Carbon loss from boreal forest wildfires offset by increased dominance of deciduous trees

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Science  16 Apr 2021:
Vol. 372, Issue 6539, pp. 280-283
DOI: 10.1126/science.abf3903

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Carbon cycling after boreal forest fire

Wildfire activity has been increasing in the boreal forests of the Northern Hemisphere, releasing carbon into the atmosphere from biomass and soil, with potential feedback to climate warming. In a long-term study, Mack et al. analyzed wildfire impacts on the carbon balance of boreal forest in Alaska, with particular focus on forest-regeneration patterns. After fire, the species composition in most of the study sites changed from black spruce to a mixture of conifers and deciduous broadleaf tree species. The stands that had shifted to deciduous dominance stored fivefold more soil carbon than stands that returned to black spruce dominance. Therefore, the functional traits of deciduous trees compensated for the combustion loss of soil carbon, pointing to a potential mitigation of the feedback effect of boreal forest fire to climate warming.

Science, this issue p. 280


In boreal forests, climate warming is shifting the wildfire disturbance regime to more frequent fires that burn more deeply into organic soils, releasing sequestered carbon to the atmosphere. To understand the destabilization of carbon storage, it is necessary to consider these effects in the context of long-term ecological change. In Alaskan boreal forests, we found that shifts in dominant plant species catalyzed by severe fire compensated for greater combustion of soil carbon over decadal time scales. Severe burning of organic soils shifted tree dominance from slow-growing black spruce to fast-growing deciduous broadleaf trees, resulting in a net increase in carbon storage by a factor of 5 over the disturbance cycle. Reduced fire activity in future deciduous-dominated boreal forests could increase the tenure of this carbon on the landscape, thereby mitigating the feedback to climate warming.

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