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Changes in terrestrial carbon storage in the United States. 2: The role of fire and fire management

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Abstract

  • 1Areas burned annually in the United States between 1700 and 1990 were derived from published estimates of pre-European burning rates and from wildfire statistics of the US Forest Service. Changes in live and dead vegetation following fire and fire exclusion were determined for 18 types of biomes and added to a book-keeping model to calculate the long-term effect of fire and fire management on carbon storage.
  • 2Over the 290-year period, burning declined by an estimated 98%, first, because wildlands were converted to agricultural lands, essentially eliminating fire from 236 × 106 ha and, secondly, because wildfires were excluded and suppressed in the remaining forests and non-forests.
  • 3Adding fire and fire management to an analysis of land-use change (companion paper) reduced the emissions of carbon over the period 1700–1990 by 25% (8 PgC). Less carbon was released because fire reduced the average biomass of forests cleared and burned, and because fire exclusion led to an increase in carbon storage in forests.
  • 4The wildfire statistics of the USDA were insufficient for addressing two kinds of change: fire exclusion before 1926 and changes in the burning of non-forest ecosystems. We estimate here that as much as 4 and 12 PgC, respectively, may have accumulated in vegetation as a result of these changes, but the estimates are uncertain and likely to be upper limits.
  • 5The maximum rate of carbon accumulation attributable to all changes in land use, including fire management, was 300–400 TgC/year and occurred around 1980. Less than half of this uptake was in forests. Uptake by forests was constrained by the fact that most forests were already accumulating carbon in response to earlier harvests. Fire exclusion added little to this uptake.

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