Tree Species Linked to Large Differences in Ecosystem Carbon Distribution in the Boreal Forest of Alaska
Friday, 19 December 2014: 2:25 PM
In the boreal forest of Alaska, increased fire severity associated with climate change is altering plant-soil-microbial feedbacks and ecosystem carbon (C) dynamics. The boreal landscape has historically been dominated by black spruce (Picea mariana), a tree species associated with slow C turnover and large soil organic matter (SOM) accumulation. Historically, low severity fires have led to black spruce regeneration post-fire, thereby maintaining slow C cycling rates and large SOM pools. In recent decades however, an increase in high severity fires has led to greater consumption of the soil organic layer (SOL) during fire and subsequent establishment of deciduous tree species in areas previously dominated by black spruce. This shift to a more deciduous dominated landscape has many implications for ecosystem structure and function, as well as feedbacks to global C cycling. To improve our understanding of how boreal tree species affect C cycling, we quantified above- and belowground C stocks and fluxes in adjacent, mid-successional stands of black spruce and Alaska paper birch (Betula neoalaskana) that established following a 1958 fire near Fairbanks, Alaska. Although total ecosystem C pools (aboveground live tree biomass + dead wood + SOL + top 10 cm of mineral soil) were similar for the two stand types, the distribution of C among pools was markedly different. In black spruce, 78% of measured C was found in soil pools, primarily in the SOL, where spruce contained twice the C stored in paper birch (4.8 ± 0.3 vs. 2.4 ± 0.1 kg C m-2). In contrast, aboveground biomass dominated ecosystem C pools in birch forest (6.0 ± 0.3 vs. 2.5 ± 0.2 kg C m-2 in birch and spruce, respectively). Our findings suggest that tree species exert a strong influence over plant-soil-microbial feedbacks and may have long-term effects on ecosystem C sequestration and storage that feedback to the climate system.