, Volume 12, Issue 8, pp 1246-1267
Date: 30 Oct 2009

Forest Fire Impacts on Carbon Uptake, Storage, and Emission: The Role of Burn Severity in the Eastern Cascades, Oregon

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Abstract

This study quantifies the short-term effects of low-, moderate-, and high-severity fire on carbon pools and fluxes in the Eastern Cascades of Oregon. We surveyed 64 forest stands across four fires that burned 41,000 ha (35%) of the Metolius Watershed in 2002 and 2003, stratifying the landscape by burn severity (overstory tree mortality), forest type (ponderosa pine [PP] and mixed-conifer [MC]), and prefire biomass. Stand-scale C combustion ranged from 13 to 35% of prefire aboveground C pools (area − weighted mean = 22%). Across the sampled landscape, total estimated pyrogenic C emissions were equivalent to 2.5% of statewide anthropogenic CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion and industrial processes for the same 2-year period. From low- to moderate- to high-severity ponderosa pine stands, average tree basal area mortality was 14, 49, and 100%, with parallel patterns in mixed-conifer stands (29, 58, 96%). Despite this decline in live aboveground C, total net primary productivity (NPP) was only 40% lower in high- versus low-severity stands, suggesting strong compensatory effects of non-tree vegetation on C uptake. Dead wood respiratory losses were small relative to total NPP (range: 10–35%), reflecting decomposition lags in this seasonally arid system. Although soil C, soil respiration, and fine root NPP were conserved across severity classes, net ecosystem production (NEP) declined with increasing severity, driven by trends in aboveground NPP. The high variability of C responses across this study underscores the need to account for landscape patterns of burn severity, particularly in regions such as the Pacific Northwest, where non-stand-replacement fire represents a large proportion of annual burned area.

Author Contributions

G.M. contributed to the study design, conducted field work and data analysis, and wrote the manuscript. D.D., J.C., and J.M. contributed to the study design, field work, data analysis, and writing. B.L. conceived the study, guided design and methods, and contributed to data analysis and writing.