Impacts of a changing fire frequency on soil carbon stocks in interior Alaskan boreal forests
Hoy, Elizabeth Embury
Kasischke, Eric S
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Increasing temperatures and drier conditions, related to climate change, have resulted in changes to the fire regime in interior Alaskan boreal forests, including increases in burned area and fire frequency. These fire regime changes alter carbon storage and emissions, especially in the thick organic soils of black spruce (<italic>Picea mariana</italic>) forests. While there are ongoing studies of the size and severity of fire using ground- and remote-based studies in mature black spruce forests, a better understanding of fire regime changes to immature black spruce forests is needed. The goal of this dissertation research was to assess impacts of changing fire frequency on soil organic layer (SOL) carbon consumption during wildland fires in recovering Alaskan black spruce forests using a combination of geospatial and remote sensing analyses, field-based research, and modeling. The research objectives were to 1) quantify burning in recovering vegetated areas; 2) analyze factors associated with variations in fire frequency; 3) quantify how fire frequency affects depth of burning, residual SOL depth, and carbon loss in the SOL of black spruce forests; and 4) analyze how fire frequency impacts carbon consumption in these forests. Results showed that considerable burning in the region occurs in stands not yet fully recovered from earlier fire events (~20% of burned areas are in immature stands). Additionally, burning in recovering black spruce forests (~40 yrs old) resulted in SOL depth of burn similar to that in mature forests which have burned. Incorporating these results into a modeling framework (through adding an immature black spruce fuel type and associated ground-layer carbon consumption values) resulted in higher ground-layer carbon consumption (and thus total carbon consumed) for areas that burned in 2004 and 2005 than that of a previous version of the model. This research indicated that the dominant controls on fire behavior in this system were fuel type and amount, not fuel condition, and that changes in vegetation associated with more frequent fire (shift to deciduous and shrub vegetation which does not traditionally burn as readily) may represent a long-term negative feedback on burned area. These new results provide insight into the fire-climate-vegetation dynamics within the region and could be used to both inform and validate modeling efforts to better estimate soil carbon pools and emissions as climate continues to change.