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.
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $3.90 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
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)
Knorr, W., Arneth, A. & Jiang, L. Demographic controls of future global fire risk. Nat. Clim. Chang. 6, 781–785 (2016)
Andela, N. et al. A human-driven decline in global burned area. Science 356, 1356–1362 (2017)
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)
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)
Randerson, J. T. et al. The impact of boreal forest fire on climate warming. Science 314, 1130–1132 (2006)
van der Werf, G. R. et al. Global fire emissions estimates during 1997–2016. Earth Syst. Sci. Data 9, 697–720 (2017)
LeBauer, D. S. & Treseder, K. K. Nitrogen limitation of net primary productivity in terrestrial ecosystems is globally distributed. Ecology 89, 371–379 (2008)
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)
DeLuca, T. H. & Sala, A. Frequent fire alters nitrogen transformations in ponderosa pine stands of the inland northwest. Ecology 87, 2511–2522 (2006)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
Knapp, A. K. & Seastedt, T. R. Detritus accumulation limits productivity of tallgrass prairie. Bioscience 36, 662–668 (1986)
Hedges, L. V., Gurevitch, J. & Curtis, P. S. The meta-analysis of response ratios in experimental ecology. Ecology 80, 1150–1156 (1999)
DeBano, L. F ., Neary, D. G. & Ffolliott, P. F. Fire Effects on Ecosystems (John Wiley, 1998)
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)
Santín, C. et al. Towards a global assessment of pyrogenic carbon from vegetation fires. Glob. Change Biol. 22, 76–91 (2016)
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)
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)
McKee, W. H. Changes In Soil Fertility Following Prescribed Burning On Coastal Plain Pine Sites (Southeastern Forest Experiment Station, 1982)
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)
Davidson, E. A. et al. The Amazon basin in transition. Nature 481, 321–328 (2012)
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)
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)
Ricklefs, R. E. The Economy of Nature (WH Freeman, 2008)
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.).
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
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.
About this article
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). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature24668
Mapping soil organic carbon stocks and trends with satellite-driven high resolution maps over South Africa
Science of The Total Environment (2021)
Grafting improves tomato yield under low nitrogen conditions by enhancing nitrogen metabolism in plants
Effects of fire on soil respiration and its components in a Dahurian larch (Larix gmelinii) forest in northeast China: Implications for forest ecosystem carbon cycling
BII-Implementation: The causes and consequences of plant biodiversity across scales in a rapidly changing world
Research Ideas and Outcomes (2021)
Changes in Biomass Turnover Times in Tropical Forests and Their Environmental Drivers From 2001 to 2012
Earth's Future (2021)