Indiana State University Newsroom



Tree ring research to show fire history at former military base

September 24, 2009

As rain poured down, Jim Speer revved a chainsaw then wood chips began to fly. With a pop and a groan, the dirt pack around a beech tree's roots fell back to the earth where it stood for decades before Hurricane Ike wrestled it from the ground.

Speer, an Indiana State University associate professor of geography and geology, and his students plan to read the beech's history in its rings.

"These dark rings show fire," he said, lifting a sample cut from the trunk to show students.

That fire damage is why Speer and 11 students spent a sunny Saturday and a rainy Sunday (Sept. 19-20) hiking through knee-high ferns and thorny vines in Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge near Madison, looking for trees felled by the high winds of Hurricane Ike. Once they found trees with past fire damage they cut samples for further research in the lab.

"It's a great experience," said Travis Dillon, a senior geology and theater major from Pimento. "You get the full spectrum of starting something, seeing it done, how it's done, you make mistakes, you learn from them and you come out on the other side with that experience."

Speer and his students from the geology 465/565 "Fundamentals of Tree-Ring Research" class are researching the site for its fire history at the request of the 50,000-acre refuge. The refuge, which has an active prescribed fire policy to manage the area for wildlife, wants to know when the area burned naturally to know when controlled burns should be set.

"They want to know the natural fire history, understand the different seasons of burn, and how frequently it's burned in the area," Speer said. "We can document that for them."

The beech tree, which Speer estimated to be about 140 years old, can share the story of the area through its rings. Yet, the research also creates a new body of work for scientists.

"Most fire history has been done in pine trees in the western United States," Speer said. "There've been a few fire histories in oak trees in the eastern United States but nobody really works with the whole mix of Eastern deciduous forest tree species and that's what we're doing here."

On that rainy Sunday, Speer and students took samples from beech, tulip poplar, sassafras and red maples.

"This is just another tool we can use as a geologist to go through and reconstruct an environment," said Alex Steiner, a sophomore geology major from Terre Haute, about his experience.

They reconstruct each tree's history by sanding down a cross section to easily see the rings, dating the tree and observing the scarring recorded within its history.

As students worked to get a contrary chainsaw to start, Steiner suddenly pointed to the ground. Within feet of the tree lay the reason the students, and any visitors, to Big Oaks must watch a safety video - unexploded ordnance.

"That's the first time we found some here today," Steiner said.

"It is an unusual sampling circumstance where you have unexploded ordnance pretty much scattered all over the ground," Speer acknowledged.

Big Oaks, the former home of the Jefferson Proving Grounds, is littered with exploded and unexploded ordnance as well as depleted uranium.

"We see some shrapnel, some pieces, but we also see some full bombs out here," Speer said. "They do a lot of prescribed fire out here; they burn these sites and with that it's fairly safe. They burn over this many times and those munitions have not gone off. They're probably complete duds, but we stay away from them for safety purposes."

On such research trips, Speer said students learn to deal with real-life situations.

"If they're doing environmental science in the future - many of these students are geology students - a lot of their work is in the field," he said. "They'll be out in rainy conditions, working in an environment like this and they're getting specific experience with that."

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Contact: Jim Speer, associate professor of geography and geology, 812 237-3011, jspeer3@isugw.indstate.edu

Writer: Jennifer Sicking, assistant director of media relations, at 812-237-7972 or jennifer.sicking@indstate.edu

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/photos/657639224_Xfw9t-L.jpg

Cutline: Jim Speer, associate professor of geography and geology, steps back as the tip-up mound from the beech tree being uprooted falls back to the ground. ISU Photo/Tony Campbell

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/photos/657650215_zYrJB-L.jpg

Cutline: Jim Speer, associate professor of geography and geology, and Robin Van De Veer, a geology graduate student from Vasser, Mich., find signs of fire in the beech's history, which is recorded in the rings. ISU Photo/Tony Campbell

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/photos/657685440_t3Hig-L.jpg

Cutline: Jena Martin, a junior geology major from Terre Haute, Alex Steiner, a sophomore geology major from Terre Haute, Dave Bohnert, a geology graduate student from Jasper, and Joey Pettit, a biology graduate student from Lakewood, Colo., look at fire marks on a tree sample. ISU Photo/Tony Campbell

Story Highlights

Jim Speer and 11 students spent a sunny Saturday and a rainy Sunday (Sept. 19-20) hiking through knee-high ferns and thorny vines in Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge near Madison, looking for trees felled by the high winds of Hurricane Ike. Once they found trees with past fire damage they cut samples for further research in the lab.

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