Cross-college collaboration leads to watershed pyrogenic carbon research breakthroughs

A group of researchers from five departments within four colleges at Colorado State University, as well as one federal agency has determined how carbon produced by fire moves through the environment by water erosion. This carbon, also known as pyrogenic carbon, or PyC, is especially mobile  due to its light weight , but is also very hard to degrade and can persist in the environment for centuries to millennia. Because of its high mobility, PyC produced by fires can often be found far from the place where fire took place.

Addressing a multitude of environmental aspects

The study addressed a multitude of aspects of the environment and scientists from across campus – soil biogeochemists, hydrologists, geo-morphologists, chemists, and ecologists – came together to develop what is truly a transdisciplinary report.

“We had to learn to speak each other’s languages,” said Francesca Cotrufo, lead author of the study, professor in CSU’s Department of Soil and Crop Sciences and a senior scientist in CSU’s Natural Resources Ecology Laboratory. “CSU has invested in these kinds of projects in a deliberate way by supporting cross-disciplinary research, and it was up to us to bring together a group of scientists who were not only outstanding researchers, but who also had the ability to collaborate and compromise to produce such important work.”

How pyrogenic carbon is transported

With forest fires increasing in size and intensity across Colorado and throughout the country, there has been increasing interest in where pyrogenic carbon deposits are found. As the environmental impacts of these fires are found in areas further away from the actual fires, scientists have been trying to understand how pyrogenic carbon is transported and ultimately buried for generations or even millennia.

Cotrufo and her colleagues hope to continue this work, which was funded by the NSF, by adding more frequent and diffuse samples of soil carbon in affected areas. “Studies like this one, as well as the work we have planned for the future, would not be possible without bringing together this kind of collaborative team,” said Cotrufo. “That these interdisciplinary projects are supported by the university and our departments, is especially encouraging.”

Transdisciplinary group

This transdisciplinary group, coordinated by Ed Hall, assistant professor in the CSU’s Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability, received funding from the Colorado Water Center housed within CSU’s Office of Engagement. The Colorado State University Water Center works to support the research, teaching and engagement activities of CSU water faculty, staff and students. As part of the effort, Nicole Kaplan from the Agricultural Research Service of the USDA, produced a data product that can be accessed at the following website.

In addition to Cotrufo, other authors on the study included: Claudia M. Boot, Stephanie Kampf, Peter A. Nelson, Daniel J. Brogan, Tim Covino, Michelle L. Haddix, Lee H. MacDonald, Sara Rathburn, Sandra Ryan-Burkett, Sarah Schmeer, and Ed Hall. Boot, Kampf, Covino, Haddix, MacDonald, Schmeer and Hall are also affiliated with the Natural Resources Ecology Lab. Boot is a researcher in in the Central Instrumental Facility in CSU’s Department of Chemistry. Kampf, Covino, Haddix, MacDonald, Schmeer and Hall are researchers in CSU’s Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability. Nelson and Brogan are researchers in CSU’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Rathburn is a researcher in CSU’s Department of Geosciences, and Ryan-Burkett is a scientist at the U.S. Forest Service.

The study

“Redistribution of pyrogenic carbon from hillslopes to stream corridors following a large montane wildfire” can be found in Global Biogeochemical Cycles here.