Modeling long-term changes in tundra carbon balance following wildfire, climate change, and potential nutrient addition. Academic Article uri icon


  • To investigate the underlying mechanisms that control long-term recovery of tundra carbon (C) and nutrients after fire, we employed the Multiple Element Limitation (MEL) model to simulate 200-yr post-fire changes in the biogeochemistry of three sites along a burn severity gradient in response to increases in air temperature, CO2 concentration, nitrogen (N) deposition, and phosphorus (P) weathering rates. The simulations were conducted for severely burned, moderately burned, and unburned arctic tundra. Our simulations indicated that recovery of C balance after fire was mainly determined by the internal redistribution of nutrients among ecosystem components (controlled by air temperature), rather than the supply of nutrients from external sources (e.g., nitrogen deposition and fixation, phosphorus weathering). Increases in air temperature and atmospheric CO2 concentration resulted in (1) a net transfer of nutrient from soil organic matter to vegetation and (2) higher C : nutrient ratios in vegetation and soil organic matter. These changes led to gains in vegetation biomass C but net losses in soil organic C stocks. Under a warming climate, nutrients lost in wildfire were difficult to recover because the warming-induced acceleration in nutrient cycles caused further net nutrient loss from the system through leaching. In both burned and unburned tundra, the warming-caused acceleration in nutrient cycles and increases in ecosystem C stocks were eventually constrained by increases in soil C : nutrient ratios, which increased microbial retention of plant-available nutrients in the soil. Accelerated nutrient turnover, loss of C, and increasing soil temperatures will likely result in vegetation changes, which further regulate the long-term biogeochemical succession. Our analysis should help in the assessment of tundra C budgets and of the recovery of biogeochemical function following fire, which is in turn necessary for the maintenance of wildlife habitat and tundra vegetation.

publication date

  • January 2017