Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

  • Letter
  • Published:

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


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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Buy this article

Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Figure 1: Distribution of study sites.
Figure 2: Effects of fire on soil carbon and nitrogen across ecosystems and over time.
Figure 3: Responses of P, Ca and K to changes in fire frequency.
Figure 4: Effect of N losses on net primary productivity (NPP) across savanna grasslands globally.

Similar content being viewed by others


  1. Westerling, A. L., Hidalgo, H. G., Cayan, D. R. & Swetnam, T. W. Warming and earlier spring increase western US forest wildfire activity. Science 313, 940–943 (2006)

    Article  CAS  ADS  Google Scholar 

  2. Knorr, W., Arneth, A. & Jiang, L. Demographic controls of future global fire risk. Nat. Clim. Chang. 6, 781–785 (2016)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  3. Andela, N. et al. A human-driven decline in global burned area. Science 356, 1356–1362 (2017)

    Article  CAS  ADS  Google Scholar 

  4. Jobbágy, E. G. & Jackson, R. B. The vertical distribution of soil organic carbon and its relation to climate and vegetation. Ecol. Appl. 10, 423–436 (2000)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Jackson, R. B., Banner, J. L., Jobbágy, E. G., Pockman, W. T. & Wall, D. H. Ecosystem carbon loss with woody plant invasion of grasslands. Nature 418, 623–626 (2002)

    Article  CAS  ADS  Google Scholar 

  6. Randerson, J. T. et al. The impact of boreal forest fire on climate warming. Science 314, 1130–1132 (2006)

    Article  CAS  ADS  Google Scholar 

  7. van der Werf, G. R. et al. Global fire emissions estimates during 1997–2016. Earth Syst. Sci. Data 9, 697–720 (2017)

    Google Scholar 

  8. LeBauer, D. S. & Treseder, K. K. Nitrogen limitation of net primary productivity in terrestrial ecosystems is globally distributed. Ecology 89, 371–379 (2008)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Pellegrini, A. F. A., Hoffmann, W. A. & Franco, A. C. Carbon accumulation and nitrogen pool recovery during transitions from savanna to forest in central Brazil. Ecology 95, 342–352 (2014)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. DeLuca, T. H. & Sala, A. Frequent fire alters nitrogen transformations in ponderosa pine stands of the inland northwest. Ecology 87, 2511–2522 (2006)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Reich, P. B., Peterson, D. W., Wedin, D. A. & Wrage, K. Fire and vegetation effects on productivity and nitrogen cycling across a forest-grassland continuum. Ecology 82, 1703–1719 (2001)

    Google Scholar 

  12. Newland, J. A. & DeLuca, T. H. Influence of fire on native nitrogen-fixing plants and soil nitrogen status in ponderosa pine–Douglas-fir forests in western Montana. Can. J. For. Res. 30, 274–282 (2000)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Boerner, R. E. J., Huang, J. & Hart, S. C. Impacts of fire and fire surrogate treatments on forest soil properties: a meta-analytical approach. Ecol. Appl. 19, 338–358 (2009)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Wan, S., Hui, D. & Luo, Y. Fire effects on nitrogen pools and dynamics in terrestrial ecosystems: a meta-analysis. Ecol. Appl. 11, 1349–1365 (2001)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Neary, D. G., Klopatek, C. C., DeBano, L. F. & Ffolliott, P. F. Fire effects on belowground sustainability: a review and synthesis. For. Ecol. Manage. 122, 51–71 (1999)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Kauffman, J. B., Cummings, D. L., Ward, D. E. & Babbitt, R. Fire in the Brazilian Amazon: 1. Biomass, nutrient pools, and losses in slashed primary forests. Oecologia 104, 397–408 (1995)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  17. Pellegrini, A. F. A., Hedin, L. O., Staver, A. C. & Govender, N. Fire alters ecosystem carbon and nutrients but not plant nutrient stoichiometry or composition in tropical savanna. Ecology 96, 1275–1285 (2015)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Knapp, A. K. & Seastedt, T. R. Detritus accumulation limits productivity of tallgrass prairie. Bioscience 36, 662–668 (1986)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Hedges, L. V., Gurevitch, J. & Curtis, P. S. The meta-analysis of response ratios in experimental ecology. Ecology 80, 1150–1156 (1999)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. DeBano, L. F ., Neary, D. G. & Ffolliott, P. F. Fire Effects on Ecosystems (John Wiley, 1998)

  21. Smith, B. et al. Implications of incorporating N cycling and N limitations on primary production in an individual-based dynamic vegetation model. Biogeosciences 11, 2027–2054 (2014)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  22. Santín, C. et al. Towards a global assessment of pyrogenic carbon from vegetation fires. Glob. Change Biol. 22, 76–91 (2016)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  23. DeLuca, T. H. & Aplet, G. H. Charcoal and carbon storage in forest soils of the Rocky Mountain West. Front. Ecol. Environ. 6, 18–24 (2008)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. DeLuca, T. H., Zackrisson, O., Nilsson, M.-C. & Sellstedt, A. Quantifying nitrogen-fixation in feather moss carpets of boreal forests. Nature 419, 917–920 (2002)

    Article  CAS  ADS  Google Scholar 

  25. McKee, W. H. Changes In Soil Fertility Following Prescribed Burning On Coastal Plain Pine Sites (Southeastern Forest Experiment Station, 1982)

  26. Wardle, D. A., Hörnberg, G., Zackrisson, O., Kalela-Brundin, M. & Coomes, D. A. Long-term effects of wildfire on ecosystem properties across an island area gradient. Science 300, 972–975 (2003)

    Article  CAS  ADS  Google Scholar 

  27. Davidson, E. A. et al. The Amazon basin in transition. Nature 481, 321–328 (2012)

    Article  CAS  ADS  Google Scholar 

  28. Ramakrishnan, P. S. & Toky, O. P. Soil nutrient status of hill agro-ecosystems and recovery pattern after slash and burn agriculture (Jhum) in north-eastern India. Plant Soil 60, 41–64 (1981)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  29. Vitousek, P. M., Porder, S., Houlton, B. Z. & Chadwick, O. A. Terrestrial phosphorus limitation: mechanism, implications, and nitrogen-phosphorus interactions. Ecol. Appl. 20, 5–15 (2010)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Ricklefs, R. E. The Economy of Nature (WH Freeman, 2008)

Download references


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

Authors and Affiliations



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.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Adam F. A. Pellegrini.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Additional information

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

Supplementary Information

This file contains fire nutrient meta data 1-12, figures S1-S15 and tables S1-S12. (PDF 1909 kb)

Supplementary Data

This file contains dataset 1. (XLSX 20 kb)

PowerPoint slides

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Pellegrini, A., Ahlström, A., Hobbie, S. et al. Fire frequency drives decadal changes in soil carbon and nitrogen and ecosystem productivity. Nature 553, 194–198 (2018).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing