The impacts and implications of an intensifying fire regime on Alaskan boreal forest composition and albedo
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Climate warming and drying are modifying the fire dynamics of many boreal forests, moving them towards a regime with a higher frequency of extreme fire years characterized by large burns of high severity. Plot-scale studies indicate that increased burn severity favors the recruitment of deciduous trees in the initial years following fire. Consequently, a set of biophysical effects of burn severity on postfire boreal successional trajectories at decadal timescales have been hypothesized. Prominent among these are a greater cover of deciduous tree species in intermediately aged stands after more severe burning, with associated implications for carbon and energy balances. Here we investigate whether the current vegetation composition of interior Alaska supports this hypothesis. A chronosequence of six decades of vegetation regrowth following fire was created using a database of burn scars, an existing forest biomass map, and maps of albedo and the deciduous fraction of vegetation that we derived from Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) satellite imagery. The deciduous fraction map depicted the proportion of aboveground biomass in deciduous vegetation, derived using a RandomForest algorithm trained with field data sets (n569, 71% variance explained). Analysis of the difference Normalized Burn Ratio, a remotely sensed index commonly used as an indicator of burn severity, indicated that burn size and ignition date can provide a proxy of burn severity for historical fires. LIDAR remote sensing and a bioclimatic model of evergreen forest distribution were used to further refine the stratification of the current landscape by burn severity. Our results show that since the 1950s, more severely burned areas in interior Alaska have produced a vegetation cohort that is characterized by greater deciduous biomass. We discuss the importance of this shift in vegetation composition due to climate-induced changes in fire severity for carbon sequestration in forest biomass and surface reflectance (albedo), among other feedbacks to climate.