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The effect of fire and permafrost interactions on soil carbon accumulation in an upland black spruce ecosystem of interior Alaska: implications for post-thaw carbon loss


Jonathan O'Donnell, tel. +1 9074 55 6305, fax +1 907 474 7872, e-mail:


High-latitude regions store large amounts of organic carbon (OC) in active-layer soils and permafrost, accounting for nearly half of the global belowground OC pool. In the boreal region, recent warming has promoted changes in the fire regime, which may exacerbate rates of permafrost thaw and alter soil OC dynamics in both organic and mineral soil. We examined how interactions between fire and permafrost govern rates of soil OC accumulation in organic horizons, mineral soil of the active layer, and near-surface permafrost in a black spruce ecosystem of interior Alaska. To estimate OC accumulation rates, we used chronosequence, radiocarbon, and modeling approaches. We also developed a simple model to track long-term changes in soil OC stocks over past fire cycles and to evaluate the response of OC stocks to future changes in the fire regime. Our chronosequence and radiocarbon data indicate that OC turnover varies with soil depth, with fastest turnover occurring in shallow organic horizons (∼60 years) and slowest turnover in near-surface permafrost (>3000 years). Modeling analysis indicates that OC accumulation in organic horizons was strongly governed by carbon losses via combustion and burial of charred remains in deep organic horizons. OC accumulation in mineral soil was influenced by active layer depth, which determined the proportion of mineral OC in a thawed or frozen state and thus, determined loss rates via decomposition. Our model results suggest that future changes in fire regime will result in substantial reductions in OC stocks, largely from the deep organic horizon. Additional OC losses will result from fire-induced thawing of near-surface permafrost. From these findings, we conclude that the vulnerability of deep OC stocks to future warming is closely linked to the sensitivity of permafrost to wildfire disturbance.