Dr Tina Bell
Fire is a fundamental component of most Australian terrestrial ecosystems. As a fire ecologist I am interested in the wide range of responses of flora, fauna, soil microorganisms and human communities to fire. This includes how plants regenerate after fire and how they cope with changed conditions, how animals interact with their habitat after it has been modified by fire, how soil microorganisms change their abundance and physiology once soil has been altered by fire and the health impacts of smoke from bushfires and prescribed burning on ecosystems and human populations.
I am interested in the effects of fire on a range or organisms and the ecosystem processes they are involved in. This includes nutrient uptake by plants and how fire may temporarily release nutrients for plant uptake. Fire not only combusts fuel and release nutrients in ash but it also heats soil surfaces. This may kill some fungi and bacteria that live in the leaf litter and surface soil but it also stimulates other biota as competition for nutrients, light, moisture and space is temporarily relieved.
Fires produce smoke and I am interested in firstly, what compounds are in smoke and secondly, what effects some of these compounds might have on the natural and agricultural environment, and more broadly on human communities. Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are a particularly interesting group of chemicals that are released naturally by plants but are produced in far greater variety and quantity when vegetation is burnt. Fire also produces ash and charcoal when leaves, twigs, bark and logs combust. This residue contains carbon which can remain locked up for tens or hundreds of years. It is important that we know what role this type of carbon has in ecosystems, particularly as more and more fire is used in the landscape for management of risk to human life and property and maintenance of biodiversity.
To pursue these interests my research involves work in the field, in the laboratory and in the glasshouse. The range of techniques used includes chemical and isotopic analysis of combustion gases and plant and soil material; anatomical studies of roots, fungal hyphae and legume nodules; measurement of metabolic processes such as respiration, photosynthesis and nitrogen fixation; animal habitat assessment and measurement of plant diversity.
I am currently involved in a number of projects based around the themes of fire, carbon and nutrients:
- ARC Linkage grant (2010-2014) – Fires, black carbon, greenhouse gas emissions and the carbon balance of southern sclerophyll forests
- Bushfire Cooperative Research Center (2010-2014) – Fire in the Landscape
* Hydrology of south-eastern forests and the 2009 fires
* Greenhouse gas emissions from prescribed fires and their environmental effects
- Ministry of Science and Innovation, Spain (2010-2014) – Global change and Mediterranean ecosystems: vegetation responses to the expected changes in UVB irradiation and water availability before and after a perturbation (pruning or fire)
- American-Australian Fulbright Professional Scholarship (2009) – Bacchus’ lament: the effect of smoke from fire on grapevine physiology
- NERC Urgency Grant NE/F00131X/1, United Kingdom (2009) – The catastrophic Victoria fires of 2009: reconstructing fire behaviour from soil, ash and seedbank survival data
The highlight of my research career to date was being awarded an American-Australian Fulbright Professional Scholarship in 2009. My project explored changes to and recovery of key physiological processes of grapevines exposed to smoke through physiological measures such as leaf gas exchange and photosynthesis under controlled laboratory conditions. I undertook this research at the University of California, Berkeley in late 2009 and will continue it under the umbrella of the Bushfire CRC.
My research career began with a PhD at the University of Western Australia investigating the fire response and nutrient acquisition of southern heaths (Ericaceae, subfamily Styphelioideae). During postdoctoral studies at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, my research broadened to encompass the fire response of northern heaths (Ericaceae) and nutrient acquisition of rushes (Restionaceae) and grasses (Poaceae).
I was appointed Senior Lecturer in Fire Ecology at the University of Sydney in March 2010. Prior to this I worked in Victoria in the areas of fire ecology and plant physiology, firstly as a researcher with the Victorian Department of Environment and Sustainability and then as Senior Research Fellow in the School of Forest and Ecosystem Science at the University of Melbourne. I am currently a Project Leader in the Bushfire CRC and have been a member of this national research centre since its inception in 2002. Funding for the Bushfire CRC was extended until mid-2013 as a result of the Black Saturday fires in Victoria in 2009 and I continue to participate in carbon- and water-related research projects held by the University of Sydney. I am part of two research groups that have recently attracted ARC and HAL funding.
I currently supervise five postgraduate students and have had 10 successfully complete their postgraduate studies. I have supervised over a dozen Honours and 4th year undergraduate research projects.
- Bell TL, Adams MA (2011) Attack on all fronts: functional relationships between aerial and root parasitic plants and their woody hosts and consequences for ecosystems. Tree Physiology 31, 3-15.
- McMullan-Fisher SJM, May TW, Robinson RM, Bell TL, Lebel T, Catcheside P, York A (2011) Fungi and fire in Australian ecosystems: a review of current knowledge, management implications and future directions. Australian Journal of Botany 59, 70-90.
- Meers TL, Bell TL, Enright NJ, Kasel S (2010) Relationships among plant functional traits in a strongly invaded Australian sclerophyll flora confirm global trade-offs in plant design. Australian Journal of Botany 58, 257-270.
- Huber E, Bell TL, Simpson RR, Adams MA (2010) Relationships among edaphic conditions, vegetation distribution and soil nitrogen dynamics on the Bogong High Plains, Australia. Austral Ecology 36, 142-152.
- Miehs A, York A, Tolhurst K, Di Stefano J, Bell T (2010) Sampling downed coarse woody debris in a fire-prone eucalypt woodland. Forest Ecology and Management 259, 440-445.
- Meers TL, Kasel S, Bell TL, Enright NJ (2010) Conversion of native forest to exotic Pinus radiata plantation: response of understorey plant composition using a plant functional trait approach. Forest Ecology and Management 259, 399-409.
- Pfautsch S, Rennenberg H, Bell TL, Adams MA (2009) N-uptake of Eucalyptus regnans and Acacia spp. – preferences, age-related changes and energetic costs. Tree Physiology 29, 389-399.
- Bell TL, Adams MA (2009) Smoke from wildfires and prescribed burning in Australia: effects on human health and ecosystems. In: Forest Fires and Air Pollution Issues, Bytnerowicz A, Arbaugh M, Riebau A, Andersen C (eds.), Developments in Environmental Science, Volume 8, Elsevier BV, 289-316.
- Maleknia SD, Bell TL, Adams MA (2009) Eucalypt smoke and wildfires: temperature dependent emissions of biogenic volatile organic compounds. International Journal of Mass Spectrometry 279, 126-133.
- Oliveras I, Bell TL (2008) An analysis of the Australian literature on prescribed burning. Journal of Forestry 106, 31-37.