Shifts in Ecological Legacies Support Hysteresis of Stand Type Conversions in Boreal Forests

X. J. Walker, K. Okano, L. T. Berner, R. Massey, S. J. Goetz, J. F. Johnstone, M. C. Mack

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Many disturbances are shifting in severity, frequency, and extent due to changing climate and human activities. Altered disturbance regimes can trigger shifts in ecosystem state where recovery to the pre-disturbance ecosystem is uncertain. In the western North American boreal forest, the intensification of wildfire can cause canopy dominance to switch from black spruce (Picea mariana) to deciduous trees such as Alaska paper birch (Betula neoalaskana) and trembling aspen (Populus tremuloides). Understanding the key mechanisms that determine the resilience and stability of these alternative community types is required for the prediction of future forest dynamics. Here, we assess patterns of post-fire tree recovery across a pre-fire gradient of spruce- to deciduous-dominated forests in Interior Alaska and quantify compositional and environmental thresholds that support the resilience of alternative canopy types. We found post-fire organic soil depth of stands on a recovery trajectory to deciduous dominance (7.3 ± 5.5 cm) were similar regardless of pre-fire composition and significantly shallower than spruce (14.9 ± 9.0 cm) or mixed trajectories (10.4 ± 5.9 cm). Deciduous-dominated stands were highly resilient to fire, as 100% remained deciduous-dominated post-fire. Even when deciduous trees only accounted for a small proportion (12%) of the pre-fire stand, deciduous trees often became dominant after wildfire. We conclude that the establishment of deciduous bud banks and seed sources creates a strong hysteresis in stand recovery that reinforces the resilience of deciduous-dominated boreal forests to wildfire. Accounting for the resilience of this alternative stable state to wildfire suggests that shifts from spruce to deciduous dominance caused by shifting wildfire will have long-term effects on future structure and function of boreal forests and vegetation feedbacks to climate change.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1796-1805
Number of pages10
Issue number8
StatePublished - Dec 2023


  • Boreal forest
  • black spruce
  • deciduous
  • ecological legacies
  • resilience
  • succession

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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


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