Changes in Litter and Dead Wood Loads Following Tree Death Beneath Subalpine Conifer Species in Northern Colorado

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Canadian Journal of Forest Research

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Litter and dead wood affect important processes in forest ecosystems such as nutrient and carbon cycling and are key influences on biodiversity and fire behavior. Increased tree mortality rates in western North America associated with climate trends and increased bark beetle activity highlight the need to better understand the dynamics of litter and dead wood following tree death. For eight old-growth stands in a subalpine forest landscape in northern Colorado (USA), we compared litter and dead wood loads beneath more than 200 dead and live Engelmann spruce (Picea engelmannii Parry ex Engelm.), subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa (Hook.) Nutt.), and lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta Douglas ex Loudon). The dynamics of litter and dead wood were analyzed using chronosequences of tree death dates over >100 years that we deter- mined from tree rings. Immediately following tree death, high loads of litter accumulated, particularly for the biggest spru- ces, which accumulated 10 times more litter than live spruces (five times more for fir, two times more for pine). We estimated a higher decay rate of litter for spruce (half-life of four years) than for pine (15 years) and fir (19 years). The accumulation rates for dead wood following tree death were highly variable among trees, but maximum accumulation was attained during the first 50–60 years.


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