In Alaska, we know that post-fire recovery of spruce forest generally takes one of two major pathways. Fires in spruce forest burn with high intensity and it is typical for 90-100% of the standing trees to be killed in the fire, so trees primarily regenerate by seeds released from the cones—often preserved and dried in the dead snags with the heat of the fire. What happens next is largely dependent on the amount of forest floor moss layers consumed in the blaze: if much is consumed, maybe even leaving patches of mineral soil, we consider this a high severity fire, whereas if only a few centimeters of moss duff have been removed, we consider the fire severity to be low. Black spruce
readily re-establishes itself after low-to-moderate severity fires because its abundant and relatively large seeds can germinate and survive a few dry spells in the peat-like substrate of the remaining organic forest floor. This is called “self-replacement”. Other tree species, including white spruce and the deciduous trees prefer a more exposed mineral seed bed, which may offer more consistent moisture and nutrient availability. After higher severity fires, grass and fireweed are notable early on and followed by a period of shrub and deciduous tree seedlings and re-sprouts. The dominance of the forest may then shift to aspen, birch and/or poplar for a period of years. Ultimately, more shade-tolerant but slow-growing spruce will again dominate, but this may take 50-100 years. This pattern of recovery is termed “relay succession”. The moisture available at the site and pre-fire species composition also influence recovery, as illustrated by Johnstone, Hollingsworth and Chapin in the Key for Predicting Postfire Successional Trajectories in Black Spruce that they prepared for managers in 2008 (below).
Now, here’s the punch line: Alaska ecologists have long been asking themselves what percent of the time, over the whole landscape, does self-replacement vs. relay succession occur? For many modeling efforts to date (LANDFIRE, for example) we had only our best guesses. At a scientific meeting in December 2020 (American Geophysical Union) Jennifer Baltzer, a Canadian forest ecologist, related the findings of a large ecological study with over 1,538 burn study plots across Alaska and western Canada (1,140 of the plots were black spruce forest). Her team demonstrated that about 62% of the time burned black spruce forest recovers by self-replacement (73% for all conifer forest types), while approximately 20% of the plots were headed for a relay type succession. Another 20% or so of the plots were showing little forest regeneration (regeneration “failure”)—which seemed to be more likely after repeat burns in a fairly short time period. The exciting thing about this research is that it provides—for the first time–quantitative estimates for these competing post-fire pathways. The research is being reviewed for publication now–we’ll let you know!