The response of Arctic vegetation and soils following an unusually severe tundra fire
Bret-Harte, M. Syndonia
Mack, Michelle C.
Shaver, Gaius R.
Huebner, Diane C.
Mojica, Camilo A.
Reiskind, Julia A.
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KeywordAlaskan tussock tundra; Fire; Vegetation recovery; Permafrost; Climate change; Soil N availability
Fire causes dramatic short-term changes in vegetation and ecosystem function, and may promote rapid vegetation change by creating recruitment opportunities. Climate warming likely will increase the frequency of wildfire in the Arctic, where it is not common now. In 2007, the unusually severe Anaktuvuk River fire burned 1039 km2 of tundra on Alaska's North Slope. Four years later, we harvested plant biomass and soils across a gradient of burn severity, to assess recovery. In burned areas, above-ground net primary productivity of vascular plants equalled that in unburned areas, though total live biomass was less. Graminoid biomass had recovered to unburned levels, but shrubs had not. Virtually all vascular plant biomass had resprouted from surviving underground parts; no non-native species were seen. However, bryophytes were mostly disturbance-adapted species, and non-vascular biomass had recovered less than vascular plant biomass. Soil nitrogen availability did not differ between burned and unburned sites. Graminoids showed allocation changes consistent with nitrogen stress. These patterns are similar to those seen following other, smaller tundra fires. Soil nitrogen limitation and the persistence of resprouters will likely lead to recovery of mixed shrub–sedge tussock tundra, unless permafrost thaws, as climate warms, more extensively than has yet occurred.
© The Author(s), 2013. This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License. The definitive version was published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B Biological Sciences 368 (2013): 20120490, doi:10.1098/rstb.2012.0490.
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