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Long-term impact of fire on high-altitude balsam fir (Abies balsamea) forests in south-central Quebec deduced from soil charcoal

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Extensive balsam fir (Abies balsamea (L.) Mill.) stands across the southern boreal forest are ecosystems likely more influenced by insect outbreaks and windthrows than by fire. To what degree the dominance of balsam fir stands reflects past and present disturbance dynamics associated with fire is not well documented. To answer this question, we focused on the reconstruction of the long-term fire history of high-altitude balsam fir forests of southern Quebec. The reconstruction was based on botanically identified and radiocarbon-dated soil charcoal particles in 19 sites covering successional stages from white birch (Betula payrifera Marsh.) to mixed white birch – balsam fir stands. Fire activity commenced early after deglaciation, about 9600 calibrated years before present when the first boreal tree species were established. Fire occurred recurrently during the following 5000 years with a forest landscape composed of the principal tree species common to the boreal forest, including jack pine (Pinus banksiana Lamb.). Fire activity ceased more or less abruptly about 4500 years ago due to less fire-conducive, more humid conditions. Then, the forest landscape progressively changed towards a larger representation of white birch – balsam fir forests and the disappearance of jack pine. Whereas several balsam fir stands have not burned over the last 4500 years, scattered fires occurred in particular over the last 250 years when 1815 and 1878 fires, probably man-made, burned 50% of the forest, thus causing a major change in the composition of the forest landscape. It is concluded that the high-altitude forest landscape of southern Quebec changed profoundly over the Holocene in close association with a time-transgressive dry-to-wet climatic gradient.

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: 1: NSERC Northern Research Chair, Département de Biologie, Centre d'études nordiques, Université Laval, 1045 Av. de la Médecine, Québec City, QC G1V 0A6, Canada. 2: MRN Ministère des Ressources naturelles, DRF Direction de la recherche forestière, Québec, QC G1P 3W8, Canada.

Publication date: January 1, 2013

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