Canadian Forest Service Publications

Do boreal forests need fire disturbance to maintain productivity? 2014. Ward, C.; Pothier, D.; Paré, D. Ecosystems 17:1053-1067.

Year: 2014

Issued by: Laurentian Forestry Centre

Catalog ID: 35679

Language: English

Availability: PDF (request by e-mail)

Available from the Journal's Web site.
DOI: 10.1007/s10021-014-9782-4

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Fire is considered as a major driver of ecosystem processes of the boreal forest with important effects on soil and forest productivity. When the interval between successive forest fires is long, a thick organic layer can develop and eventually interfere with processes involved in tree nutrient uptake. We thus hypothesized that the organic layer of well-drained boreal stands increases with time since last fire and that thick organic layers are associated with low values of soil temperature, nutrient availability, and site productivity. This was tested on a chronosequence composed of 90 boreal stands ranging from 1 to more than 2000 years after fire within which we measured organic layer thickness (OLT), mineral soil and foliage nutrient concentrations, soil temperature, ground cover of Sphagnum sp. and Ericaceae sp., leaf area index, aboveground biomass production, and growth efficiency index (GEI). The OLT increased during the first 64 years after fire but stayed statistically constant thereafter. This initial increase in OLT was accompanied by an increase in the C/N ratio and decreases in soil temperature, foliar N, and GEI. The absence of a significant decrease in productivity from 80 to 2000 years post-fire suggests that these characteristics reach a steady state early in the chronosequence that persists in the absence of major disturbances or changes in site conditions. These results imply that management practices may not be necessary to maintain boreal forest productivity in the absence of fire on well-drained sites.

Plain Language Summary

The objective of this study was to verify how post fire productivity evolves in the boreal forest over a 2000 year horizon.

In these forests, fire has a major impact on biodiversity and productivity. Fire changes the structure and composition of forests and increases soil fertility. In some ecosystems with a long fire interval, the researchers observed a decrease in forest productivity. This decrease is often accompanied by a thickening of the organic layer.

On well drained sites, the beneficial effects of fire become less pronounced after about 60 years. Once this period has passed, tree productivity, soil fertility and temperature, and the thickening of the organic layer appear to stabilize. The researchers conclude that the stimulating effect of fire on the soil and on growth is short lived and that the absence of fire does not result in unproductive stands.