Vulnerability of Soil Organic Matter to Microbial Decomposition as a Consequence of Burning

Document Type


Publication Date



Ecosystem fires are stochastic and anthropogenic phenomena that affect critical soil processes. Nevertheless, environmental managers, policy-makers, and even scientists have often overlooked the induced transformations that fire does to soil organic matter (SOM), which sustains an ecosystem’s overall health. Here, we investigated the effects of simulated fire conditions on bulk SOM, water-extractable organic matter (WEOM), and vulnerability to microbial degradation. Sequential thermal decomposition experiments were carried out to investigate the effect of increasing temperature on C, N, δ13C, and δ15N of bulk SOM and WEOM. A microbial decomposition experiment was also done to determine the effects of burning on SOM degradability. Intermediate-intensity burns caused significant decreases in C and N concentrations in soils, as well as alterations in bulk SOM and WEOM properties. Conversely, the effects of low-intensity burns were less apparent in terms of bulk SOM content and stable C and N isotope composition. However, the results of the microbial decomposition experiment revealed that low-intensity burning resulted in elevated CO2 emission that were significantly correlated with C concentration, δ13C values, and the C/N ratio of WEOM. These results provide evidence that low-intensity burning can have important consequences for soils, altering its organic components and releasing significant amounts of greenhouse gases. Thus, particular focus must be given to managing ecosystem fires and evaluating their impacts, especially because fire is still widely used in agriculture and forest management with frequency projected to increase in the coming years.