Disturbance ecologists are drawn to the devastated, the disastrous and the demolished. The trajectory of a hurricane or the burn patterns of a wildfire become a pathway for scientific discovery, and human interactions only accelerate that course.
Mali Hubert, a doctoral student in the UT Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, is a disturbance ecologist who is examining the effects of the 2016 wildfires on the Great Smoky Mountain National Park plant species.
Hubert is interested in, “what happens specifically to plant communities when humans mess stuff up,” including fire, pollution and climate change.
The GSMNP is renowned among ecologist for its massive biodiversity. Because the 2016 wildfires decimated 14,000 acres of the Park, ecologist are now examining the effects of the large scale disturbance.
“I don’t want to say I came here to work on the fires, but I did come here to work on something related to disturbance,” Hubert said.
Hubert had an interest in disturbance before coming to the University of Tennessee two years ago, having completed internships in Pennsylvania looking at invasive species.
Now, she examines the species richness and abundance in areas of the GSMNP that have been exposed to a range of fire conditions, from high to low burn.
Understory plants–what grows below the tree line– are one of the first levels of plant regrowth and rehabilitation after a fire, making them the perfect recovery test subjects.
Theory suggest that when a major disturbance like a large wildfire occurs, previously occupied space opens up for any species to occupy, and the resilience of invasive species makes them prime candidates. Hubert aims to determine whether or not a small number of species completely take over the fire-exposed areas of the Park.
The National Park Service lists common invasive plants of the GSMNP as kudzu, Japanese grass, privet and garlic mustard, to name a few.
“Luckily, so far, we haven’t seen this pattern of invasives,” Hubert said. “But the high burn would be the most susceptible.”
Hubert’s goal is to inform a future plan of action when wildfires occur in GSMNP.
Because of the proximity the GSMNP to the city of Gatlinburg, for decades fires have been extinguished to ensure the safety of the city.
“Historically, fires have been suppressed in the Park. We know from history that this is an issue. It’s a bad idea.”
Prescribed, small area burns of understory vegetation are a temporary solution. This method of controlled burning clears out “fire fuel,” grasses and weedy plants that fuel high intensity fires.
“Even though historically fires haven’t occurred regularly, in the near future we will face the effects of climate change: drought conditions, high temperatures, low percipiation. This is setting up the stage for more wildfires to occur, unfortunately,” she said.
By analyzing the plant recovery from 2016, a pattern can be outlined for future management of the Park.