Simulating coupled carbon and nitrogen dynamics following mountain pine beetle outbreaks in the western United States



[1] Insect outbreaks are major ecosystem disturbances, affecting a similar area as forest fires annually across North America. Tree mortality caused by bark beetle outbreaks alters carbon cycling in the first several years following the disturbance by reducing stand-level primary production and by increasing the amount of dead organic matter available for decomposition. The few studies of biogeochemical cycling following outbreaks have shown a range of impacts from small responses of net carbon fluxes in the first several years after a severe outbreak to large forest areas that are sources of carbon to the atmosphere for decades. To gain more understanding about causes of this range of responses, we used an ecosystem model to assess impacts of different bark beetle outbreak conditions on coupled carbon and nitrogen cycling. We modified the Community Land Model with prognostic carbon and nitrogen to include prescribed bark beetle outbreaks. We then compared control simulations (without a bark beetle outbreak) to simulations with various levels of mortality severity, durations of outbreak, and snagfall dynamics to quantify the range of carbon flux responses and recovery rates of net ecosystem productivity to a range of realistic outbreak conditions. Our simulations illustrate that, given the large variability in bark beetle outbreak conditions, a wide range of responses in carbon and nitrogen dynamics can occur. The fraction of trees killed, delay in snagfall, snagfall rate, and management decisions about harvesting killed trees will have major impacts on postoutbreak carbon fluxes for several decades and postoutbreak carbon stocks up to 100 years.