Evaluating Post-fire Ecosystem Effects in Tussock Tundra of the Seward Peninsula: Characterizing Above-ground Biomass Accumulation, Soil Nutrient Pools, and Foliar Nitrogen.

Thursday, 18 December 2014
Teresa N Hollingsworth, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks, AK, United States, Michelle C Mack, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL, United States and Amy Lynn Breen, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Scenarios Network for Alaska & Arctic Planning, Fairbanks, AK, United States
Over the last century in the circumpolar north, changes in vegetation include shrub cover expansion and shifts in tree line. Invasion of tundra by trees and shrubs may be further facilitated by wildfire disturbance, which creates opportunities for establishment where recruitment is otherwise rare. Even moderate increases in warm-season temperatures are predicted to increase the likelihood of tundra fires. Understanding the consequences of a change in fire regime are complicated by the fact that there are relatively few large recent fires to study. However, the Seward Peninsula is a region that currently experiences more frequent and large fires than other tundra regions in Arctic Alaska. In this tundra region, there are areas of overlapping burns dating back to the 1970s. Using a chronosequence approach, we looked at post-fire biomass accumulation as well as foliar and soil C and N. Our experimental design incorporated sites that showed no evidence of recent burning, sites that burned in 1971, 1997, 2002, and 2011 as well as sites that burned multiple times over the last 30 years. We found that fire had a significant effect on total biomass and shrub basal area in tussock tundra. Our site that burned in 2011 had the lowest total biomass, about half of the biomass of our unburned site. However, our results indicated the site that burned in 1971 had over double the aboveground biomass and more soil N than the unburned site. We found that sites that repeatedly burned since 1971 were very similar in biomass to unburned tundra. This suggests that repeat fires keep a post-fire site at unburned levels of biomass. However, in these repeat fire sites, foliar C/N was ~25% greater and soil C and N was ~50% less than in unburned tundra. These results indicate that repeat fires are potentially causing nitrogen loss that not likely to be replenished into the system. As tundra fires become more frequent prediction of post-fire ecosystem effects is critical due to impacts on wildlife habitat, permafrost degradation, carbon release, and range expansion of species from the neighboring boreal forest.