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Publication Date
9 September 2022

Wildfire exacerbates high-latitude soil carbon losses from climate warming



Arctic and boreal permafrost soil organic carbon (SOC) decomposition has been slower than carbon inputs from plant growth since the last glaciation. Anthropogenic climate warming has threatened this historical trend by accelerating SOC decomposition and altering wildfire regimes. We accurately modeled observed plant biomass and carbon emissions from wildfires in Alaskan ecosystems under current climate conditions. In projections to 2300 under the RCP8.5 climate scenario, we found that warming and increased atmospheric CO2 will result in plant biomass gains and higher litterfall. However, increased carbon losses from (a) wildfire combustion and (b) rapid SOC decomposition driven by increased deciduous litter production, root exudation, and active layer depth will lead to about 4.4 PgC of soil carbon losses from Alaska by 2300 and most (88%) of these loses will be from the top 1 m of soil. These SOC losses offset plant carbon gains, causing the ecosystem to transition to a net carbon source after 2200. Simulations excluding wildfire increases yielded about a factor of four lower SOC losses by 2300. Our results show that projected wildfire and its direct and indirect effects on plant and soil carbon may accelerate high-latitude soil carbon losses, resulting in a positive feedback to climate change.

Mekonnen, Zelalem A., William J. Riley, James T. Randerson, Ian A. Shirley, Nicholas J. Bouskill, and Robert F. Grant. 2022. “Wildfire Exacerbates High-Latitude Soil Carbon Losses From Climate Warming”. Environmental Research Letters 17. doi:10.1088/1748-9326/ac8be6.
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