Do small landforms have large effects? A review on the legacies of pre-industrial charcoal burning

T. Raab, A. Raab, A. Bonhage, A. Schneider, F. Hirsch, K. Birkhofer, P. Drohan, M. Wilmking, J. Kreyling, I. Malik, M. Wistuba, E. van der Maaten, M. van der Maaten-Theunissen, T. Urich

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Relict charcoal hearths (RCHs) are small, anthropogenic landforms resulting from past charcoal burning and reaching significant land coverage in pre-industrial mining areas. We review three coupled legacies linked by RCH development: (i) a landscape-scale geomorphic effect, (ii) a unique soil fingerprint, and (iii) an evolving novel ecosystem. The history and technique of charcoal production are described to clarify legacy effects. Applying a recently presented morpho-genetic catalogue is useful for classified mapping of RCH findings. The RCH numbers and calculated RCH densities per study region vary greatly and impose uncertainties due to insufficient methods causing over- or underestimations. Areas with high RCH densities between 50 and 500 RCH/km2 seem reasonable. Machine learning-based remote sensing techniques are promising approaches with which to better assess the full scale of charcoal burning legacies. RCH soil properties feature dark charcoal-rich technogenic substrate layers classified as Auh horizons according to the World Reference Base with significantly increased C contents. These Auh horizons can also exhibit specific physical and chemical properties, such as relatively low bulk density, high porosity, high plant available water content, low thermal conductivity and differences in cation exchange capacity or nutrient status. However, relevant studies are rare, and thus, the effects may differ by study region. Regarding vegetation, there seem to be four main effects: changes in forest structure, species composition, recruitment pattern and productivity. The number of studies on this issue is, however, also very limited. Even fewer studies have examined the soil fauna in RCHs; thus, the reported effects cannot be used to draw general conclusions. Notably, RCH research has made considerable progress in the last five years, especially in the Light Detection and Ranging-based mapping of these small landforms and identification of RCH-specific soil properties, but ecological legacies are not well understood; thus, more interdisciplinary and integrative studies are needed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number108332
StatePublished - Sep 15 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Earth-Surface Processes


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