Research Article: Nitrogen balance along a northern boreal forest fire chronosequence

Date Published: March 30, 2017

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Marjo Palviainen, Jukka Pumpanen, Frank Berninger, Kaisa Ritala, Baoli Duan, Jussi Heinonsalo, Hui Sun, Egle Köster, Kajar Köster, Ben Bond-Lamberty.


Fire is a major natural disturbance factor in boreal forests, and the frequency of forest fires is predicted to increase due to climate change. Nitrogen (N) is a key determinant of carbon sequestration in boreal forests because the shortage of N limits tree growth. We studied changes in N pools and fluxes, and the overall N balance across a 155-year non stand-replacing fire chronosequence in sub-arctic Pinus sylvestris forests in Finland. Two years after the fire, total ecosystem N pool was 622 kg ha-1 of which 16% was in the vegetation, 8% in the dead biomass and 76% in the soil. 155 years after the fire, total N pool was 960 kg ha-1, with 27% in the vegetation, 3% in the dead biomass and 69% in the soil. This implies an annual accumulation rate of 2.28 kg ha-1 which was distributed equally between soil and biomass. The observed changes in N pools were consistent with the computed N balance +2.11 kg ha-1 yr-1 over the 155-year post-fire period. Nitrogen deposition was an important component of the N balance. The biological N fixation increased with succession and constituted 9% of the total N input during the 155 post-fire years. N2O fluxes were negligible (≤ 0.01 kg ha-1 yr-1) and did not differ among post-fire age classes. The number and intensity of microbial genes involved in N cycling were lower at the site 60 years after fire compared to the youngest and the oldest sites indicating potential differences in soil N cycling processes. The results suggest that in sub-arctic pine forests, the non-stand-replacing, intermediate-severity fires decrease considerably N pools in biomass but changes in soil and total ecosystem N pools are slight. Current fire-return interval does not seem to pose a great threat to ecosystem productivity and N status in these sub-arctic forests.

Partial Text

Fire is a major natural disturbance factor in boreal forests, with approximately 1% of boreal forests burned annually [1]. The frequency of forest fires is predicted to increase due to climate change in the boreal zone [2, 3]. As the boreal forests are the second largest biome on Earth, encompassing ~30% of the global forest area [1], increases in the annual area burned could have significant implications for carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) cycles [2, 4].

This study is among the few [8, 14, 70] that have studied the long-term effects of fire on the pools, fluxes and balance of N in boreal forests, and to our knowledge, none of them have been conducted in Fennoscandian subarctic Scots pine forests. The results indicate that a large part of the living biomass (51%) and its N pools (61%) are destroyed in non-stand-replacing, intermediate-severity fires. The biomass and N accumulated more slowly in the bottom layer than in the field layer after the fire. The biomass and N pools of the bottom layer vegetation exceeded those of the field layer vegetation about 60 years after the fire. Previous studies have also indicated that mosses recover slowly from the fire [33, 71], and it takes more than 50 years until the coverage of feather mosses reaches the pre-fire levels [33, 71]. The biomass and N pools of ground vegetation in the oldest age classes were about two times higher than those reported for southern boreal Scots pine forests [72, 73]. Ground vegetation has typically greater significance in nutrient dynamics in northern than in southern Finland [73].

The results suggest that non-stand-replacing fires in sub-arctic pine forests decrease considerably the N pools in living vegetation and increase the N pools stored in dead biomass. However, it seems that changes in total ecosystem N pool are minor, because large N pool in the soil does not noticeably change. The N pools of living vegetation increase with time since fire and contribute an increasing proportion of total ecosystem N in older stands. The results show that in the studied subarctic ecosystems, atmospheric deposition represents the major input of N, and the N outputs are small, assuming that our assumptions about long-term leaching are correct. N-fixation depends on the successional stage after a forest fire. Based on the number and intensity of genes related to N-fixation as well as the measurements of N-fixation, it seems that N-fixation rates can be substantial on the surface of the humus layer after the fire. However, because most of the N fixation takes place in mosses, and moss biomass increases with post-fire succession, total ecosystem N fixation rates increase with time since fire. N-fixation is five times higher in mature forests than in recently burned areas. N2O fluxes are negligible (≤ 0.01 kg ha-1 yr-1) compared to the other N fluxes and do not significantly differ among post-fire age classes.




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