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Title: Shortened Fire Intervals Stimulate Carbon Losses from Heterotrophic Respiration and Reduce Understorey Plant Productivity in Boreal Forests

Fire frequency is increasing with climate warming in the boreal regions of interior Alaska, with short fire return intervals (< 50 years) becoming more common. Recent studies suggest these “reburns” will reduce the insulating surface organic layer (SOL) and seedbanks, inhibiting black spruce regeneration and increasing deciduous cover. These changes are projected to amplify soil warming, increasing mineral soil organic carbon (SOC) decomposition rates, and impair re-establishment of understorey vegetation and the SOL. We examined how reburns changed soil temperature, heterotrophic soil respiration (RH), and understorey gross primary production (GPP), and related these to shifts in vegetation composition and SOL depths. Two distinct burn complexes previously covered by spruce were measured; both included areas burned 1x, 2x, and 3x over 60 years and mature (≈ 90 year old) spruce forests underlain by permafrost. A 2.7 °C increase in annual near-surface soil temperatures from 1x to 3x burns was correlated with a decrease in SOL depths and a 1.9 Mg C ha−1increase in annual RH efflux. However, near-surface soil warming accounted for ≤ 23% of higher RH efflux; increases in deciduous overstorey vegetation and root biomass with reburning better correlated with RH than soil temperature. Reburning also warmed deeper soils and reduced the biomass and GPP of understory plants, more » lessening their potential to offset elevated RH and contribute to SOL development. This suggests that reburning led to losses of mineral SOC previously stored in permafrost due to warming soils and changes in vegetation composition, illustrating how burn frequency creates pathways for accelerated regional C loss.

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Award ID(s):
1736778 1737706
Publication Date:
Journal Name:
Page Range or eLocation-ID:
p. 318-343
Springer Science + Business Media
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
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