A joint team of ecologists from Stanford University and the University of California, Irvine, found that increases in the frequency of severe wildfires in California reduced the ability of forests to recover, leading to less carbon uptake. In their study, it was reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, The group used ground observations and satellite imagery to measure gross primary production (GPP) in forests in California over the past century.
Western parts of the United States, and California in particular, have seen frequent wildfires in recent years, due at least in part to global warming. In this new effort, the research team sought to measure the decrease in forest carbon uptake due to increases in large fires.
Previous research has shown that after large, intensely burning fires, affected areas take longer to return to a forest state and to previous amounts of carbon-reducing carbon uptake compared to areas burned by smaller, less severe fires. To measure changes in GPP, which is the total amount of carbon uptake conducted by a given forest, the researchers studied data surrounding 5,000 fires in California’s forests over the past 100 years.
They found that, as expected, the GPP of such a forest would drop after a fire and remain at this low level for at least a year. They also found that it took an average of 12 years for the forest to achieve GPP levels before firing. But they also found that for larger, more severe fires, the decline was steeper and the recovery time was much longer — often spanning decades.
The research team found that due to increases in the frequency, duration and intensity of wildfires in recent years, forests in California are taking longer to recover. This, they noted, led to a total loss of carbon uptake for increasingly long periods. They suggest that better fire management practices geared toward allowing smaller fires to burn while reducing larger, more intense fires, could slow the decline in carbon uptake by fires.
Kyle S. Hemes et al, Magnitude and frequency of photosynthetic recovery after wildfires in California ecosystems, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2023). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2201954120
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