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Life After Wildfire: Studying How Plants Bounce Back

After a fire at a California state park, volunteers used satellite imagery to study the recovery

Henry Coe Park in Santa Clara County is big: 87,000 acres of former ranch land, dotted with oak trees, meadows that burst with wildflowers each spring, and vast stretches of chaparral. Given that Coe is nestled near Silicon Valley, it makes sense that the retirees who volunteer here bring a certain technical bent to their appreciation of the place.

Case in point: the Lick Fire of September 2007 (Craig Miller reported on it for The California Report). Named the Lick Fire after it was first spotted from the nearby Lick Observatory, the wildfire burned 47,760 acres in the Mt. Hamilton Range by the time it was contained, eight days later.

Since then, citizen scientists who volunteer for the park have been paying close attention to see how the burned land bounces back. In particular: Bob Patrie, a former project manager in Silicon Valley, and Winslow Briggs, Director Emeritus at Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Department of Plant Biology. Together, they’ve pored over satellite imagery to document the impact of the fire on various plant communities in Coe Park.

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Scientists Look for Climate Trends in High Places

Molly Samuel

Scientists gather on Freel Peak to take a census of the plants on the summit.

Mountaintops can be good places to study the effects of climate change because there aren’t any things like factories or highways or garden weeds up there. In that way, they’re more like laboratories.

So, even though it involved a tough hike, about a dozen scientists gathered at the top of Freel Peak near South Lake Tahoe earlier this summer to count every single plant at the summit. It was for GLORIA, short for Global Observation Research Initiative in Alpine Environments, a project that sends botanists and plant ecologists to the world’s highest mountains to document the tiny, colorful plants that live on them.

GLORIA surveys are repeated every five years, and this was the second survey on Freel Peak. By tracking the changes here, scientists can gain a better understanding of how alpine regions differ in their responses to climate change, and what the future may hold for lower elevations.

“Because of the nature of the alpine habitat, it is more sensitive to environmental changes,” explained GLORIA coordinator Colin Maher. “It’s kind of a beacon. It’s like a warning sign. We might not know for 20 years what’s happening, but it’s a place where change is more likely to happen and we can detect it.” Continue reading

The Next Frontier: Artificial Photosynthesis

The ultimate model for clean fuels? (Photo: KQED QUEST)

Amidst all the fretting over the development of solar and wind technology, it hasn’t been lost on some scientists that there are organisms on the planet that have already cracked the renewable energy code: plants.

Photosynthesis is a highly efficient way of converting sunlight to fuel. So why not try to copy them?

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