Articles | Volume 11, issue 5
Research article
07 Mar 2014
Research article |  | 07 Mar 2014

Quantifying the role of fire in the Earth system – Part 2: Impact on the net carbon balance of global terrestrial ecosystems for the 20th century

F. Li, B. Bond-Lamberty, and S. Levis

Abstract. Fire is the primary form of terrestrial ecosystem disturbance on a global scale. It affects the net carbon balance of terrestrial ecosystems by emitting carbon directly and immediately into the atmosphere from biomass burning (the fire direct effect), and by changing net ecosystem productivity and land-use carbon loss in post-fire regions due to biomass burning and fire-induced vegetation mortality (the fire indirect effect). Here, we provide the first quantitative assessment of the impact of fire on the net carbon balance of global terrestrial ecosystems during the 20th century, and investigate the roles of fire's direct and indirect effects. This is done by quantifying the difference between the 20th century fire-on and fire-off simulations with the NCAR Community Land Model CLM4.5 (prescribed vegetation cover and uncoupled from the atmospheric model) as a model platform. Results show that fire decreases the net carbon gain of global terrestrial ecosystems by 1.0 Pg C yr−1 averaged across the 20th century, as a result of the fire direct effect (1.9 Pg C yr−1) partly offset by the indirect effect (−0.9 Pg C yr−1). Post-fire regions generally experience decreased carbon gains, which is significant over tropical savannas and some North American and East Asian forests. This decrease is due to the direct effect usually exceeding the indirect effect, while they have similar spatial patterns and opposite sign. The effect of fire on the net carbon balance significantly declines until ∼1970 with a trend of 8 Tg C yr−1 due to an increasing indirect effect, and increases subsequently with a trend of 18 Tg C yr−1 due to an increasing direct effect. These results help constrain the global-scale dynamics of fire and the terrestrial carbon cycle.

Final-revised paper