Fire effects on the persistence of soil organic matter and long-term carbon storage
One paradigm in biogeochemistry is that frequent disturbance tends to deplete carbon (C) in soil organic matter (SOM) by reducing biomass inputs and promoting losses. However, disturbance by fire has challenged this paradigm because soil C responses to frequent and/or intense fires are highly variable, despite observed declines in biomass inputs. Here, we review recent advances to illustrate that fire-driven changes in decomposition, mediated by altered SOM stability, are an important compensatory process offsetting declines in aboveground biomass pools. Fire alters the stability of SOM by affecting both the physicochemical properties of the SOM and the environmental drivers of decomposition, potentially offsetting C lost via combustion, but the mechanisms affecting the SOM stability differ across ecosystems. Thus, shifting our focus from a top-down view of fire impacting C cycling via changes in plant biomass to a bottom-up view of changes in decomposition may help to elucidate counterintuitive trends in the response of SOM to burning. Given that 70% of global topsoil C is in fire-prone regions, using fire to promote SOM stability may be an important nature-based climate solution to increase C storage.