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Earth Notes: Fire Mosses For Restoration

Henry Grover

Wildfires have grown larger and more severe in recent decades. They strip the soil of vegetation and make it vulnerable to erosion and floods. But there’s hope for healing a landscape after it burns—and it comes from humble moss.

Among the first plants to reestablish in burned areas are Redshank, Silvergreen, and Cord Moss, also known as the “fire mosses.” Researchers at Northern Arizona University studied burn scars on the Colorado Plateau to see how quickly these special, plushy pads of green cover the landscape after a wildfire. They found fire mosses favor north-facing slopes and cool conifer forests. Moss-covered sites had double the resistance to erosion and almost twice as much capacity to soak up rain compared to places where moss didn’t grow.

Could ecologists harness the power of moss to restore a burned site? Ecologist Henry Grover says that’s a question his research team would like to answer. He’s experimented with seeding mosses on a fire scar on Kendrick Peak north of Flagstaff. At first, ants carried the moss away before it could spread. So he turned to an ancient reseeding technique: coating a bit of moss in clay to make a pellet that dissolves in the rain.

The verdict is still out on this research, but Grover is optimistic about the remarkable power of mosses. They thrive on disturbance, and dry up during droughts without dying. They’re spread by windblown spores which can cross oceans. They can spring up in icy tundra and burning desert. Their resilience may offer a lesson for ecologists: a damaged place can recover with a bit of moss, and time.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.