Implications of increased deciduous cover on stand structure and aboveground carbon pools of Alaskan boreal forests
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Fire activity in boreal forests has increased recently with climate warming, altering stand structure and composition in many areas. Changes in stand dynamics have the potential to alter C cycling and biophysical processes, with feedbacks to global and regional climate. Here, we assess the interactions between fire, stand structure, and aboveground C accumulation and storage within boreal forests of interior Alaska, where increased fire severity is predicted to shift forest composition from predominantly black spruce (Picea mariana) to greater deciduous cover. We measured aboveground biomass and net primary productivity (ANPP) of trees and large shrubs, snags, and downed woody debris across 44 mid-successional (20-59 years since fire) stands of varying deciduous importance value (IV), determined by relative density, basal area, and frequency of deciduous trees and large shrubs within each stand. Aboveground biomass, ANPP, and deciduous snag biomass increased significantly with increased deciduous IV and years since fire. Deciduous IV had little influence on evergreen snag biomass and downed woody debris, but both C pools decreased with years since fire. Forest type also affected stand structure and C pools. Black spruce stands had shorter trees with less basal area and aboveground biomass and slower rates of biomass accumulation and ANPP compared to those dominated by trembling aspen (Populus tremuloides) or Alaska birch (Betula neoalaskana). These parameters in black spruce stands were similar to mixed stands of black spruce and aspen but were often lower than mixed stands of black spruce and Alaska birch. Much of the biomass accumulation in deciduous stands was attributed to higher tree-level ANPP, allowing individual stems of deciduous species to accumulate more stemwood/ bark faster than black spruce trees. If increased fire activity shifts stand composition from black spruce to increased deciduous cover, ANPP, aboveground tree/large shrub biomass, and deciduous snag biomass will increase, leading to increased aboveground C pools in mid-successional forest stands of interior Alaska. While species dominance shifts like these will impact aboveground patterns of landscape-level C cycling in boreal forests, variations in soil C pools and forest properties like albedo must also be assessed to accurately determine implications for global and regional climate.