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Keywords:

  • bark beetle;
  • carbon storage;
  • Dendroctonus ponderosae;
  • forest disturbance;
  • forest growth simulation;
  • forest vegetation simulator;
  • insect outbreak;
  • Pinus contorta

Abstract

Bark beetle epidemics result in tree mortality across millions of hectares in North America. However, few studies have quantified impacts on carbon (C) cycling. In this study, we quantified the immediate response and subsequent trajectories of stand-level aboveground tree C stocks and fluxes using field measurements and modeling for a location in central Idaho, USA that experienced an outbreak of mountain pine beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae Hopkins). We measured tree characteristics in lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) plots spanning a range of structure and mortality conditions. We then initialized the forest vegetation simulator, an individual tree-based model, with these measurements and simulated the response of aboveground production of C fluxes as well as trajectories of C stocks and fluxes in the coming decades. Mountain pine beetles killed up to 52% of the trees within plots, with more larger trees killed. C stocks in lodgepole pine were reduced by 31–83% following the outbreak, and plot-level C fluxes decreased 28–73%. Modeled C stocks increased nearly continuously following the infestation, recovering to preoutbreak levels in 25 years or less. Simulated aboveground tree C fluxes increased following the immediate postoutbreak decrease, then subsequently declined. Substantial variability of C stocks and fluxes among plots resulted from the number and size of killed and surviving trees. Our study illustrates that bark beetle epidemics alter forest C cycling unlike stand-replacement wildfires or clear-cut harvests, due in part to incomplete mortality coupled with the preference by beetles for larger trees. The dependency of postoutbreak C stocks and fluxes on stand structure suggests that C budget models and studies in areas experiencing mountain pine beetle disturbances need to include size distribution of trees for the most accurate results.