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Long-term impacts of wildfire and logging on forest soils

Abstract

Soils are a fundamental component of terrestrial ecosystems, and play key roles in biogeochemical cycles and the ecology of microbial, plant and animal communities. Global increases in the intensity and frequency of ecological disturbances are driving major changes in the structure and function of forest ecosystems, yet little is known about the long-term impacts of disturbance on soils. Here we show that natural disturbance (fire) and human disturbances (clearcut logging and post-fire salvage logging) can significantly alter the composition of forest soils for far longer than previously recognized. Using extensive sampling across a multi-century chronosequence in some of the tallest and most carbon-dense forests worldwide (southern Australian, mountain ash (Eucalyptus regnans) forests), we provide compelling evidence that disturbance impacts on soils are evident up to least eight decades after disturbance, and potentially much longer. Relative to long-undisturbed forest (167 years old), sites subject to multiple fires, clearcut logging or salvage logging were characterized by soils with significantly lower values of a range of ecologically important measures at multiple depths, including available phosphorus and nitrate. Disturbance impacts on soils were most pronounced on sites subject to compounding perturbations, such as multiple fires and clearcut logging. Long-lasting impacts of disturbance on soil can have major ecological and functional implications.

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Fig. 1: Disturbance histories influence soil measures along a multi-century chronosequence.

photographs taken by Esther Beaton and David Lindenmayer

Fig. 2: The pervasive impacts of multiple fires and logging on soil measures.
Fig. 3: The impact of fire and logging in similarly aged forests on soil measures.
Fig. 4: Post-disturbance processes and pathways that influence and impact abiotic soil environments.

images provided by Elle Bowd, David Lindenmayer and David Blair

Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available in the Supplementary Information and from the corresponding author upon request.

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Acknowledgements

The authors thank the Victorian Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning and Parks Victoria for granting access to restricted sites, volunteers who assisted in data collection, A. Bissett for methodological advice, W. Blanchard for statistical advice, and the following groups for funding: the Paddy Pallin Foundation, Centre of Biodiversity Analysis, the Ecological Society of Australia and the Holsworth Wildlife Research Endowment fund.

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E.J.B. conducted data collection and statistical analyses, and led the writing of the manuscript and experimental design of this study. D.B.L. contributed to the experimental design of this study and manuscript editing. S.C.B. contributed to statistical analysis, experimental design and manuscript editing. C.L.S. contributed to manuscript editing.

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Correspondence to Elle J. Bowd.

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Supplementary Description, Supplementary Fig. 1 and Tables 1–7

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Bowd, E.J., Banks, S.C., Strong, C.L. et al. Long-term impacts of wildfire and logging on forest soils. Nature Geosci 12, 113–118 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41561-018-0294-2

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