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Effects of fire severity on plant nutrient uptake reinforce alternate pathways of succession in boreal forests

Shenoy, A., K. Kielland and J. F. Johnstone. 2013. Plant Ecology 214:587-596


Fire activity in the North American boreal region is projected to increase under a warming climate and trigger changes in vegetation composition. In black spruce forests of interior Alaska, fire severity impacts residual organic layer depth which is strongly linked to the relative dominance of deciduous versus coniferous trees in early succession. These alternate successional pathways may be reinforced by biogeochemical processes that affect the relative ability of deciduous versus coniferous trees to acquire limiting nutrients. To test this hypothesis, we examined changes in soil inorganic nitrogen (N) supply and in situ 15N root uptake by aspen ( Populus tremuloides ) and black spruce ( Picea mariana ) saplings regenerating in lightly and severely burned sites, 16 years following fire. Fire severity did not impact the composition or magnitude of N supply, and nitrate represented nearly 40 % of total N supply. Both aspen and spruce took up more N in severely burned than in lightly burned sites. Spruce exhibited only a moderately lower rate of nitrate uptake, and a higher ammonium uptake rate than aspen in severely burned sites. At the stand level, differences in species nutrient uptake were magnified, with aspen taking up nearly an order-of-magnitude more N per m2 in severely burned than in lightly burned sites. We suggest that differences in nutrient sinks (biomass) established early in succession and effects of post-fire organic layer depth on nutrient uptake, are key mechanisms reinforcing the opposing stand dominance patterns that have developed in response to variations in organic layer depth.

Key Words

Fire severity, Boreal forest, Soil nitrogen, Plant nitrogen uptake, Succession