When Disaster Strikes, What’s Next?

Our Earth renews itself after a disaster, natural or otherwise, and throws seeds to the wind and creatures. What organisms survive it will likely produce progeny stronger and smarter to conditions that unfold through tragedy – given sufficient time. Weeds proliferate and repopulate areas ravaged bare, as can be shown by our versatile dandelion.

Succession is a wonderful solution to disaster. It allows for change, it allows for regrowth. It encourages strength and will. Our little dandelion is one to join in on populating a newly formed ecosystem. Why? Read on.

A repercussion of living life is the alteration of the specie’s own habitat. What may have been optimal for the first species to inhabit the original environment, destruction and renewal makes way for optimal conditions for another set of species, hence the process of succession. These new species start a process of struggle for dominance, competing with any species that was present and survived the massive change to the environment.

Colonizers in order if disaster is horrific and widespread:

  • Moss and lichen, acid from the lichen break down rock to soil. Damage and decay of lichen create humus. This supports other mosses.
  • After enough soil and humus are replaced, grasses populate.
  • Then, low-bush blueberry and huckleberries. Shrubby plants move in.
  • Conditions then allow birch and aspen.
  • White pine are the replacement plants. Maples and beech follow. (source)

I added this above to note that it takes a really long time to see primary succession occur. In the case of typical bare soil, much less succession occurs. Absence of trees and creation of field, allow the grass to become populated by low-growing, herbaceous species like plantains, golden rods, asters, and introduced species like the dandelion.

Plants adapted to the sunny conditions and disturbed soil (our dandelion, just one of many) will quickly invade the area when land is bare and barren. They are not suited to grassy field and meadows because of their size. They could not reach the sun they need surrounded by plants of greater stature. See one lone dandelion below growing as tall as it can?

Succession can be also caused by volcanoes, glaciers, storms, sand dunes, agriculture, or fire. Even new gardens lay way for succession.

Succession involves the whole environmental community, not just the plants though. Change in the plant species present in an area determines changes in animal species, because each plant species will have an associated animal species which feeds on it. Herbivore species dictate which particular carnivores join the new habitat. Even habitat minor change can create major results. Just substituting one plant species for another, brings in a whole host of new insect residents.

An external event, even a new garden, affects the fundamental nature of the community by re-making and unsettling the previously stabilized ecosystem which was teeming with life. This newly disturbed land will immediately begin the process of ecological succession to establish an abundance of life again.

Oddly, native and exotic plant species behave similarly during succession. They exhibit similar dynamics in rate of rapidity of growth and frequency. (source)

On a large-scale, we often act like nature in effecting disaster. If nature repairs, we come in to moderate, but most often beat nature to the punch in remediation of succession, like in natural disasters. Sometimes, we set in motion that which leads to additional disaster for one being or another in the process.

Was our species ever one to work peaceably with the environment? That is explored in the last in the series of Dandelion Days.

Considering the statement, “The ‘engine’ of succession, the cause of ecosystem change, is the impact of established species have upon their own environments.”  (source)

So how does succession affect humans? It is as simple as looking to your own garden. So we shall in the next post in the five-part series.

If you missed the first two posts in this five-part series, please take a look:

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About Donna Brok

Love to photograph, paint, draw, design, garden, and pass on a few tips and ideas that I learned through experience as a Master Gardener and architect. I am highly trained in my field and enjoy my work each and every day. I garden in Niagara Falls, NY in zone 6-B. Find me at: http://gardenwalkgardentalk.com
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21 Responses to When Disaster Strikes, What’s Next?

  1. 20 years ago, I saw how lush farmfields transform into utter dryness after a volcanic eruption. I have never seen anything as dead and as dry! Years later, I pass by them agains and see how patches of greens come alive once again. Rebirth and regrowth, it’s another wonderful thing. =>

  2. Just read through your answer on my comment from the last post. We do have some areas of open soil and there are goldenrod and asters along the roadsides. Another interesting post on this little bloom.

  3. catmint says:

    the only thing we can be sure of is change. We do try to influence succession but I think the total inter relationships of the ecosystem is too complex for humans to comprehend, manage and predict.

    • I think you really hit the main thought in your comment. We really don’t fully understand the complex relationships and that is where the trouble originates. There are too many organisms dependent on each other and a chart would look like endlessly overlapping bubbles showing the relationships. The inter workings make any job we do difficult. One that pops to mind is oil. Seems to me the more we remove the more voids are left. Is the oil lubricating the Earth’s tectonic plates? Or some other mechanism deep down? What oil does to the air and water is easily documented. To animals in spills, the trees from the pollution, it really goes on and on. Yet it makes for our way of life in countless ways. Where would we be without plastics?

  4. Andrea says:

    HI Donna, i feel like my teacher in Ecology is having his lecture for us. But that is a loved subject as that is a pre-requisite course for Environmental Science. Very good post Donna. I love the topic on succession, colonizers, etc. I love that 3rd to the last photo, it is a wide patch where a lot of drama unfolds.

    • It has been a long time since I had all my science courses in college. We touched on this in various subjects, the oddest of which was Environmental architecture. We had a professor that drilled nature into us. We had to know how things worked and why. He was the one that got me very interested in sustainability where I did a lot of research. When I went to work at a firm, my mentor was headlong into developing sustainable communities. It has always been a part of me to care what we are affecting. Unfortunately, we are nature too and have to impact others, so it makes for a delicate situation when designing and clearing land.

  5. Indie says:

    It is mind-boggling to try to see how everything is so linked in the environment and how one thing will change everything else, even if only slightly. I have been especially fascinated with this as we watch whole species of trees disappear from various pests and diseases. When the trees disappear, so will some of the animals that depend on them, and the repercussions will continue to reverberate throughout the ecosystem.

    On a smaller scale, I often see what you described above from all the clear-cutting that is going on in my neighborhood. When I moved in to this area, the builder had told us that they wanted to leave all the older trees and have more natural areas in the neighborhood. Now with the economy, new partners have joined with the builder, and they have obviously decided that it’s cheaper to go in and clear-cut large areas that they will eventually build in. It’s sad to see.

    • Clear cutting is one of the worst things we do to the land and living ecosystems. My next post touches on that and the job I do in architecture. You made a very valid point in my next post too, when you mentioned the economy. That is a big stumbling block in sustainable or environmentally conscious design. It does cost more up front, but the payoffs are long term. But builders and the people paying don’t consider the environment when it affects the bottom line. Everything is for the now. That is hard thinking to change.

  6. In prairie, burning helps keep this succession at bay, so the native prairie plants can thrive (along with prairie birds, insects, and mammals. Nature has a way of keep balance.

    • Prairies are wonderful and important ecosystems. I love seeing the expanse of them. True, if they did not burn them they would revert and the whole balance of the system would change. Good point to note.

  7. Interesting comment from Mary above. We see it here when ponds are dredged. The destruction caused seems very much greater than we could imagine should be required. We live with an area which looks like some kind of dead, lunar landscape for a time, then within a year the first seeds germinate and life slowly returns.

    • I have only seen a lake dredged one time and have to agree with you, it is an eerie feeling. It is like you described, an other worldly appearance. I would imagine though the soil would be very rich in nutrients from all the dead underwater vegetation and fish.

  8. Reblogged this on Verde Holistico and commented:
    To improve our lives, we must learn from our disasters just like the organisms of this garden.

  9. Jennifer says:

    Succession is not something I know a lot about and so it was interesting to read through your post Donna. I find it comforting to think that even in the face of disaster, nature has a way of recovering.

  10. Building a new house shows you just how invasive some plants can be when the soil is disturbed. We continue to fight some plants 8 years later. Love the process of succession as I can see it in areas around from lichen to maples.

    • It is a bit ironic to talk about invasive plants on a building site because if man did not fashion the landscape to his own desires, nature would take care of anything invasive with the process of succession. As plants replace other plants, they do so because they grow taller and in close groupings. As the site progresses past the herbaceous plants to shrubby plants, then to trees, then to forest, the invasive herbaceous plants are long gone. The forest floor is a completely different ecosystem.

      The other problem on buildings sites is that usually less than 4″ of topsoil is installed to a new site. Very often, existing topsoil is not scraped and saved to the site for reuse, but hauled off to dumps sites along with all the vegetation and cleared trees. The topsoil brought back in is often not of good quality either.

      What is under the topsoil is discarded building materials and graded subsoil excavated from the making of the foundation. The hardpack does not allow proper drainage and newly installed lawns cannot flourish past initial growth. That is why so many new homeowners are complaining years later on browning and weed filled lawns. Very few building jobs specify the quality of topsoil. Most contractors scrimp on the proper depth installed. Most homeowners budget the site out of the contract. By the time the home is complete, most homeowners do not have the recommended 15% allowance for landscaping.

  11. terry says:

    hello…i saw you at ronnie’s and when you mentioned the niagara area, i just wondered if you meant the niagara peninsula..i guess you did. whether it be the canadian side or the american side. they are both beautiful cities.
    and then when i came here and looked at this post of your dandelions and the golden rod, it brought back so many sweet memories to me…i guess people think i am strange but i have always loved those yellow flowers[dandelions]…to be sure and they are always the first sign of spring when they raise their golden heads to the world..
    when we lived out west on the manitoba prairies, we saw all of these flowers that you have in your post…we also used to see the milk weed flowers…
    now that we live in welland, 11 miles from niagara falls and take trips to st catharines, whenever i see the dandelions and the sweet purple clover pants and daisies along side the road sometimes they are so arranged so nice together that i just know that they are god’s own bouquets to us and i wonder why anyone would consider them weeds!
    when i have a little more time, i will read the other posts in this series
    in the meantime donna, you have made my day…..from terry

    • I so agree about the wildflowers. I see them in nature’s groupings and it helps make me a better designer. You see so many things that relate to design. You are not far from me at all. I can walk to Niagara Falls, Canada and live right near the Falls. I walk over a couple of times a year, and drive in Canada less frequently. The architecture firm I worked for did a consulting job for the Canadian schools and we had the meeting in Welland many years back. Ironically, that job dealt with sustainability and our excessive use of toxic materials from plastic and out gassing to carpets and formaldehyde. A doctor was on our team and I have to say, I learned quite a bit.

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