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Keywords:

  • boreal forest;
  • carbon cycle;
  • emissions;
  • fire;
  • NDVI;
  • net primary productivity

Abstract

Fire is a major disturbance in the boreal forest, and has been shown to release significant amounts of carbon (C) to the atmosphere through combustion. However, less is known about the effects on ecosystems following fire, which include reduced productivity and changes in decomposition in the decade immediately following the disturbance. In this study, we assessed the impact of fire on net primary productivity (NPP) in the North American boreal forest using a 17-year record of satellite NDVI observations at 8- km spatial resolution together with a light-use efficiency model. We identified 61 fire scars in the satellite observations using digitized fire burn perimeters from a database of large fires. We studied the postfire response of NPP by analyzing the most impacted pixel within each burned area. NPP decreased in the year following the fire by 60–260 g C m−2 yr−1 (30–80%). By comparing pre- and postfire observations, we estimated a mean NPP recovery period for boreal forests of about 9 years, with substantial variability among fires. We incorporated this behavior into a carbon cycle model simulation to demonstrate these effects on net ecosystem production. The disturbance resulted in a release of C to the atmosphere during the first 8 years, followed by a small, but long-lived, sink lasting 150 years. Postfire net emissions were three times as large as from a model run without changing NPP. However, only small differences in the C cycle occurred between runs after 8 years due to the rapid recovery of NPP. We conclude by discussing the effects of fire on the long-term continental trends in satellite NDVI observed across boreal North America during the 1980s and 1990s.