In boreal forests, climate warming is shifting the wildfire disturbance regime to more frequent fires that burn more deeply into organic soils, releasing sequestered carbon to the atmosphere. To understand the destabilization of carbon storage, it is necessary to consider these effects in the context of long-term ecological change. In Alaskan boreal forests, we found that shifts in dominant plant species catalyzed by severe fire compensated for greater combustion of soil carbon over decadal time scales. Severe burning of organic soils shifted tree dominance from slow-growing black spruce to fast-growing deciduous broadleaf trees, resulting in a net increase in carbon storage by a factor of 5 over the disturbance cycle. Reduced fire activity in future deciduous-dominated boreal forests could increase the tenure of this carbon on the landscape, thereby mitigating the feedback to climate warming.
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