Charcoal reflectance reveals early Holocene boreal deciduous forests burned at high intensities

Victoria A. Hudspith, Claire M. Belcher, Ryan Kelly, Feng Sheng Hu

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27 Scopus citations


Wildfire size, frequency, and severity are increasing in the Alaskan boreal forest in response to climate warming. One of the potential impacts of this changing fire regime is the alteration of successional trajectories, from black spruce to mixed stands dominated by aspen, a vegetation composition not experienced since the early Holocene. Such changes in vegetation composition may consequently alter the intensity of fires, influencing fire feedbacks to the ecosystem. Paleorecords document past wildfire-vegetation dynamics and as such, are imperative for our understanding of how these ecosystems will respond to future climate warming. For the first time, we have used reflectance measurements of macroscopic charcoal particles (>180μm) from an Alaskan lake-sediment record to estimate ancient charring temperatures (termed pyrolysis intensity). We demonstrate that pyrolysis intensity increased markedly from an interval of birch tundra 11 ky ago (mean 1.52%Ro; 485° C), to the expansion of trees on the landscape ∼10.5 ky ago, remaining high to the present (mean 3.54%Ro; 640° C) irrespective of stand composition. Despite differing flammabilities and adaptations to fire, the highest pyrolysis intensities derive from two intervals with distinct vegetation compositions. 1) the expansion of mixed aspen and spruce woodland at 10 cal. kyr BP, and 2) the establishment of black spruce, and the modern boreal forest at 4 cal. kyr BP. Based on our analysis, we infer that predicted expansion of deciduous trees into the boreal forest in the future could lead to high intensity, but low severity fires, potentially moderating future climate-fire feedbacks.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0120835
JournalPloS one
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 8 2015


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