The carbon costs of mitigating high-severity wildfire in southwestern ponderosa pine

Authors

  • MATTHEW D. HURTEAU,

    1. Department of Biological Sciences, Northern Arizona University, PO Box 6077, Flagstaff, AZ 86011, USA
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  • MICHAEL T. STODDARD,

    1. Ecological Restoration Institute, Northern Arizona University, PO Box 15017, Flagstaff, AZ 86011, USA
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  • PETER Z. FULÉ

    1. Ecological Restoration Institute, Northern Arizona University, PO Box 15017, Flagstaff, AZ 86011, USA
    2. School of Forestry, Northern Arizona University, PO Box 200 East Pine Knoll Drive, Flagstaff, AZ 86011, USA
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Matthew D. Hurteau, tel. +928 523 0497, fax +928 523 0565, e-mail: Matthew.Hurteau@nau.edu

Abstract

Forests provide climate change mitigation benefit by sequestering carbon during growth. This benefit can be reversed by both human and natural disturbances. While some disturbances such as hurricanes are beyond the control of humans, extensive research in dry, temperate forests indicates that wildfire severity can be altered as a function of forest fuels and stand structural manipulations. The purpose of this study was to determine if current aboveground forest carbon stocks in fire-excluded southwestern ponderosa pine forest are higher than prefire exclusion carbon stocks reconstructed from 1876, quantify the carbon costs of thinning treatments to reduce high-severity wildfire risk, and compare posttreatment (thinning and burning) carbon stocks with reconstructed 1876 carbon stocks. Our findings indicate that prefire exclusion forest carbon stocks ranged from 27.9 to 36.6 Mg C ha−1 and that the current fire-excluded forest structure contained on average 2.3 times as much live tree carbon. Posttreatment carbon stocks ranged from 37.9 to 50.6 Mg C ha−1 as a function of thinning intensity. Previous work found that these thinning and burning treatments substantially increased the 6.1 m wind speed necessary for fire to move from the forest floor to the canopy (torching index) and the wind speed necessary for sustained crown fire (crowning index), thereby reducing potential fire severity. Given the projected drying and increase in fire prevalence in this region as a function of changing climatic conditions, the higher carbon stock in the fire-excluded forest is unlikely to be sustainable. Treatments to reduce high-severity wildfire risk require trade-offs between carbon stock size and carbon stock stability.

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