Changing Boreal Fire Regimes: Impacts on Permafrost Soils and Forest Succession in Siberian Larch Forests

Monday, 15 December 2014
Heather Dawn Alexander, University of Texas at Brownsville, Brownsville, TX, United States, Michelle C Mack, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL, United States, Susan Natali, Woods Hole Science Center Falmouth, Falmouth, MA, United States, Michael M Loranty, Colgate University, Geography, Hamilton, NY, United States, Sergey Davydov, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, Russia and Nikita Zimov, Northeast Scientific Station, Cherskiy, Russia
Fire activity has increased across the boreal forest biome in conjuction with climate warming and drying. Because these forests contain a large proportion of global terrestrial carbon (C) stocks, there has been great interest in understanding feedbacks between a changing fire regime and climate warming. An important mechanism by which increased fire activity may alter boreal C balance is by consuming the soil organic layer (SOL). Fire removal of the SOL may alter germination microsites and tree recruitment, thereby altering forest successional trajectories and C accumulation and storage. In permafrost soils, loss of the insulating SOL can increase soil temperature and active layer depth, impacting growth and survival conditions for both soil microbes and vegetation. To assess fire severity effects on permafrost soils and tree recruitment, we conducted plot-level experimental burns in July 2012 in a larch forest near Cherskii, Siberia. We achieved four burn severity treatments based on residual SOL depths: control, low (> 8 cm), moderate (5-8 cm), and high severity (2-5 cm). For two growing seasons post-fire, we measured thaw depth, soil moisture, and soil temperature. We sowed larch seeds in fall 2012 and 2013 and quantified seedling establishment and vegetation re-growth for two growing seasons. Immediately post-fire, thaw depth increased rapidly with increasing fire severity, and this trend has persisted for two years. In 2013 and 2014, thaw depth was ~ 40 cm deeper in high severity plots compared to controls, likely due to lower summer soil insulation, higher black char cover, and higher surface soil temperatures. We observed little to no larch recruitment in unburned and low severity plots, but new seedling density was ~5 seedlings m-2 in moderate and high severity plots, which had low cover of other vegetation types and high soil moisture. Findings suggest that increased fire severity may increase larch recruitment and provide favorable soil conditions for tree growth. As a consequence, forest density and potential to accumulate and store C in tree biomass will likely increase. The balance between C lost via fire and microbial respiration and C gained due to changes in forest stand structure will determine whether boreal forests represent a C pool or sink under changing fire regimes.