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Forest fires in Canadian permafrost region: the combined effects of fire and permafrost dynamics on soil organic matter quality

Aaltonen, Heidi, Köster, Kajar, Köster, Egle, Berninger, Frank, Zhou, Xuan, Karhu, Kristiina, Biasi, Christina, Bruckman, Viktor, Palviainen, Marjo, Pumpanen, Jukka
Biogeochemistry 2019 v.143 no.2 pp. 257-274
boreal forests, burning, carbon, carbon nitrogen ratio, chronosequences, ethanol, forest fires, fractionation, highlands, microbial biomass, mineral soils, nitrogen, permafrost, soil carbon, soil organic matter, soil sampling, soil temperature, stable isotopes, thawing, topsoil
Wildfires burn approximately 1% of boreal forest yearly, being one of the most significant factors affecting soil organic matter (SOM) pools. Boreal forests are largely situated in the permafrost zone, which contains half of global soil carbon (C). Wildfires advance thawing of permafrost by burning the insulating organic layer and decreasing surface albedo, thus increasing soil temperatures. Fires also affect SOM quality through chemical and physical changes, such as the formation of resistant C compounds. The long-term post-fire effects on SOM quality, degradability and isotopic composition are not well known in permafrost forests. We studied the effect of forest fires on the proportional sizes of SOM pools with chemical fractionation (extracting with water, ethanol and acid) of soil samples (5, 30 and 50 cm depths) collected from a fire chronosequence in the upland mineral soils of the Canadian permafrost zone. We also determined the ¹³C and ¹⁵N isotopic composition of soil after fire. In the topsoil horizon (5 cm) recent fire areas contained a smaller fraction of labile SOM and were slightly more enriched with ¹⁵N and ¹³C than older fire areas. The SOM fraction ratios reverted towards pre-fire status with succession. Changes in SOM were less apparent deeper in the soil. Best predictors for the size of recalcitrant SOM fraction were active layer depth, vegetation biomass and soil C/N ratio, whereas microbial biomass was best predicted by the size of the recalcitrant SOM fraction. Results indicated that SOM in upland mineral soils at the permafrost surface could be mainly recalcitrant and its decomposition not particularly sensitive to changes resulting from fire.