• The effects of permafrost degradation on soil carbon dynamics in Alaska's boreal region

      O'Donnell, Jonathan A. (2010-12)
      High-latitude regions store large quantities of organic carbon (C) in permafrost soils and peatlands, accounting for nearly half of the global belowground C pool. Projected climate warming over the next century will likely drive widespread thawing of near-surface permafrost and mobilization of soil C from deep soil horizons. However, the processes controlling soil C accumulation and loss following permafrost thaw are not well understood. To improve our understanding of these processes, I examined the effects of permafrost thaw on soil C dynamics in forested upland and peatland ecosystems of Alaska's boreal region. In upland forests, soil C accumulation and loss was governed by the complex interaction of wildfire and permafrost. Fluctuations in active layer depth across stand age and fire cycles determined the proportion of soil C in frozen or unfrozen soil, and in turn, the vulnerability of soil C to decomposition. Under present-day climate conditions, the presence of near-surface permafrost aids C stabilization through the upward movement of the permafrost table with post-fire ecosystem recovery. However, sensitivity analyses suggest that projected increases in air temperature and fire severity will accelerate permafrost thaw and soil C loss from deep mineral horizons. In the lowlands, permafrost thaw and collapse-scar bog formation resulted in the dramatic redistribution of soil water, modifying soil thermal and C dynamics. Water impoundment in collapse-scar bogs enhanced soil C accumulation in shallow peat horizons, while allowing for high rates of soil C loss from deep inundated peat horizons. Accumulation rates at the surface were not sufficient to balance deep C losses, resulting in a net loss of 26 g C m⁻² y⁻¹ from the entire peat column during the 3000 years following thaw. Findings from these studies highlight the vulnerability of soil C in Alaska's boreal region to future climate warming and permafrost thaw. As a result, permafrost thaw and soil C release from boreal soils to the atmosphere should function as a positive feedback to the climate system.
    • Post-fire variability in Siberian alder in Interior Alaska: distribution patterns, nitrogen fixation rates, and ecosystem consequences

      Houseman, Brian Richard; Ruess, Roger; Hollingsworth, Teresa; Verbyla, Dave (2017-12)
      The circumpolar boreal forest is responsible for a considerable proportion of global carbon sequestration and is an ecosystem with limited nitrogen (N) pools. Boreal forest fires are predicted to increase in severity, size, and frequency resulting in increased losses of N from this system due to volatilization. Siberian alder (Alnus viridis ssp. fruticosa) N-fixation is a significant source of N-input within the interior Alaskan boreal forest and likely plays a pivotal, though poorly understood, role in offsetting losses of N due to fire. This study disentangles the effects of fire severity, post-fire age, and environmental variables on Siberian alder N-input across the upland boreal forest and quantifies the landscape-level implications of Siberian alder N-input on N pool balance. Stand types of an early- and intermediate-age burn scar were determined by relevé plot sampling, hierarchical clustering, and indicator species analysis. Alder growth traits (density, nodule biomass, nodule N-fixation, and other traits) were sampled across all stand types, burn scars, and a fire severity gradient. Pre- and post-fire landscape-level N-fixation inputs were quantified within the early-age burn scar by scaling-up Siberian alder growth traits to the stand-level and then mapping the total area of pre- and post-fire stand types. Results show that fire severity shares a complex relationship with Siberian alder N-input in black spruce stands, wherein moderate fire severity has a negligible effect on Siberian alder N-input, moderate to high fire severity increases Siberian alder N-input, and high fire severity reduces Siberian alder N-input. Fire likely limited alder vegetative propagation in post-fire black spruce trajectory stands but enhanced propagation in post-fire deciduous trajectory stands that experienced moderate severity. Following the 2004 Boundary Fire, Siberian alder N-input showed an overall increase across the landscape, mostly within post-fire deciduous stand types. Future increases of fire severity and subsequent conversions of stand type from black spruce to deciduous dominance have the potential to increase total short-term N-input on the landscape, but a majority of those gains will be concentrated within a small proportion of the post-fire landscape (i.e. deciduous trajectory stand types). In the boreal forest, the temporal and spatial pattern of ecosystem processes that rely on N fixation inputs is dependent on the recruitment and growth of Siberian alder, which is in turn dependent on a complex relationship between fire severity, stand type, and post-fire age.