Pyrogenic organic matter production from wildfires: a missing sink in the global carbon cycle

  • Santín C
  • Doerr S
  • Preston C
 et al. 
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Wildfires release substantial quantities of carbon (C) into the atmosphere but they also convert part of the burnt biomass into pyrogenic organic matter (PyOM). This is richer in C and, overall, more resistant to environmental degradation than the original biomass, and, therefore, PyOM production is an efficient mechanism for C sequestration. The magnitude of this C sink, however, remains poorly quantified, and current production estimates, which suggest that ~1-5% of the C affected by fire is converted to PyOM, are based on incomplete inventories. Here, we quantify, for the first time, the complete range of PyOM components found in-situ immediately after a typical boreal forest fire. We utilized an experimental high-intensity crown fire in a jack pine forest (Pinus banksiana) and carried out a detailed pre- and postfire inventory and quantification of all fuel components, and the PyOM (i.e., all visually charred, blackened materials) produced in each of them. Our results show that, overall, 27.6% of the C affected by fire was retained in PyOM (4.8 ± 0.8 t C ha(-1) ), rather than emitted to the atmosphere (12.6 ± 4.5 t C ha(-1) ). The conversion rates varied substantially between fuel components. For down wood and bark, over half of the C affected was converted to PyOM, whereas for forest floor it was only one quarter, and less than a tenth for needles. If the overall conversion rate found here were applicable to boreal wildfire in general, it would translate into a PyOM production of ~100 Tg C yr(-1) by wildfire in the global boreal regions, more than five times the amount estimated previously. Our findings suggest that PyOM production from boreal wildfires, and potentially also from other fire-prone ecosystems, may have been underestimated and that its quantitative importance as a C sink warrants its inclusion in the global C budget estimates.

Author-supplied keywords

  • Biochar
  • Black carbon
  • Boreal forest
  • Carbon emissions
  • Charcoal
  • Firesmart experimental fire
  • Pyrogenic carbon

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