Letter | Published:

Fire frequency drives decadal changes in soil carbon and nitrogen and ecosystem productivity

Nature volume 553, pages 194198 (11 January 2018) | Download Citation


Fire frequency is changing globally and is projected to affect the global carbon cycle and climate1,2,3. However, uncertainty about how ecosystems respond to decadal changes in fire frequency makes it difficult to predict the effects of altered fire regimes on the carbon cycle; for instance, we do not fully understand the long-term effects of fire on soil carbon and nutrient storage, or whether fire-driven nutrient losses limit plant productivity4,5. Here we analyse data from 48 sites in savanna grasslands, broadleaf forests and needleleaf forests spanning up to 65 years, during which time the frequency of fires was altered at each site. We find that frequently burned plots experienced a decline in surface soil carbon and nitrogen that was non-saturating through time, having 36 per cent (±13 per cent) less carbon and 38 per cent (±16 per cent) less nitrogen after 64 years than plots that were protected from fire. Fire-driven carbon and nitrogen losses were substantial in savanna grasslands and broadleaf forests, but not in temperate and boreal needleleaf forests. We also observe comparable soil carbon and nitrogen losses in an independent field dataset and in dynamic model simulations of global vegetation. The model study predicts that the long-term losses of soil nitrogen that result from more frequent burning may in turn decrease the carbon that is sequestered by net primary productivity by about 20 per cent of the total carbon that is emitted from burning biomass over the same period. Furthermore, we estimate that the effects of changes in fire frequency on ecosystem carbon storage may be 30 per cent too low if they do not include multidecadal changes in soil carbon, especially in drier savanna grasslands. Future changes in fire frequency may shift ecosystem carbon storage by changing soil carbon pools and nitrogen limitations on plant growth, altering the carbon sink capacity of frequently burning savanna grasslands and broadleaf forests.

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We thank all authors of the studies used in the meta-analysis; the Cedar Creek Long Term Ecological Research programme; The Morton Arboretum Center for Tree Science programme; and J. Harden, L. Hedin, S. Pacala and M. Turner for providing feedback. Funding was provided by a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate and Global Change Postdoctoral Fellowship (to A.F.A.P.); the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation (R.B.J.); the ModElling the Regional and Global Earth system (MERGE) (L.P.N.); and the Department of Energy Office of Science Biological and Environmental Research (J.T.R.).

Author information


  1. Department of Earth System Science, Stanford University, Stanford, California 94305, USA

    • Adam F. A. Pellegrini
    • , Anders Ahlström
    •  & Robert B. Jackson
  2. Department of Physical Geography and Ecosystem Science, Lund University, Lund, Sweden

    • Anders Ahlström
  3. Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior, University of Minnesota, St Paul, Minnesota 55108, USA

    • Sarah E. Hobbie
  4. Department of Forest Resources, University of Minnesota, St Paul, Minnesota 55108, USA

    • Peter B. Reich
  5. Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment, Western Sydney University, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

    • Peter B. Reich
  6. Centre for Environmental and Climate Research, CEC, Lund University, Lund, Sweden

    • Lars P. Nieradzik
  7. Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut 06520, USA

    • A. Carla Staver
  8. College of Natural Resources, University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point, Stevens Point, Wisconsin 54481, USA

    • Bryant C. Scharenbroch
  9. Division of Biology, Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kansas 66506, USA

    • Ari Jumpponen
  10. Department of Biology, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah 84112, USA

    • William R. L. Anderegg
  11. Department of Earth System Science, University of California–Irvine, Irvine, California 92697, USA

    • James T. Randerson
  12. Woods Institute for the Environment and Precourt Institute for Energy, Stanford University, Stanford, California 94305, USA

    • Robert B. Jackson


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A.F.A.P. and R.B.J. conceived of and designed the study, with input from A.A.; A.F.A.P., S.E.H., P.B.R., B.C.S. and A.J. collected and contributed data; A.F.A.P. performed statistical analyses; L.P.N. developed the fire model; and L.P.N. and A.A. performed model simulations. A.F.A.P. wrote the first draft and all authors contributed feedback.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Adam F. A. Pellegrini.

Reviewer Information Nature thanks T. DeLuca, A. D. McGuire and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher's note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    This file contains fire nutrient meta data 1-12, figures S1-S15 and tables S1-S12.

Excel files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Data

    This file contains dataset 1.

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