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Fire history as a key determinant of grassland soil CO2 flux

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Fire regimes are key drivers of ecosystem dynamics and are changing worldwide. Uncertainty about how fire history affects responses to individual fires hampers predictions of fire impacts on important ecosystem functions such as C cycling. Thus, we assessed how fire and fire history affect soil CO2 flux and aboveground net primary production (ANPP).


We utilized a 35-year fire frequency experiment in a mesic grassland to quantify how two aspects of fire history, long-term fire frequency (fire every one, two, or four years, or no fire) and number of years elapsed since the most recent fire, affect soil CO2 flux. We used long-term annual records from the same grassland to compare this to the effect of fire history on ANPP.


Historic fire frequency altered the soil CO2 flux response to fire, with greater post-fire stimulation in grassland burned annually than in grassland burned less frequently (~100% vs. ~44% increase over long-term unburned grassland). The flux increase persisted for up to two years after fire. Though fire also stimulated ANPP, this increase did not vary by long-term fire frequency and did not persist into later years.


Fire history modifies the soil CO2 flux response to individual fires in this grassland. Predicting the dynamics of this important C flux will require considering not only the presence vs. absence of fire, but also fire history.

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Data availability

The data generated during this study are available in the Colorado State University Libraries repository [], and the ANPP data analyzed for this study are available from the LTER Network Data repository [].



Aboveground net primary production


Konza Prairie Biological Station


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IJS acknowledges support by a Predoctoral Fellowship [award 2019-67011-29615] from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. We thank the Konza Prairie Biological Station and staff and the National Science Foundation Long-Term Ecological Research program.

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Correspondence to Ingrid J. Slette.

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Responsible Editor: Stefan K. Arndt.

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Slette, I.J., Liebert, A. & Knapp, A.K. Fire history as a key determinant of grassland soil CO2 flux. Plant Soil 460, 579–592 (2021).

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