Fire effects on soil microbial communities
Boreal forest soils are among the richest stocks of terrestrial carbon (C) in the world, primarily as a result of their low temperatures and slow decomposition rates. The fate of these large C stocks in the face of climate change is an area of critical concern, particularly when considered in the context of predictions of increasing wildfire. Although soil microbes are the core drivers of the soil organic C cycle, the effects of wildfire on boreal soil microbial communities remain poorly characterized.
The 2014 fires in the Northwest Territories were exceptional: they were the largest recorded burn in a single fire season, with some fires burning unusually intensely, leaving essentially no living vegetation, and others resulting in “fire refugia” of unburned or only lightly burned areas. We are collaborating with researchers from the Canadian Forest Service and the University of Alberta, who, in addition to linking remote-sensing data to a comprehensive on-the-ground site characterization and measurements of burn severity, will also collect an unprecedented set of soil samples from these fires. Characterizing the microbiome of these soils will offer us a profound level of insight into the effects of fire on soil microbial communities, and leverage an extensive field campaign to bridge the scale from satellites to microbes.
Microbial ecology of microhabitats
Despite the billions of microbial cells found in a gram of soil, soil microbes are estimated to inhabit only 1% of total soil volume, and are unevenly distributed, forming colonies and biofilms. Thus, the biogeochemical processes driven by these microbes are often limited to relatively small volumes of soil, or “hotspots”. The different soil conditions that develop in each microhabitat support different microbial communities – e.g., rhizosphere vs. bulk soil; microaggregate interiors vs. whole aggregates; micropores vs. macropores; detritosphere (decomposing organic matter) vs. bulk soil. However, the genetic and ecological mechanisms driving these differences in microbial community composition across different microhabitats are not well understood, nor are their implications for soil microbial diversity and functioning. In addition, the prevalence of each microhabitat changes over time and under different soil management strategies, so the relative importance of these mechanisms would also be expected to change over time. Understanding how soil microhabitats structure soil microbial communities will allow us to better predict how changes to the environment will affect the soil microbial community and its biogeochemical functioning.