During the 21st century, climate-driven changes in fire regimes will be a key agent of change in forests of the U.S. Pacific Northwest (PNW). Understanding the response of forest carbon (C) dynamics to increases in fire will help quantify limits on the contribution of forest C storage to climate change mitigation and prioritize forest types for monitoring C storage and fire management to minimize C loss. In this study, we used projections of 21st century area burned to explore the consequences of changes in fire regimes on C dynamics in forests of Washington State. We used a novel empirical approach that takes advantage of chronosequences of C pools and fluxes and statistical properties of fire regimes to explore the effects of shifting age class distributions on C dynamics. Forests of the western Cascades are projected to be more sensitive to climate-driven increases in fire, and thus projected changes in C dynamics, than forests of the eastern Cascades. In the western Cascades, mean live biomass C is projected to decrease by 24–37%, and coarse woody debris (CWD) biomass C by 15–25% for the 2040s. Loss of live biomass C is projected to be lower for forests of the eastern Cascades and Okanogan Highlands (17–26%), and CWD biomass is projected to increase. Landscape mean net primary productivity is projected to increase in wet low-elevation forests of the western Cascades, but decrease elsewhere. These forests, and moist forests of the Okanogan Highlands, are projected to have the greatest percentage increases in consumption of live biomass. Percentage increases in consumption of CWD biomass are greater than 50% for all regions and up to four times greater than increases in consumption of live biomass. Carbon sequestration in PNW forests will be highly sensitive to increases in fire, suggesting a cautious approach to managing these forests for C sequestration to mitigate anthropogenic CO2 emissions.
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