LAKE SUPERIOR STATE UNIVERSITY
SAULT STE. MARIE, MI. - A Lake Superior State University conservation biology student is measuring a forest's recovering biodiversity from a devastating wildfire, one cubic foot at a time.
Harry Dittrich of Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., is using a novel "biocube" approach he learned personally from National Geographic photographer David Liittschwager last spring.
"Biologists have traditionally used a one-square-meter 'quadrat' approach, where everything gets sifted, counted, and recorded," says Dittrich. "The biocube approach is all that but more. It is three-dimensional, above ground, and, with time-lapse photography, captures activity that would normally be interrupted during digging and collecting."
The technique uses a digital camera to monitor everything that flies, creeps, crawls, or blows through a one-cubic-foot frame for hours at a time.
Dittrich first became aware of biocubes after reading a National Geographic article based upon Liittschwager's 2012 book, A World in One Cubic Foot.
In it, Liittschwager takes a bright green metal cube - measuring precisely one cubic foot - and sets it in various ecosystems around the world, from Costa Rica to Central Park.
Working with scientists, he measures what moves through that small space in a period of twenty-four hours.
He then photographs the cube’s setting and the plant, animal, and insect life inside it - anything visible to the naked eye.
Dittrich was intrigued with the idea for a senior research project and e-mailed Liittschwager with a couple of questions.
To his pleasant surprise, Liittschwager wrote back with an invitation to join him in April for two weeks using the technique out in California.
LSSU helped make the trip happen with a last minute grant.
"The experience was everything I hoped for," says Dittrich. "I was especially excited by how biocubes could be used for public outreach. The Smithsonian Institution, which co-sponsored my California workshop with National Geographic, wants to introduce biocubes into school science instruction."
Dittrich channeled this inspiration into a summer job with the U.S. Forest Service at Point Iroquois Lighthouse on Lake Superior.
Visitors learned about wooded, beach, and grassland habitats within the defined volume of five distinct biocubes Dittrich set up around the lighthouse grounds.
The self-guided eco-tour he produced touched upon how humans have used the area's resources for thousands of years.
But it was Dittrich's biodiversity survey - a senior research thesis project required for graduation - that promised to tap the biocube's full potential.
He settled on an area just west of Lake Superior's Whitefish Bay, made famous by Gordon Lightfoot's ballad of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald. The Duck Lake fire started with a lightning strike on May 21, 2012.
The driest spring in 27 years set the stage for a conflagration that, when it was finally contained on June 15, consumed 21,000-plus acres of new and old-growth forest, more than a hundred homes and businesses, and a popular lodge near the mouth of Hemmingway's Two-Hearted river.
Dittrich was curious about how the fire affected the region's biodiversity.
How did scorched areas compare with relatively untouched tracts?
Plus, the biocube approach had mainly been used in relatively rich "hyperactive" ecosystems such as ocean tidal pools and lush tropical rain forests.
Dittrich wanted to take the technique for a spin in a Michigan forest, and in one that was recovering from a massive fire.
He selected sites around Little Pike Lake, where the fire hopscotched through a mixed of pine forest and bogs.
He wanted to contrast relatively untouched areas with seemingly dead tracts of scorched land.
What he found is encouraging. Unaffected areas are serving as springboards for new plants and sand trees.
What was once tree-covered canopy is open to sunlight that supports a bumper crop of tree saplings.
"When the forest canopy was there, sunlight did not penetrate low enough," says Dittrich. "In California, wildfires are continually happening so biologists are seeing an explosion in biodiversity."
Thankfully, the Great Lakes don't cycle through as many fires.
Nonetheless, areas in Dittrich's survey have seen an explosive recovery.
Ubiquitous bracken ferns carpet a landscape that looked last year like rolling planes on the moon.
And thanks to a shot of nitrogen from decaying debris, summer 2013 offered up the best blueberry season in recent memory.
Interestingly, the Two-Hearted River area was carpeted with usually rare black and white varieties of morel mushrooms.
This attracted hundreds of enthusiasts of the gourmet fungus from around North America.
Whether mega-sprouting was due to fire induced changes in soil chemistry or the rebooting of dormant spores is anyone's guess.
Most of Dittrich's data reduction - processing soil and vegetable samples, as well as tabulating activity in the videos - is going on right now in preparation for a senior thesis presentation to campus in April.
After a May graduation, it's off to graduate school, where Dittrich hopes to launch a career as biocube evangelist.