Repeated fires trap Amazonian blackwater floodplains in an open vegetation state

Bernardo M. Flores*, Raquel Fagoaga, Bruce W. Nelson, Milena Holmgren

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

14 Citations (Scopus)

Abstract

Climate change may increase the occurrence of droughts and fires in the Amazon. Most of our understanding on how fire affects tropical ecosystems is based on studies of non-flooded forest–savanna ecotones. Nonetheless, tropical floodplain forests in the Amazon can burn severely during extreme droughts. The mechanisms slowing down forest regeneration in these ecosystems remain poorly understood and have never been assessed in the field. We studied the recovery of Amazonian blackwater floodplain forests after one and two fire events. We used Landsat images to map fire history and conducted field surveys to measure forest structure, tree species richness, tree seed bank and post-fire invasion of herbaceous plants. Sites burnt once had on average 0% trees, 6% tree seed abundance, 23% tree seed species richness and 8% root mat thickness compared to unburnt forests. In contrast, herbaceous cover increased from 0 to 72%. Nonetheless, forest structure and diversity recovered slowly towards pre-burn levels, except for tree seed banks that remained depleted even 15 years after fire. Sites burnt twice had on average 0% trees, 1% tree seed abundance, 3% tree seed species richness and 1% root mat thickness compared to unburnt forests. Herbaceous cover increased to 100%. Mean recovery of tree basal area was 50% slower and of root mat thickness 93% slower compared to recovery in sites burnt once. Tree seed banks did not recover at all, and herbaceous cover persisted close to 100% for more than 20 years after the second fire. Synthesis and applications. Our results indicate that after a second fire event, Amazonian blackwater floodplain forests lose their recovery capacity, and persist in a non-forested state dominated by herbaceous vegetation. Such fragility implies that preventing human ignited fires during drought episodes is a particularly important conservation strategy for these ecosystems.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1597-1603
JournalJournal of Applied Ecology
Volume53
Issue number5
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2016

Keywords

  • drought
  • ecological transition
  • ecosystem shift
  • El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO)
  • forest succession
  • igapó
  • recovery rates
  • resilience
  • tropical forests
  • wetlands

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