Impacts of bark beetle-induced tree mortality on pyrogenic carbon production and heat output in wildfires for fire modeling and global carbon accounting


Ecology, Evolution, and Organismal Biology

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Forests store significant quantities of carbon, and accurate quantification of the fate of this carbon after fire is necessary for global carbon accounting. Pyrogenic carbon (PyC) encompasses various carbonaceous products of incomplete combustion formed during fires and has potential to act as a carbon sink for up to millennia, but current estimates of PyC production in wildfires vary widely. Northern hardwood forests have changed dramatically in recent decades due to insect epidemics, such as the bark beetle epidemic in the Rocky Mountain Region which has caused widespread mortality. This study assessed impacts of bark beetle-induced mortality on fuel pyrolysis kinetics, carbon partitioning of combustion products, and net heat output to aid in forest fire modeling and carbon accounting by comparing healthy and beetle-killed lodgepole pine tree boles burned in a 2018 forest fire in southeast Wyoming, USA with unburned boles. Results showed charring predominantly restricted to the bark and cambium. Significant differences between burned and unburned healthy and beetle-impacted bark/cambium compositions were identified, and PyC production and energy output were quantified. Charring extent and PyC content were found to be greater in beetle-impacted boles due to a reduction in bark/cambium resistance to heating and charring, with 80 times more PyC produced in a beetle-killed bark/cambium than in a healthy bark/cambium. Upon scale-up, total PyC production in the fire-affected area was estimated to be 0.71 GgPyC (82.5 kgPyC/ha). This was found to be significantly enhanced compared to an estimated PyC production of 0.036 GgPyC (4.12 kgPyC/ha) in a hypothetical healthy lodgepole pine ecosystem of equal area. The results of this investigation concluded that the 58% beetle-induced mortality in the Badger Creek Fire area resulted in 3 times more carbon released to the global atmosphere, 20 times more PyC retained onsite and 32% greater heat output during wildfire.

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The Science of the total environment



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