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Influence of tree species on continental differences in boreal fires and climate feedbacks

Abstract

Wildfires are common in boreal forests around the globe and strongly influence ecosystem processes. However, North American forests support more high-intensity crown fires than Eurasia, where lower-intensity surface fires are common. These two types of fire can result in different net effects on climate as a consequence of their contrasting impacts on terrestrial albedo and carbon stocks. Here we use remote-sensing imagery, climate reanalysis data and forest inventories to evaluate differences in boreal fire dynamics between North America and Eurasia and their key drivers. Eurasian fires were less intense, destroyed less live vegetation, killed fewer trees and generated a smaller negative shortwave forcing. As fire weather conditions were similar across continents, we suggest that different fire dynamics between the two continents resulted from their dominant tree species. In particular, species that have evolved to spread and be consumed by crown fires as part of their life cycle dominate North American boreal forests. In contrast, tree species that have evolved to resist and suppress crown fires dominate Eurasian boreal forests. We conclude that species-level traits must be considered in global evaluations of the effects of fire on emissions and climate.

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Figure 1: Maps of the boreal domain and satellite products.
Figure 2: Regional comparisons of intensity and severity.
Figure 3: Differences in post-fire albedo forcing.
Figure 4: Effects of fire strategy on fire dynamics.

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Acknowledgements

This work was financially supported by the US National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). NSF support included a Graduate Research Fellowship (ID 2009067341) to B.M.R. and a Decadal and Regional Climate Prediction using Earth System Models award to J.T.R. (AGS-1048890). This work was also supported by NASA Carbon Cycle (NNX11AF96G), Atmosphere (NNX10AT83G), and Interdisciplinary Research in Earth Science (NNH09ZDA-IDS-0116) programs, and the Carbon in Arctic Reservoirs Vulnerability Experiment (CARVE). We thank S. Conard, W. Kurz, S. Goetz and S. Davis for conversations on continental fire patterns, the National Research Council Canada for providing mapped forest inventory data, and the NASA LP DAAC for data distribution.

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B.M.R., J.T.R., M.L.G. and A.J.S. designed research; B.M.R. performed the research; A.J.S. provided Russian vegetation data sets; B.M.R. drafted the paper; J.T.R., M.L.G. and A.J.S. contributed to the interpretation of the results and to the text.

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Correspondence to Brendan M. Rogers.

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Rogers, B., Soja, A., Goulden, M. et al. Influence of tree species on continental differences in boreal fires and climate feedbacks. Nature Geosci 8, 228–234 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo2352

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