We are excited to welcome Matthew Brousil to the blog today. Matthew is a graduate student at California Polytechnic State University and to find out more about him, check out his bio at the end of the post.
When I meet someone new, they usually ask me what I do for a living and I tell them that I study redwood disturbance ecology. Their eyes will then open up wide and they will tell me either how they’ve always wanted to see the redwoods, or that when they did visit the redwoods, they couldn’t believe how huge they were. At this point I shift around uncomfortably and admit that while yes I do work in the redwoods, it isn’t in quite the same place as the massive old-growth stands of northern California that they might be imagining. Instead, I have been lucky in a different way. For the last two summers I have worked in the coastal redwood forests of Big Sur, California doing research for my master’s degree program. The redwoods are a bit smaller there, but the location is still incredible.
If the majority of graduate students in the natural sciences are anything like me, then the opportunity to do field or lab work with a unique species or in an interesting location was a big part of their decision to go to grad school. When I saw advertisements for a graduate research position studying the effects of fire disturbances on redwood forests, I jumped at the opportunity and put together my application pretty much overnight. Three years later, I spend most of my summer weekdays hiking from early morning until evening in the redwood forests of Big Sur to measure trees, collect soil samples, or take pictures of the redwood canopy to determine how much light reaches the forest floor where seedlings grow. Big Sur is a huge travel destination for tourists from around the world and my work lets me see many of the same trails and parks that tourists often visit, but in locations that are more ecologically sensitive and so not available for general public access.
One of the fantastic benefits of seeing Big Sur from *slightly* off the beaten path is that I have come to appreciate how dynamic and changing the forests and other ecosystems are along the coast. Having been a tourist in Big Sur myself, I know that the majestic redwood forests and picturesque scenery like McWay Falls inspire feelings of intense reverence and impermanence among such towering and grand sights. And so they should.
Spending time off-trail for a couple of years in Big Sur, however, I now appreciate how often things really do change in the redwood forest. As locals are familiar with (and as news reports have reminded the rest of us this year), fire in the Santa Lucia mountain range is a common occurrence. Some of the sites where I do my research have experienced multiple fires in the past 30 years and the fire history for the coast redwood range shows similar patterns over longer periods of time (Lorimer et al. 2009). Large redwood trees often survive fires because of their thick bark and elevated branches, but smaller individuals are killed by tall flames yet remain standing for years afterward. Two years after a fire noticeable changes abound: thousands of sprouts and seedlings litter the forest floor around damaged trees, charred deer skeletons remain, slopes and trails become unstable terrain, and even the soil in some parts of the forest is stained an orange-brown color as a result of the fire. In areas where multiple fires occurred recently, some less fire-adapted tree species might be less common and smaller understory plants are absent from the forest floor.
Since the Big Sur area has been fire-prone for thousands of years, the response to these fires is cyclical, reminding us that change is a very natural part of healthy ecosystems. Winter rains lead plants in Big Sur to put on growth that becomes fuel later in the year, and many shrubs in the area are fire adapted. In some areas, lush plant growth even covers up the visual reminders of fire within a year or so. However, an increase in fire frequency due to climate change is expected in redwood and other temperate forests in the future. The goal of my research is to describe what could happen to redwood forests when fires overlap more frequently in time and space.
Doing fieldwork is one of the biggest draws for graduate students in ecology, and the chance to see behind the scenes of the coastal redwood forests in Big Sur is an opportunity that few students in my position would pass up. These experiences allow researchers like me to observe our ecosystems of study and to collect important data with which to test hypotheses. However, I think students also gain a lot in seeing how ecosystems like the redwood forest change over the course of the time it takes to complete our degrees!
But one thing that hasn’t changed in two years’ time is the uplifting feeling of a warm breeze carrying the smells of redwood needles and blackberries through the forest as I hike. With that kind of inspiration you can do just about anything – even write your thesis.
Matthew Brousil is a graduate student at California Polytechnic State University where he is working on his MSc studying coast redwood responses to fire disturbance. His first trip out to the field was in Patagonian Chile as an undergraduate, which sparked his current interests in coast redwood forest ecology. You can follow his work on Twitter through @mrbrousil.