ECOLOGY/EVOLUTION

Hidden Long-Term Consequences

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Science  12 Aug 2005:
Vol. 309, Issue 5737, pp. 990
DOI: 10.1126/science.309.5737.990a

Fires are becoming increasingly frequent in wet tropical forests as a result of human land use and other associated disturbances. In addition to their visibly destructive effects on aboveground biomass, tropical forest fires can smoulder underground for a long time. Thus, fire has a potential to alter soil properties directly, especially the concentration and spatial distribution of nutrients—both of which have ramifications for the subsequent ecological dynamics of forests.

Blair has examined the effects of underground fires on the spatial patterns of soil constituents in a lowland wet forest in Nicaragua. Fire altered the spatial scale of nutrient distribution, generally reducing the patch size for key nutrients such as carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, with as yet unknown consequences for belowground competition between plants. Asbjornsen et al. describe the effects of fire on plant biomass in montane cloud forests in Mexico, a habitat type in which forest fires have been documented only in the past few years. Here, the belowground effects were substantial: Deep ground fires occurring in 1997-1998 resulted in a 50 to 75% reduction in live root biomass, as well as >80% reduction in aboveground biomass. Given the time scale of forest dynamics, the longer-term effects of these disturbances will unfold over decades. — AMS

J. Trop. Ecol. 21, 435; 427 (2005).

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