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Fire as the dominant driver of central Canadian boreal forest carbon balance


Changes in climate, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration and fire regimes have been occurring for decades in the global boreal forest1,2,3, with future climate change likely to increase fire frequency4—the primary disturbance agent in most boreal forests3,5. Previous attempts to assess quantitatively the effect of changing environmental conditions on the net boreal forest carbon balance have not taken into account the competition between different vegetation types on a large scale6,7,8,9. Here we use a process model with three competing vascular and non-vascular vegetation types to examine the effects of climate, carbon dioxide concentrations and fire disturbance on net biome production, net primary production and vegetation dominance in 100 Mha of Canadian boreal forest. We find that the carbon balance of this region was driven by changes in fire disturbance from 1948 to 2005. Climate changes affected the variability, but not the mean, of the landscape carbon balance, with precipitation exerting a more significant effect than temperature. We show that more frequent and larger fires in the late twentieth century resulted in deciduous trees and mosses increasing production at the expense of coniferous trees. Our model did not however exhibit the increases in total forest net primary production that have been inferred from satellite data1,10. We find that poor soil drainage decreased the variability of the landscape carbon balance, which suggests that increased climate and hydrological changes have the potential to affect disproportionately the carbon dynamics of these areas. Overall, we conclude that direct ecophysiological changes resulting from global climate change have not yet been felt in this large boreal region. Variations in the landscape carbon balance and vegetation dominance have so far been driven largely by increases in fire frequency.

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Figure 1: Difference in net biome production (NBP) between simulation scenarios, over length of simulation.
Figure 2: Temporal and spatial distribution of simulated net primary production (NPP).
Figure 3: Comparison of model output with observed data from a variety of studies.


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This research was supported by National Aeronautics and Space Administration and National Science Foundation (Integrated Research Challenges in Environmental Biology) grants to S.T.G. Biome-BGC version 4.1.2 was provided by the Numerical Terradynamic Simulation Group (NTSG) at the University of Montana; NTSG assumes no responsibility for the proper use of Biome-BGC by others. This study would not have been possible without the assistance of D. Luke.

Author Contributions S.T.G., B.B.-L. and D.E.A. designed the experiment. S.D.P. and D.E.A. assembled input data, and B.B.-L. and S.D.P. wrote code, ran the model, and analysed output data. B.B.-L. administered the experiment and wrote the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Ben Bond-Lamberty.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

The file contains Supplementary Notes, Supplementary Figures S1-S2, Supplementary Table S1 and additional references. This document gives a full map of the study area, maps of input data, a table summarizing meteorological input data used, and references to studies appearing in Figure 3 of the main text. (PDF 2103 kb)

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Bond-Lamberty, B., Peckham, S., Ahl, D. et al. Fire as the dominant driver of central Canadian boreal forest carbon balance. Nature 450, 89–92 (2007).

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