When a forest fire decimated more than 3,000 acres of Rice University-owned timberland in 2011, biogeochemist Carrie Masiello saw a silver lining in the blackened trees.
Masiello is an expert on how carbon behaves in soil, and she noticed a vexing problem in both the scientific literature and findings from her lab: Charcoal is abundant in soil, particularly in fertile regions like Europe’s breadbasket and America’s Corn Belt, but while it’s clear that most soil charcoal came from wildfires, it wasn’t at all clear why it stayed there so long or how it got into the soil after a fire.
In a newly published study in the Journal of Geophysical Research, Masiello and colleagues, including current and former graduate students Lacey Pyle and Kate Magee, analyzed soil samples collected after the fire and found that charcoal behaved very differently from other forms of soil carbon as the land rebounded from the fire.
“We looked at all forms of carbon in the soil, both immediately after the fire and over a two-year period, and we found that it became more evenly distributed over time, which is a sign that the land was returning to its baseline state,” Masiello said. “Charcoal behaves exactly the opposite. It’s distribution became more patchy over time, and we think that’s because it’s buoyant and gets moved by water and concentrated in low places on the landscape.”
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Image via C. Masiello, Rice University