Fire in the Swamp

Lake Drummond, at the center of the Great Dismal Swamp in southeastern Virginia. Photo by Jessie Griffen

Lake Drummond, at the center of the Great Dismal Swamp in southeastern Virginia. All photos by Jessie Griffen.

Tannins color the swamp water a rich, dark brown.

Tannins color the swamp water a rich, dark brown.

Coffee-colored water peels away from our boat, sending ripples across the glass surface of Lake Drummond. The ancient cypress trees begin to dance as our wake bends their reflections. We’re crossing this hidden, undeveloped lake at the center of a once-vast wetland stretching from southern Virginia across a million acres into North Carolina. Now the Great Dismal Swamp is reduced to (a still impressive) 110,000 acres, hemmed in by development. We have this otherworldly, placid coffee lake all to ourselves on an unseasonably warm December day.

 

As we approach the other side of the lake, the shoreline landscape changes abruptly from dense swamp to a vast swath of burnt toothpicks. In the past ten years, two massive wildfires have swept through the Great Dismal Swamp. The most recent fire in 2011, Lateral West, consumed 6,500 acres and burned for 111 days, despite 12.5 million dollars expended in suppression efforts1. Not even the torrential rains of Hurricane Irene could squelch the fire.

Yet the swamp is inundated for half the year. Its organic soil, peat, is 85-95% water in its natural saturated state, and well known for its ability to retain moisture. How can a peatland burn?

Fire, it turns out, has been a natural process in the Great Dismal Swamp for hundreds, maybe even thousands, of years. Peat, composed mostly of decaying plants, contains a lot of carbon—read: fuel for fire—compared to other soils. It’s so rich in carbon that high moisture content does not necessarily prevent combustion. Dry it out, and the whole swamp basically becomes a tinderbox. The water table in the Great Dismal Swamp fluctuates seasonally, normally falling below the soil from July through November. Lightning can ignite surface fires that smolder for months in the soil. Many of the plant assemblages in the Great Dismal Swamp actually depend on fires to persist. Lake Drummond likely formed from a massive peat fire1. But that’s not the whole story…

The shoreline of Lake Drummond changes abruptly to reveal a vast burn scar, a remnant of two large wildlifes that have seared the swamp in the past ten years.

The shoreline of Lake Drummond changes abruptly to reveal a vast burn scar, a remnant of two large wildfires that have seared the swamp in the past ten years.

In May 1763, George Washington visited the Great Dismal Swamp for the first time and saw opportunity where its first colonial discoverer, William Byrd, famously saw a “horrible desert…toward the center of it no beast or bird approaches, nor so much as an insect or reptile exists.” Washington invested in the swamp and began a long history of ditching and draining it for agriculture and logging.

Today, 158 miles of logging roads and ditches traverse the swamp, severely altering its natural hydrologic cycle. Parts of the refuge that were once seasonally saturated have been drained, and when peat is left dry for too long, it transforms to a granular, oxidized state that will not re-saturate, even under flooded conditions. Centuries of logging have left a legacy of fuel for fire in the form of slash. Add hotter, drier weather patterns to the mix, a few strikes of lightning, and the resulting blaze will be visible from space.

As climate patterns increasingly shift, what role will peatlands play in the global carbon cycle? In many peatlands, inundation slows the rate of decomposition, and carbon-rich organic soils slowly build up. The organic soils in the Great Dismal Swamp, for example, are over 51 inches deep in places. Many scientists view peatlands as an important carbon sink because they store carbon below ground for long periods of time. When peatlands burn, they release the stored soil carbon into the atmosphere as greenhouse gases, and peat fires often smolder for months, reaching deep into the thick peat—the Great Dismal Swamp lost over a 39 inches of organic soil in some areas in the 2011 fire2.

Peat fires are different from forest fires as we’re used to thinking about them. They are exceedingly difficult to extinguish, and the carbon emitted by burning soil can dwarf emissions from aboveground forest. The impact can be massive—Lateral West emitted much higher amounts of carbon per unit area compared to five other fires that burned mostly aboveground plants and trees2. In 1997, massive peat fires in Indonesia released an equivalent amount of carbon to 13-40% of the average annual global carbon emissions from fossil fuels3. And most of that carbon came from the soil.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in partnership with The Nature Conservancy, has been working for years to restore the hydrology of the Great Dismal Swamp, and balance the benefits and risks of wildfire—an already complex task that is likely to be exacerbated by climate change. Who knew that draining a swamp could have such dismal consequences?

A final view of the Great Dismal Swamp.

A final view of the Great Dismal Swamp.

References:

  1. Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge and Nansemond National Wildlife Refuge Final Comprehensive Conservation Plan. (2006).
  2. Reddy, A. D. et al. Quantifying soil carbon loss and uncertainty from a peatland wildfire using multi-temporal LiDAR. Remote Sens. Environ. 170, 306–316 (2015).
  3. Page, S. E. et al. The amount of carbon released from peat and forest fires in Indonesia during 1997. Nature 420, 61–66 (2002).

Additional information gathered from The Nature Conservancy, the Washington Post report on Lateral West, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Jessie Griffen is a second year graduate student in the Ecological Planning Program. She is grateful to Dr. William Old and Levi Old for an amazing voyage into the Great Dismal Swamp.

Field Notes 2015: Human Nature and The End of Nature

Screen Shot 2015-09-07 at 2.31.05 PMNature is in peril. Biodiversity is plummeting. Species are going extinct 100 to 1000 times faster than normal. How many times have you read an introduction beginning that way? It’s depressing because it’s true. The ensuing article or book usually offers plenty of advice on what actions we must take to stem the tide of extinction and climate change and how to convince the uninformed public to care about it. But what about us — conservationists who already care about the deterioration of the natural world as we know it and who struggle with it emotionally? How can we find solace?

The current issue of Field Notes, the annual publication of UVM’s Field Naturalist and Ecological Planning programs, reflects on how we can continue to delight in nature even as we stare these sobering environmental issues in the face.

Read or download the issue »

Beyond the Jeep Road Sits Coyote — Wilderness in 2015

Southwestern desert

Southwestern desert

By Levi Old

On the first day of a 90-day expedition, our team made camp at the end of a jeep road. The afternoon sun, low in the sky, blanketed the desert’s red and orange rocks. Daylight quickly shifted into dusk. The rocks faded into shapes, and dropped shadows on slick rock in the crescent moonlight. The wind-worn surfaces that stood so vibrant in daytime were gone.

After dinner and a meeting about the next day’s plan, we embraced the opportunity to sleep out in the open. I found a flat boulder, climbed into my sleeping bag, and looked up at the night sky. The 10 students wandered around searching for sleeping spots, chatting with nervous anticipation and preparing their new equipment for a night’s rest.

“I bet this never gets old,” said Ben, 20, from Wyoming.

“Seriously,” agreed Lily from New York, “I’ve never seen stars like this before.”

I peeked over the lip of my sleeping bag and noticed the students gazing at the night sky.

The two college students traveled far from their comfortable existences to attend a three-month wilderness leadership course in the heart of the southwestern desert. Along with my colleague, I was their instructor. Around us, there was a more distinguished instructor— wilderness. Continue reading

It’s Getting Hot in Here

By Maddy Morgan

Most of us have probably seen the headlines: “2014 on Track to be Hottest Year on Record,” or “Climate deniers lost for words: 2014 set for hottest year on record.” Yikes! Is it true? If so, what does this mean for us?

The story behind the headlines is based partially on information on the month of August. NASA and NOAA have both confirmed data showing that this August was the warmest August on record. Although New England’s August was relatively mild, temperatures in Central Europe, northern Africa, parts of South America, and western North America exceeded the norm. Ocean temperatures were also warmer than usual.

All this added up to a record-setting August. One month may be no big deal, until you consider that this makes August the 354th consecutive month that is above the 20th century average. And the top 10 hottest complete years on record are 1998, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010, and 2013. I’m beginning to see a trend.


If, like me, you hate hot weather and despair at the thought of these rising temperatures, take heart in the map above, which shows most of the United States falling below 20th century averages. If we get too hot we can always relocate to the midwest.

Freshwater Sharks

Snorkeling in frigid waters for a species at-risk

By Levi Old                                                               

Salvelinus confluentusOn a dead-still summer night, I army-crawl upstream.

“We have a large adult!” says Jen.

I rise to one knee and pull the fogged snorkel mask off my head. “A big one?” I mumble in a haze.

“Yeah, really big. Much larger than I’ve ever seen this far up the creek,” she replies, pointing to where it kicked its caudal fin gently against the downstream flow. “It’s right there beside you.”

I cinch the mask on my face, place the snorkel in my mouth, and dunk back into the frigid water:

Twenty-six inches of wildness.

Jen pops her head out of the water and says, “Isn’t that just a beautiful creature?”

She snorkels one side of the creek and I snorkel the other. An assistant in waders walks the creek, tallies our fish sightings and makes sure we do not go hypothermic. Continue reading

A Few Good Reads: Early Winter Edition

by Liz Brownlee

The Solstice cometh, and visions of vacation days dance in our heads.  Field Naturalists are always ready for an adventure in the snow, but we also love a thick quilt, a fire, and a book.  Here are a few of our winter-time favorites:

“The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering Our Place in Nature” by David Suzuki

Power, passion, and concrete examples of how humans can live more responsibly in the world.

“People of the Deer” by Farley Mowat

Hear the tale of the Ihalmiut people of northern Canada: how they lived in the far north, how their story intertwined with caribou migrations, how an imposing culture wrote death into the final chapter of their story.

“The Moon is Always Female” Poems by Marge Percy 

Poems of all shapes and sizes, including an entire section focused on our friend the moon.

“Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival” by Bernd Heinrich

This book tops many of our reading lists for this December (full disclosure: it’s partially because we’re headed on a Winter Ecology course with Bernd in January!)  A must read for understanding our wintry friends.

“Woodsong” by Gary Paulsen

High adventure meets real life, all in the winter world.  It’s technically “young adult literature” but that hasn’t stopped us.

“Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert” by Terry Tempest Williams

Just in case you prefer warmer climes, listen to the real life stories of the desert west.  TTW takes you from wonder to land use policy and everywhere in between.

Subtle Wonders of the High Sierra

by Cathy Bell

After a night spent deeply burrowed into the warmth of my down sleeping bag, I wake to discover that my tent has abruptly transformed itself from a cozy refuge to a swelteringly confined space.  The sun has only just cleared the ridgeline of Cirque Peak, but its rays are strong here at 11,000 feet above sea level, and my little tent heats up like a greenhouse.

Changing from long underwear to field clothes, I clamber out of my tent to find a heavy frost riming the sedges along Siberian Pass Creek.  It is the morning of July 20th.  I don’t have a thermometer, but last night didn’t feel too cold.  I’d guess that the overnight low was in the high 20s.  I stretch and take my time over breakfast, giving the sun a little more time to warm the high country before I set out for my day’s fieldwork.

foxtail forest and Siberian Outpost, Sequoia National Park

Looking over Siberian Outpost.

I’ve set up camp at the edge of a foxtail forest, where widely-spaced pines yield to the treeless gravel flats of the fetchingly-named Siberian Outpost.  Around me, steep talus slopes rear skyward, hinting at the expansive alpine plateaus above.  I am spending my summer in the wilderness of Sequoia National Park, just ten miles south-southwest of Mt. Whitney in the southern Sierra Nevada.  At 14,494 feet, Whitney is the highest peak in the lower 48, but—though it soars a gasping 3,000 feet above treeline—the famed summit is just one of a dozen exceeding 14,000 feet in this region.  Spectacular alpine country abounds: I’ve heard that the Sierra Nevada feature more acres above treeline than any other mountain range in the conterminous 48 states.

The rocky, seemingly-barren high reaches are the reason that I find myself here, in some of the wildest country remaining in the United States.  Though the Sierra peaks seem lifeless from a distance, a closer look reveals a surprising diversity of hardy alpine plants growing amongst the boulders.  I love this hidden world.

tiny Ivesia grows in a rock crevice

Tiny Ivesia grows in a rock crevice.

At the same time, I fear what the future holds.  Research suggests that alpine vegetation is especially at risk from the rapid shifts in temperature and precipitation caused by anthropogenic climate change.  Unfortunately, there are big gaps in our understanding of how high-elevation vegetation will respond to a changing climate.  In fact, since alpine areas are such hard places to access, we don’t even know if their plant communities have already started showing the effects of a warming world.

To try to fill in some of those holes, my master’s project work involves searching for vegetation survey plots that were established some twenty-five years ago.  When I can find the plots, I re-survey them in an effort to compare the plant populations we see today to the ones that were documented in the 1980s, hoping to determine if alpine species are already showing a response to climate change.  So far, the project is going far better than I had dared to hope; I have found every single plot I’ve sought.  Today, I’m going after Plot 403.  I tried to visit it ten days ago, on July 10th, but it was still buried beneath two feet of snow.  I’m hoping I have better luck today.

Shouldering my frame pack with its twenty pounds of field gear, I hike upvalley for half an hour, then scramble up a bouldered slope to the top of a ridge.  As I walk, the rhythm of my footsteps and breath ease me into an almost meditative state.  I take in the dramatic views and reflect on how the wilderness of Sequoia National Park is beautiful but vulnerable.  Though we think of national parks as pristine, even our most highly-protected places are not insulated from human impacts.  The beautiful and diverse plant populations of the High Sierra could be pushed out by changing conditions or the arrival of other plant species, irrevocably altering the character of this unique and inspiring wilderness.  In order to preserve and protect this place for future generations to enjoy, we first have to determine if and how it is changing—and that is what my project is all about.

The ridge brings me west onto the rocky fellfields of the Boreal Plateau, where I start looking for the steel stake that marks the center of Plot 403.  An expansive snowfield still clings to the slope to my right, but it lies east of where the plot should be, and I think I’ll be able to find the plot marker.  I methodically work back and forth, trying to line up the mountains in the distance with rocks on the ground until they match the relocation photo on the clipboard I clutch in my left hand.

dead alpine plant with massive taproot

In life, this plant grew only about an inch above the surface of the ground, but its massive taproot kept it anchored among the rocks.

A brown tangle on the ground catches my eye.  Distracted for a moment from my search, I stop and kneel to peer at the crushed and matted-down plants that the rapidly receding snow has revealed.  Though seemingly dead, most will soon pull energy from their deep taproots and green up, life reasserting itself after the long winter.

Long winters define this world above treeline.   A plant trying to survive here must contend with a growing season of only about two months, howling winds, and an environment that—despite abundant snowfall—is startlingly short on liquid water during the summer, when growing plants require it.  It’s a tough place to make a living, but the alpine plants of the Sierra Nevada are well-adapted to their environment.  They have weathered gradual shifts in climate for a long time.  They are survivors, I know.  I just hope they are able to cope with the climate curveball we have thrown them.

Straightening up, I resume my search for Plot 403, and in just a few minutes I glimpse a flash of reflected sunlight off the center stake.  I take off my pack and get to work.

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