Letter | Published:

Carbon loss from an unprecedented Arctic tundra wildfire

Nature volume 475, pages 489492 (28 July 2011) | Download Citation

Abstract

Arctic tundra soils store large amounts of carbon (C) in organic soil layers hundreds to thousands of years old that insulate, and in some cases maintain, permafrost soils1,2. Fire has been largely absent from most of this biome since the early Holocene epoch3, but its frequency and extent are increasing, probably in response to climate warming4. The effect of fires on the C balance of tundra landscapes, however, remains largely unknown. The Anaktuvuk River fire in 2007 burned 1,039 square kilometres of Alaska’s Arctic slope, making it the largest fire on record for the tundra biome and doubling the cumulative area burned since 1950 (ref. 5). Here we report that tundra ecosystems lost 2,016 ± 435 g C m−2 in the fire, an amount two orders of magnitude larger than annual net C exchange in undisturbed tundra6. Sixty per cent of this C loss was from soil organic matter, and radiocarbon dating of residual soil layers revealed that the maximum age of soil C lost was 50 years. Scaled to the entire burned area, the fire released approximately 2.1 teragrams of C to the atmosphere, an amount similar in magnitude to the annual net C sink for the entire Arctic tundra biome averaged over the last quarter of the twentieth century7. The magnitude of ecosystem C lost by fire, relative to both ecosystem and biome-scale fluxes, demonstrates that a climate-driven increase in tundra fire disturbance may represent a positive feedback, potentially offsetting Arctic greening8 and influencing the net C balance of the tundra biome.

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Acknowledgements

We thank J. Ahgook Jr, L. Boby, M. Cahill, E. Miya, E. Miller, J. Oyler, C. Roberts, E. Suronen, C. Wachs, C. Wasykowski and D. Yokel for their contributions to fieldwork, C. Apodaca, G. Blohm, E. Brown, G. Crummer and D. Nossov for their contributions to laboratory work and sample analyses, H. Alexander for contributing to data analyses, and P. Ray for insights into tussock morphology. This research was supported by the US NSF Division of Environmental Biology, the Division of Biological Infrastructure and Office of Polar Programs, by the US National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis and by the US Bureau of Land Management Alaska Fire Service and Arctic Field Office.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Department of Biology, University of Florida, PO Box 118525, Gainesville, Florida 32611, USA

    • Michelle C. Mack
    •  & Edward A. G. Schuur
  2. Institute of Arctic Biology, University of Alaska Fairbanks, PO Box 757000, Fairbanks, Alaska 99775, USA

    • M. Syndonia Bret-Harte
  3. Boreal Ecology Cooperative Research Unit, PNW Research Station USDA Forest Service, PO Box 756780, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks, Alaska 99775, USA

    • Teresa N. Hollingsworth
  4. Alaska Fire Service, Bureau of Land Management, PO Box 35005, Fort Wainwright, Alaska 99703, USA

    • Randi R. Jandt
  5. The Ecosystems Center, Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, Massachusetts 02543, USA

    • Gaius R. Shaver
  6. Department of Forest Sciences, University of Alaska Fairbanks, PO Box 757200, Fairbanks, Alaska, USA

    • David L. Verbyla

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Contributions

M.C.M., M.S.B.-H., T.N.H., R.R.J. and D.L.V. designed the study with input from E.A.G.S. and G.R.S. M.C.M., T.N.H., R.R.J. and M.S.B.-H. conducted soil and vegetation sampling fieldwork and M.C.M., E.A.G.S. and D.L.V. analysed samples and data. M.C.M. wrote the manuscript with input from all co-authors.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Michelle C. Mack.

The data described in this study is publicly available in the Arctic Long Term Ecological Research data archive (http://ecosystems.mbl.edu/arc/burn/data.html).

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    Supplementary Information

    This file contains Supplementary Methods, additional references, Supplementary Figures 1-6 with legends and Supplementary Tables 1-3.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/nature10283

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