Postfire soil N cycling in northern conifer forests affected by severe, stand-replacing wildfires

Erica A.H. Smithwick, Monica G. Turner, Michelle C. Mack, F. Stuart Chapin

Research output: Contribution to journalShort surveypeer-review

175 Scopus citations


Severe, stand-replacing fires affect large areas of northern temperate and boreal forests, potentially modifying ecosystem function for decades after their occurrence. Because these fires occur over large extents, and in areas where plant production is limited by nitrogen (N) availability, the effect of fire on N cycling may be important for long-term ecosystem productivity. In this article, we review what is known about postfire N cycling in northern temperate and boreal forests experiencing stand-replacing fires. We then build upon existing literature to identify the most important mechanisms that control postfire N availability in systems experiencing severe, stand-replacing fires compared with fires of lower severity. These mechanisms include changes in abiotic conditions caused by the opening of the canopy (for example, decreased LAI, increased solar radiation), changes in ground layer quantity and quality (for example, nutrient release, permafrost levels), and postfire plant and microbial adaptations affecting N fixation and N uptake (for example, serotiny, germination cues). Based on the available literature, these mechanisms appear to affect N inputs, internal N cycling, and N outputs in various ways, indicating that severe fire systems are variable across time and space as a result of complex interactions between postfire abiotic and biotic factors. Future experimental work should be focused on understanding these mechanisms and their variability across the landscape.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)163-181
Number of pages19
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 2005
Externally publishedYes


  • Boreal
  • Disturbance
  • Fire
  • Large infrequent disturbances (LIDs)
  • Nitrogen
  • Nutrient cycling
  • Stand-replacing
  • Temperate

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Ecology


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