Get access

Vulnerability of carbon storage in North American boreal forests to wildfires during the 21st century


Michael S. Balshi, Department of Biology and Wildlife, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks, AK9775, USA, fax +1 907 474 7872, e-mail:


The boreal forest contains large reserves of carbon. Across this region, wildfires influence the temporal and spatial dynamics of carbon storage. In this study, we estimate fire emissions and changes in carbon storage for boreal North America over the 21st century. We use a gridded data set developed with a multivariate adaptive regression spline approach to determine how area burned varies each year with changing climatic and fuel moisture conditions. We apply the process-based Terrestrial Ecosystem Model to evaluate the role of future fire on the carbon dynamics of boreal North America in the context of changing atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration and climate in the A2 and B2 emissions scenarios of the CGCM2 global climate model. Relative to the last decade of the 20th century, decadal total carbon emissions from fire increase by 2.5–4.4 times by 2091–2100, depending on the climate scenario and assumptions about CO2 fertilization. Larger fire emissions occur with warmer climates or if CO2 fertilization is assumed to occur. Despite the increases in fire emissions, our simulations indicate that boreal North America will be a carbon sink over the 21st century if CO2 fertilization is assumed to occur in the future. In contrast, simulations excluding CO2 fertilization over the same period indicate that the region will change to a carbon source to the atmosphere, with the source being 2.1 times greater under the warmer A2 scenario than the B2 scenario. To improve estimates of wildfire on terrestrial carbon dynamics in boreal North America, future studies should incorporate the role of dynamic vegetation to represent more accurately post-fire successional processes, incorporate fire severity parameters that change in time and space, account for human influences through increased fire suppression, and integrate the role of other disturbances and their interactions with future fire regime.

Get access to the full text of this article