, Volume 122, Issue 4, pp 537-544

First online:

Fire effects on ecosystem nitrogen cycling in a Californian bishop pine forest

  • P. GroganAffiliated withDepartment of Plant Ecology, University of Copenhagen, Øster Farimagsgade 2D, Copenhagen K, DK-1353, Denmark e-mail: paulg@bot.ku.dk Tel.: +45-3532-2244, Fax: +45-3532-2331
  • , T. D. BurnsAffiliated withDepartment of Plant and Microbial Biology, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720, USA
  • , F.S. Chapin IIIAffiliated withInstitute of Arctic Biology, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, AK 99775, USA

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Fire can cause severe nitrogen (N) losses from grassland, chaparral, and temperate and boreal forest ecosystems. Paradoxically, soil ammonium levels are markedly increased by fire, resulting in high rates of primary production in re-establishing plant communities. In a manipulative experiment, we examined the influence of wild-fire ash residues on soil, microbial and plant N pools in a recently burned Californian bishop pine (Pinus muricata D. Don) forest. Ash stimulated post-fire primary production and ecosystem N retention through direct N inputs from ash to soils, as well as indirect ash effects on soil N availability to plants. These results suggest that redistribution of surface ash after fire by wind or water may cause substantial heterogeneity in soil N availability to plants, and could be an important mechanism contributing to vegetation patchiness in fire-prone ecosystems. In addition, we investigated the impact of fire on ecosystem N cycling by comparing 15N natural abundance values from recently burned and nearby unburned P. muricata forest communities. At the burned site, 15N natural abundance in recolonising species was similar to that in bulk soil organic matter. By contrast, there was a marked 15N depletion in the same species relative to the total soil N pool at the unburned site. These results suggest that plant uptake of nitrate (which tends to be strongly depleted in 15N because of fractionation during nitrification) is low in recently burned forest communities but could be an important component of eco- system N cycling in mature conifer stands.

Key words Ash Primary production Natural abundance 15N Nitrate Pinus muricata