Limited increases in savanna carbon stocks over decades of fire suppression
Savannas cover a fifth of the land surface and contribute a third of terrestrial net primary production, accounting for three-quarters of global area burned and more than half of global fire-driven carbon emissions1,2,3. Fire suppression and afforestation have been proposed as tools to increase carbon sequestration in these ecosystems2,4. A robust quantification of whole-ecosystem carbon storage in savannas is lacking however, especially under altered fire regimes. Here we provide one of the first direct estimates of whole-ecosystem carbon response to more than 60 years of fire exclusion in a mesic African savanna. We found that fire suppression increased whole-ecosystem carbon storage by only 35.4 ± 12% (mean ± standard error), even though tree cover increased by 78.9 ± 29.3%, corresponding to total gains of 23.0 ± 6.1 Mg C ha−1 at an average of about 0.35 ± 0.09 Mg C ha−1 year−1, more than an order of magnitude lower than previously assumed4. Frequently burned savannas had substantial belowground carbon, especially in biomass and deep soils. These belowground reservoirs are not fully considered in afforestation or fire-suppression schemes but may mean that the decadal sequestration potential of savannas is negligible, especially weighed against concomitant losses of biodiversity and function.