park March 30th, 2019:

What are the signs of spring where you are, and did spring come early?

A Deserted Island - Coney Island

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Coney Island

A Beach resort?

I’m quite surprised we never went to Coney Island and the area around there last summer, I guess you can’t do it all at once. The other week I got an opportunity to go out to Coney Island and to visit the New York Aquarium. Temperatures were around 45 or so, and windy, so not the perfect weather to cruise around by the ocean. But, I did. Nothing was open of course, well except the Aquarium. I’m still glad I went because I can imagine how crowded this place gets in the summertime, and now I had an opportunity to walk around almost alone. I walked along the boardwalk and then down to the beach. Everything was deserted of course, and it was biting cold when the wind picked up. I bet it would be hard to find an area to yourself out here on a Saturday in July. It took me more than one hour to get to Coney Island, so it is a bit of a trek from Manhattan. To get to Coney Island you can take the D, F, N and Q lines.

Boardwalk and boarded up restaurants

When I told some of my friends that I was going out to Coney Island they told me that I had to eat the sausage, apparently that is a thing out there. Nathans Famous hotdogs dates back to early 1900. Unfortunately as I mentioned earlier, everything was closed. I think we will make a trip out to Coney Island again, once the temperatures warm up a bit. The whole place all boarded up reminds me about Glitter Gulch outside Denali in Alaska, which probably is everything Coney Island is, except for the actual amusement park. If you exchange the popular hot dogs with salmon or clam chowder you might have been spot on. The bordwalk continues for maybe 2 miles or so, and there are restaurants and different amusement parks all along the beach. I never went farther than the Aquarium, but it seems like the boardwalk continues a bit farther away from there.

The Amusement Park

It looked kind of spooky in some sense, all of these rides all empty, but also very pretty and cool. I understand that there is more than one amusement park at Coney Island. Did you know that the amusement park dates pack to late 1800? Back then it consisted of Luna Park, Dreamland and Steeplechase Park. The theme park from back then only lasted til mid 1900 until it was all tore down and auctioned out. Even though the area once ceased to be an amusement park in the mid 1900’s, some of the current rides do date back to early 1900, like the Wonder Wheel, and Cyclone. The current amusement parks were built in late 1900’s.

Posted on March 25, 2019 and filed under Life in New York.