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Keywords:

  • carbon cycling;
  • CO2 efflux;
  • heterotrophic respiration;
  • net ecosystem production;
  • net primary production;
  • Pinus ponderosa;
  • soil respiration;
  • wildfire

Abstract

Forest fire dramatically affects the carbon storage and underlying mechanisms that control the carbon balance of recovering ecosystems. In western North America where fire extent has increased in recent years, we measured carbon pools and fluxes in moderately and severely burned forest stands 2 years after a fire to determine the controls on net ecosystem productivity (NEP) and make comparisons with unburned stands in the same region. Total ecosystem carbon in soil and live and dead pools in the burned stands was on average 66% that of unburned stands (11.0 and 16.5 kg C m−2, respectively, P<0.01). Soil carbon accounted for 56% and 43% of the carbon pools in burned and unburned stands. NEP was significantly lower in severely burned compared with unburned stands (P<0.01) with an increasing trend from −125±44 g C m−2 yr−1 (±1 SD) in severely burned stands (stand replacing fire), to −38±96 and +50±47 g C m−2 yr−1 in moderately burned and unburned stands, respectively. Fire of moderate severity killed 82% of trees <20 cm in diameter (diameter at 1.3 m height, DBH); however, this size class only contributed 22% of prefire estimates of bole wood production. Larger trees (> 20 cm DBH) suffered only 34% mortality under moderate severity fire and contributed to 91% of postfire bole wood production. Growth rates of trees that survived the fire were comparable with their prefire rates. Net primary production NPP (g C m−2 yr−1, ±1 SD) of severely burned stands was 47% of unburned stands (167±76, 346±148, respectively, P<0.05), with forb and grass aboveground NPP accounting for 74% and 4% of total aboveground NPP, respectively. Based on continuous seasonal measurements of soil respiration in a severely burned stand, in areas kept free of ground vegetation, soil heterotrophic respiration accounted for 56% of total soil CO2 efflux, comparable with the values of 54% and 49% previously reported for two of the unburned forest stands. Estimates of total ecosystem heterotrophic respiration (Rh) were not significantly different between stand types 2 years after fire. The ratio NPP/Rh averaged 0.55, 0.85 and 1.21 in the severely burned, moderately burned and unburned stands, respectively. Annual soil CO2 efflux was linearly related to aboveground net primary productivity (ANPP) with an increase in soil CO2 efflux of 1.48 g C yr−1 for every 1 g increase in ANPP (P<0.01, r2= 0.76). There was no significant difference in this relationship between the recently burned and unburned stands. Contrary to expectations that the magnitude of NEP 2 years postfire would be principally driven by the sudden increase in detrital pools and increased rates of Rh, the data suggest NPP was more important in determining postfire NEP.