Concurrently with my research in land reclamation, we have been using a wet chemistry method to study the content and spatial variability of wildfire produced charcoal (or ‘biochar’) in forest ecosystems. The spatial variability of soil chemical processes as related to plant distribution is an important issue on the cutting edge of soil plant relationships. Disturbance on the landscape is a heterogeneous process resulting in a mosaic of ecosystems in various stages of recovery. Information on the spatial variability of charcoal and nutrient cycling, and how management effects that variability, will enable us to develop more accurate ecosystem models. Research into the spatial variability of ecosystem function is a terrific opportunity to continue collaborating with Dr. Eliot McIntire at Laval University and Dr. Robert Graham at UC-Riverside. We have identified some significant patterns with charcoal content in the soils of different California ecosystems and currently have one paper published.
We have also been examining the role of charcoal in humus formation by solid state nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy. I hypothesize that charcoal is facilitating the accretion of soluble organic compounds into stable soil organic matter. This work is of great ecological importance as there is only a limited understanding of the role of charcoal in ecosystem processes. It is also important because charcoal represents a significant fraction of long-term C storage in many ecosystems and may play a role in mitigating global climate change. Future work with charcoal and humus formation will be a great opportunity to continue collaborating with Dr. Roderick Wasylishen, an NMR specialist in chemistry department at the UofA, with whom I have one paper in preparation.
Having published evidence that charcoal stimulates nitrification, I’ve been attempting to indentify if this process is characteristic of pyrogenic ecosystems as well as the specific mechanisms at work. I have been collaborating with Dr. David Paré of the Canadian Forest Service and Dr. Alison Munson of Laval University to address these issues and we currently have an NSERC Strategic for that purpose. Graduate student projects are currently examining how fire intensity and plant type affect charcoal quality, quantity, and nutrient cycles in the forest soils of Quebec. The real strength of this project lies in the fact that we will attempt to model post-fire forest soil C dynamics and justify these with plot data. This work is in collaboration with Dr. Steve Cummings, located at Laval as well. I would also like to initiate several new projects examining how charcoal or other black carbon products might be used to improve nutrient availability and C storage in reclaimed or managed soils.