Drought-induced Amazonian wildfires instigate a decadal-scale disruption of forest carbon dynamics. Academic Article uri icon

abstract

  • Drought-induced wildfires have increased in frequency and extent over the tropics. Yet, the long-term (greater than 10 years) responses of Amazonian lowland forests to fire disturbance are poorly known. To understand post-fire forest biomass dynamics, and to assess the time required for fire-affected forests to recover to pre-disturbance levels, we combined 16 single with 182 multiple forest census into a unique large-scale and long-term dataset across the Brazilian Amazonia. We quantified biomass, mortality and wood productivity of burned plots along a chronosequence of up to 31 years post-fire and compared to surrounding unburned plots measured simultaneously. Stem mortality and growth were assessed among functional groups. At the plot level, we found that fire-affected forests have biomass levels 24.8 ± 6.9% below the biomass value of unburned control plots after 31 years. This lower biomass state results from the elevated levels of biomass loss through mortality, which is not sufficiently compensated for by wood productivity (incremental growth + recruitment). At the stem level, we found major changes in mortality and growth rates up to 11 years post-fire. The post-fire stem mortality rates exceeded unburned control plots by 680% (i.e. greater than 40 cm diameter at breast height (DBH); 5-8 years since last fire) and 315% (i.e. greater than 0.7 g cm-3 wood density; 0.75-4 years since last fire). Our findings indicate that wildfires in humid tropical forests can significantly reduce forest biomass for decades by enhancing mortality rates of all trees, including large and high wood density trees, which store the largest amount of biomass in old-growth forests. This assessment of stem dynamics, therefore, demonstrates that wildfires slow down or stall the post-fire recovery of Amazonian forests.This article is part of a discussion meeting issue 'The impact of the 2015/2016 El Niño on the terrestrial tropical carbon cycle: patterns, mechanisms and implications'.

publication date

  • October 8, 2018