Impacts of wildfires on boreal forest ecosystem carbon dynamics from 1986 to 2020

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Wildfires significantly change boreal forest ecosystem carbon balance through both direct combustion and post-fire carbon dynamics. Affected vegetation influences soil thermal regime and carbon cycling by impacting the surface energy balance of boreal forests. This study uses a process-based biogeochemistry model to quantify carbon budget of North American boreal forests during 1986-2020 based on satellite-derived burn severity data. During the study period, burn severity generally increases. Fires remove ecosystem carbon of 2.4 Pg C and reduce net ecosystem production (NEP) from 32.6 to 0.8 Tg C yr−1, making the forest ecosystems lose 3.5 Pg C, shifting a carbon sink to a source. The canopy’s cooling effect leads to lower soil temperature and lower net primary production due to lower nitrogen mineralization and uptake. Post-fire NEP decreases from 1.6 to 0.8 Tg C yr−1. This reduction accounts for 50% of the simulated NEP when the effects of fire-affected canopy are not considered. Our study highlights the importance of wildfires and their induced-canopy changes in soil thermal and ecosystem carbon dynamics of boreal forests.

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Environmental Research Letters