Saturday, April 23, 2011

4/23/11 Last Glimpse of Winter colors

Phellinus nigricans, a shelf or bracket fungi common in northern hardwood forests where it grows on downed beech, maple and oak logs.

A beech, Fagus grandifolia, that will soon sport bright green leaves the size of mouse's ears.

A pair of recently transplanted Vermonters who've moved to western Massachusetts to be closer to their grandchildren.They came by just as I was clearing out a large winter blow down that was lying across the trail and that had become a bit of a nuisance for trail running. They exclaimed how much they love the trail (the Notch Trail on Mt. Skinner). We don't usually go around saying "I love that particular trail, or that one", so it's nice to hear other people express appreciation for certain trails. I think trails have personalities just like people do and there are some, like the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail on the west side of Mt. Washington, that have genius. They're brilliant. Anyway, the three of us talked about trail upkeep in these days when states have no money for that sort of thing so that it might be left to volunteers, like myself, to help with upkeep, and they readily wanted to cast in their lot.

In these last glimpses of wintery landscapes I like these two because of the textures and colors but because you see so much in the winter, as I often say, when the foliage is not there and one thing that catches my eye is the large numbers of dead trees lying about on the ground, lots of them, and how rudimentary a form they are in the forest: meaning how essential they are.

Dead wood (windfalls, dead branches, etc) on the ground has long been referred to as Coarse Woody Debris or CWD and that catagory had specific rules in terms of dimensions of individual pieces of CWD. I think the minimum size was 3 inchs in diameter at the small tapered end and 6 feet long. For several years, since the increase in global climate change relative to carbon stores in the biosphere a great deal of research has been initiated to measure carbon contained in forest ecosystems. Over the past two decades a great deal has been learned about how trees store carbon (function as a carbon "sink") in the early succesional stages from seedling to mature tree, at "peak" growth, and then the "decline" stage when the tree dies and decays and emits carbon back into the soil and atmosphere.

We used to categorize carbon in forest systems using percentages. I think the value of 40 percent was the amount of carbon in forest soils and around 10 percent was in dead wood, or CWD. With more recent research these percentages may have been upgraded, but the main point is that these are gradual processes. Forest ecosystems, even small groves of trees, are relatively stable in terms of carbon storage and emissions. That can change as when the immense deforestation of Brazil occurred 20 years ago (and continues) and huge amounts of carbon were added to the atmosphere by the quick burning of the felled trees and brush, or in Hurricane Katrina in which more than 300 million trees died. Dead wood standing or on the ground does give off carbon gradually but that dead wood is also enormously beneficial to the forest itself. It slowly releases nutrients back into the soil, it provides habitats and/or protects habitats of myriad organisms, it provides food for other organisms in the form of insects, it retains moisture and sometimes pools moisture when on the ground. If you "google" Carbon content of forest ecosystems you'll find an array of articles recently published on the importance of this carbon cycles in forests and how they pertain to us as organisms.

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