Tundra wildfire triggers sustained lateral nutrient loss in Alaskan Arctic

Printer-friendly version
TitleTundra wildfire triggers sustained lateral nutrient loss in Alaskan Arctic
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2021
AuthorsAbbott, BW, Rocha, AV, Shogren, AJ, Zarnetske, JP, Iannucci, F, Bowden, WB, Bratsman, SP, Patch, L, Watts, R, Fulweber, R, Frei, RJ, Huebner, AM, Ludwig, SM, Carling, GT, O’Donnell, JA
JournalGlobal Change Biology
Date Published01/2021
KeywordsArctic, disturbance, Ecosystem succession, Hydrology, Nutrient flux, permafrost, Streams, Tundra, Watershed, Wildfire

Abstract Climate change is creating widespread ecosystem disturbance across the permafrost zone, including a rapid increase in the extent and severity of tundra wildfire. The expansion of this previously rare disturbance has unknown consequences for lateral nutrient flux from terrestrial to aquatic environments. Lateral loss of nutrients could reduce carbon uptake and slow recovery of already nutrient-limited tundra ecosystems. To investigate the effects of tundra wildfire on lateral nutrient export, we analyzed water chemistry in and around the 10-year-old Anaktuvuk River fire scar in northern Alaska. We collected water samples from 21 burned and 21 unburned watersheds during snowmelt, at peak growing season, and after plant senescence in 2017 and 2018. After a decade of ecosystem recovery, aboveground biomass had recovered in burned watersheds, but overall carbon and nitrogen remained 20% lower, and the active layer remained 10% deeper. Despite lower organic matter stocks, dissolved organic nutrients were substantially elevated in burned watersheds, with higher flow-weighted concentrations of organic carbon (25% higher), organic nitrogen (59% higher), organic phosphorus (65% higher), and organic sulfur (47% higher). Geochemical proxies indicated greater interaction with mineral soils in watersheds with surface subsidence, but optical analysis and isotopes suggested that recent plant growth, not mineral soil, was the main source of organic nutrients in burned watersheds. Burned and unburned watersheds had similar δ15N-NO3-, indicating that exported nitrogen was of pre-burn origin (i.e. not recently fixed). Lateral nitrogen flux from burned watersheds was 2- to 10-fold higher than rates of background nitrogen fixation and atmospheric deposition estimated in this area. These findings indicate that wildfire in Arctic tundra can destabilize nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur previously stored in permafrost via plant uptake and leaching. This plant-mediated nutrient loss could exacerbate terrestrial nutrient limitation after disturbance or serve as an important nutrient release mechanism during succession.