Climate Change and...
Effects of Climate Change
- Climate Variability
- Climate Models
Effects of Climate Change
Fire Frequency and Severity
Balshi, M. S., Mcguire, A. D., Zhuang, Q., Melillo, J., Kicklighter, D. W., Kasischke, E., Wirth, C., Flannigan, M., Harden, J., Clein, J. S., Burnside, T. J., Mcallister, J., Kurz, W. A., Apps, M., Shvidenko, A. (2007). The role of historical fire disturbance in the carbon dynamics of the pan-boreal region: A process-based analysis. Journal of Geophysical Research-Biogeosciences 112 (G02029): doi:10.1029/2006JG000380
ABSTRACT: Wildfire is a common occurrence in ecosystems of northern high latitudes, and changes in the fire regime of this region have consequences for carbon feedbacks to the climate system. To improve our understanding of how wildfire influences carbon dynamics of this region, we used the process-based Terrestrial Ecosystem Model to simulate fire emissions and changes in carbon storage north of 45°N from the start of spatially explicit historically recorded fire records in the twentieth century through 2002, and evaluated the role of fire in the carbon dynamics of the region within the context of ecosystem responses to changes in atmospheric CO2 concentration and climate. Our analysis indicates that fire plays an important role in interannual and decadal scale variation of source/sink relationships of northern terrestrial ecosystems and also suggests that atmospheric CO2 may be important to consider in addition to changes in climate and fire disturbance. There are substantial uncertainties in the effects of fire on carbon storage in our simulations. These uncertainties are associated with sparse fire data for northern Eurasia, uncertainty in estimating carbon consumption, and difficulty in verifying assumptions about the representation of fires that occurred prior to the start of the historical fire record. To improve the ability to better predict how fire will influence carbon storage of this region in the future, new analyses of the retrospective role of fire in the carbon dynamics of northern high latitudes should address these uncertainties.
S. Lavorel, M. D. Flannigan, E. F. Lambin, M. C. Scholes (2007). Vulnerability of land systems to fire: Interactions among humans, climate, the atmosphere, and ecosystems. Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change 12 (1): 33-53
ABSTRACT: Fires are critical elements in the Earth System, linking climate, humans, and vegetation. With 200–500 Mha burnt annually, fire disturbs a greater area over a wider variety of biomes than any other natural disturbance. Fire ignition, propagation, and impacts depend on the interactions among climate, vegetation structure, and land use on local to regional scales. Therefore, fires and their effects on terrestrial ecosystems are highly sensitive to global change. Fires can cause dramatic changes in the structure and functioning of ecosystems. They have significant impacts on the atmosphere and biogeochemical cycles. By contributing significantly to greenhouse gas (e.g., with the release of 1.7–4.1 Pg of carbon per year) and aerosol emissions, and modifying surface properties, they affect not only vegetation but also climate. Fires also modify the provision of a variety of ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration, soil fertility, grazing value, biodiversity, and tourism, and can hence trigger land use change. Fires must therefore be included in global and regional assessments of vulnerability to global change. Fundamental understanding of vulnerability of land systems to fire is required to advise management and policy. Assessing regional vulnerabilities resulting from biophysical and human consequences of changed fire regimes under global change scenarios requires an integrated approach. Here we present a generic conceptual framework for such integrated, multidisciplinary studies. The framework is structured around three interacting (partially nested) subsystems whose contribute to vulnerability. The first subsystem describes the controls on fire regimes (exposure). A first feedback subsystem links fire regimes to atmospheric and climate dynamics within the Earth System (sensitivity), while the second feedback subsystem links changes in fire regimes to changes in the provision of ecological services and to their consequences for human systems (adaptability). We then briefly illustrate how the framework can be applied to two regional cases with contrasting ecological and human context: boreal forests of northern America and African savannahs.
ABSTRACT: This paper addresses the impacts of climate change on forest fires and describes how this, in turn, will impact on the forests of the United States. In addition to reviewing existing studies on climate change and forest fires we have used two transient general circulation models (GCMs), namely the Hadley Centre and the Canadian GCMs, to estimate fire season severity in the middle of the next century. Ratios of 2×CO2 seasonal severity rating (SSR) over present day SSR were calculated for the means and maximums for North America. The results suggest that the SSR will increase by 10–50% over most of North America; although, there are regions of little change or where the SSR may decrease by the middle of the next century. Increased SSRs should translate into increased forest fire activity. Thus, forest fires could be viewed as an agent of change for US forests as the fire regime will respond rapidly to climate warming. This change in the fire regime has the potential to overshadow the direct effects of climate change on species distribution and migration.
ABSTRACT: Our objective was to infer the climate drivers of regionally synchronous fire years in dry forests of the U.S. northern Rockies in Idaho and western Montana. During our analysis period (1650–1900), we reconstructed fires from 9245 fire scars on 576 trees (mostly ponderosa pine, Pinus ponderosa P. & C. Lawson) at 21 sites and compared them to existing tree-ring reconstructions of climate (temperature and the Palmer Drought Severity Index [PDSI]) and large-scale climate patterns that affect modern spring climate in this region (El Niño–Southern Oscillation [ENSO] and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation [PDO]). We identified 32 regional-fire years as those with five or more sites with fire. Fires were remarkably widespread during such years, including one year (1748) in which fires were recorded at 10 sites across what are today seven national forests plus one site on state land. During regional-fire years, spring–summers were significantly warm and summers were significantly warm-dry whereas the opposite conditions prevailed during the 99 years when no fires were recorded at any of our sites (no-fire years). Climate in prior years was not significantly associated with regional- or no-fire years. Years when fire was recorded at only a few of our sites occurred under a broad range of climate conditions, highlighting the fact that the regional climate drivers of fire are most evident when fires are synchronized across a large area. No-fire years tended to occur during La Niña years, which tend to have anomalously deep snowpacks in this region. However, ENSO was not a significant driver of regional-fire years, consistent with the greater influence of La Niña than El Niño conditions on the spring climate of this region. PDO was not a significant driver of past fire, despite being a strong driver of modern spring climate and modern regional-fire years in the northern Rockies.
ABSTRACT: Management of forests for carbon uptake is an important tool in the effort to slow the increase in atmospheric CO2 and global warming. However, some current policies governing forest carbon credits actually promote avoidable CO2 release and punish actions that would increase long-term carbon storage. In fire-prone forests, management that reduces the risk of catastrophic carbon release resulting from stand-replacing wild-fire is considered to be a CO2 source, according to current accounting practices, even though such management may actually increase long-term carbon storage. Examining four of the largest wildfires in the US in 2002, we found that, for forest land that experienced catastrophic stand-replacing fire, prior thinning would have reduced CO2 release from live tree biomass by as much as 98%. Altering carbon accounting practices for forests that have historically experienced frequent, low-severity fire could provide an incentive for forest managers to reduce the risk of catastrophic fire and associated large carbon release events.
ABSTRACT: The purpose of this paper is to quantify climatic controls on the area burned by fire in different vegetation types in the western United States. We demonstrate that wildfire area burned (WFAB) in the American West was controlled by climate during the 20th century (1916–2003). Persistent ecosystem-specific correlations between climate and WFAB are grouped by vegetation type (ecoprovinces). Most mountainous ecoprovinces exhibit strong year-of-fire relationships with low precipitation, low Palmer drought severity index (PDSI), and high temperature. Grass- and shrub-dominated ecoprovinces had positive relationships with antecedent precipitation or PDSI. For 1977–2003, a few climate variables explain 33–87% (mean = 64%) of WFAB, indicating strong linkages between climate and area burned. For 1916–2003, the relationships are weaker, but climate explained 25–57% (mean = 39%) of the variability. The variance in WFAB is proportional to the mean squared for different data sets at different spatial scales. The importance of antecedent climate (summer drought in forested ecosystems and antecedent winter precipitation in shrub and grassland ecosystems) indicates that the mechanism behind the observed fire–climate relationships is climatic preconditioning of large areas of low fuel moisture via drying of existing fuels or fuel production and drying. The impacts of climate change on fire regimes will therefore vary with the relative energy or water limitations of ecosystems. Ecoprovinces proved a useful compromise between ecologically imprecise state-level and localized gridded fire data. The differences in climate–fire relationships among the ecoprovinces underscore the need to consider ecological context (vegetation, fuels, and seasonal climate) to identify specific climate drivers of WFAB. Despite the possible influence of fire suppression, exclusion, and fuel treatment, WFAB is still substantially controlled by climate. The implications for planning and management are that future WFAB and adaptation to climate change will likely depend on ecosystem-specific, seasonal variation in climate. In fuel-limited ecosystems, fuel treatments can probably mitigate fire vulnerability and increase resilience more readily than in climate-limited ecosystems, in which large severe fires under extreme weather conditions will continue to account for most area burned.
J. D. Miller, H. D. Safford, M. Crimmins, A. E. Thode (2009). Quantitative evidence for increasing forest fire severity in the Sierra Nevada and southern Cascade Mountains, California and Nevada, USA. Ecosystems 12 (1): 16-32
ABSTRACT: Recent research has concluded that forest wildfires in the western United States are becoming larger and more frequent. A more significant question may be whether the ecosystem impacts of wildfire are also increasing. We show that a large area (approximately 120000 km2 ) of California and western Nevada experienced a notable increase in the extent of forest stand-replacing (“high severity”) fire between 1984 and 2006. High severity forest fire is closely linked to forest fragmentation, wildlife habitat availability, erosion rates and sedimentation, post-fire seedling recruitment, carbon sequestration, and various other ecosystem properties and processes. Mean and maximum fire size, and the area burned annually have also all risen substantially since the beginning of the 1980s, and are now at or above values from the decades preceding the 1940s, when fire suppression became national policy. These trends are occurring in concert with a regional rise in temperature and a long-term increase in annual precipitation. A close examination of the climate–fire relationship and other evidence suggests that forest fuels are no longer limiting fire occurrence and behavior across much of the study region. We conclude that current trends in forest fire severity necessitate a re-examination of the implications of all-out fire suppression and its ecological impacts.
ABSTRACT: Despite its widespread occurrence globally, wildfire preferentially occupies an environmental middle ground and is significantly less prevalent in biomes characterized by environmental extremes (e.g., tundra, rain forests, and deserts). We evaluated the biophysical “environmental space” of wildfire from regional to subcontinental extents, with methods widely used for modeling habitat distributions. This approach is particularly suitable for the biogeographic study of wildfire, because it simultaneously considers patterns in multiple factors controlling wildfire suitability over large areas. We used the Maxent and boosted regression tree algorithms to assess wildfire–environment relationships for three levels of complexity (in terms of inclusion of variables) at three spatial scales: the conterminous United States, the state of California, and five wildfire-prone ecoregions of California. The resulting models were projected geographically to obtain spatial predictions of wildfire suitability and were also applied to other regions to assess their generality and spatial transferability. Predictions of the potential range of wildfire had high classification accuracy; they also highlighted areas where wildfires had not recently been observed, indicating the potential (or past) suitability of these areas. The models identified several key variables that were not suspected to be important in the large-scale control of wildfires, but which might indirectly affect control by influencing the presence of flammable vegetation. Models transferred to different areas were useful only when they overlapped appreciably with the target area's environmental space. This approach should allow exploration of the potential shifts in wildfire range in a changing climate, the potential for restoration of wildfire where it has been “extirpated,” and, conversely, the “invasiveness” of wildfire after changes in plant species composition. Our study demonstrates that habitat distribution models and related concepts can be used to characterize environmental controls on a natural disturbance process, but also that future work is needed to refine our understanding of the direct causal factors controlling wildfire at multiple spatial scales.
M.S. Balshi, A.D. McGuire, P. Duffy, M. Flannigan, D.W. Licklighter, J. Melillo (2009). Vulnerability of carbon storage in North American boreal forests to wildfires during the 21st century. Global Change Biology 15 (6): 1491-1510
ABSTRACT: The boreal forest contains large reserves of carbon. Across this region, wildfires influence the temporal and spatial dynamics of carbon storage. In this study, we estimate fire emissions and changes in carbon storage for boreal North America over the 21st century. We use a gridded data set developed with a multivariate adaptive regression spline approach to determine how area burned varies each year with changing climatic and fuel moisture conditions. We apply the process-based Terrestrial Ecosystem Model to evaluate the role of future fire on the carbon dynamics of boreal North America in the context of changing atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2 ) concentration and climate in the A2 and B2 emissions scenarios of the CGCM2 global climate model. Relative to the last decade of the 20th century, decadal total carbon emissions from fire increase by 2.5–4.4 times by 2091–2100, depending on the climate scenario and assumptions about CO2 fertilization. Larger fire emissions occur with warmer climates or if CO2 fertilization is assumed to occur. Despite the increases in fire emissions, our simulations indicate that boreal North America will be a carbon sink over the 21st century if CO2 fertilization is assumed to occur in the future. In contrast, simulations excluding CO2 fertilization over the same period indicate that the region will change to a carbon source to the atmosphere, with the source being 2.1 times greater under the warmer A2 scenario than the B2 scenario. To improve estimates of wildfire on terrestrial carbon dynamics in boreal North America, future studies should incorporate the role of dynamic vegetation to represent more accurately post-fire successional processes, incorporate fire severity parameters that change in time and space, account for human influences through increased fire suppression, and integrate the role of other disturbances and their interactions with future fire regime.
M. Flannigan, I. Campbell, M. Wotton, C. Carcaillet, P. Richard, Y. Bergeron (2001). Future fire in Canada's boreal forest: paleoecology results and general circulation model - regional climate model simulations. Canadian Journal of Forest Research 31 (5): 854-864
ABSTRACT: General circulation model simulations suggest the Earth's climate will be 1–3.5°C warmer by AD 2100. This will influence disturbances such as forest fires, which are important to circumpolar boreal forest dynamics and, hence, the global carbon cycle. Many suggest climate warming will cause increased fire activity and area burned. Here, we use the Canadian Forest Fire Weather Index to simulate future forest fire danger, showing the expected increase in most of Canada but with significant regional variability including a decrease in much of eastern Canada. These results are in general agreement with paleoecological data and general circulation model results from the 6000 calendar years BP interval, which was a time of a warmer climate that may be an analogue for a future climate.
ABSTRACT: The relationship between the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and unimpaired streamflow over the contiguous United States is studied. The extreme phases of the Southern Oscillation have been linked to fairly persistent classes of atmospheric anomalies over the low and middle latitudes at regional and global scales. Of particular interest in this investigation is the identification of regions of land that appear to have strong and consistent ENSO-related streamflow signals. The first harmonic extracted from a 24-month ENSO composite at each station is assumed to be the ENSO-related signal appearing in streamflow anomalies. These regions were identified by the similarity in phase of the harmonic vectors. The vectorial display of these harmonics over a map of the United States provides the areal extents of ENSO influence on streamflow. Coherent and significant streamflow responses to hypothesized ENSO forcing are found in four regions of the United States: the Gulf of Mexico, the Northeast, the North Central, and the Pacific Northwest. Once an ENSO event sets in, a long-range forecasting utility may be available for these regions. The results of this analysis, which are consistent with previous studies on precipitation and temperature, demonstrate the mid-latitude hydrologic response to the tropical ENSO phenomena.
ABSTRACT: Anticipating the consequences of climatic change for fire requires understanding of the causes of variation in historical fire regimes. We assessed the influence of annual and decadal variation in climate on fire regimes of ponderosa pine-dominated forests in eastern Oregon and Washington using existing, annually dated tree-ring reconstructions (1687–1994). In four watersheds, we compared the extent of low-severity fires (total area burned each year) to precipitation and the Southern Oscillation Index, a measure of variation in El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO), which affects weather in this region. At the annual scale, large fires burned during dry years and El Niño years (low SOI) in all watersheds while small fires burned regardless of variation in these climate parameters. Large fires also burned during relatively wet years and La Niña years (high SOI) in one watershed, indicating that local factors can override regional climate controls in some locations. Climate from previous years did not influence current year's fire extent. The influence of ENSO on fire regimes in this region has not previously been demonstrated at these multicentury, regional scales. At the decadal scale, fire extent varied with precipitation, perhaps in response to variation in such climate features as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. Several decades of low fire extent in the watersheds during the early 1800s was synchronous with a lack of fire at other sites in North and South America, probably in response to a change in the global climate that included a lessening in the frequency and/or intensity of ENSO events.
T. Kitzberger, P. M. Brown, E. K. Heyerdahl, T. W. Swetnam, T. T. Veblen (2007). Contingent Pacific-Atlantic Ocean influence on multicentury wildfire synchrony over western North America. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104 (2): 543-548
ABSTRACT: Widespread synchronous wildfires driven by climatic variation, such as those that swept western North America during 1996, 2000, and 2002, can result in major environmental and societal impacts. Understanding relationships between continental-scale patterns of drought and modes of sea surface temperatures (SSTs) such as El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO), Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), and Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO) may explain how interannual to multidecadal variability in SSTs drives fire at continental scales. We used local wildfire chronologies reconstructed from fire scars on tree rings across western North America and independent reconstructions of SST developed from tree-ring widths at other sites to examine the relationships of multicentury patterns of climate and fire synchrony. From 33,039 annually resolved fire-scar dates at 238 sites (the largest paleofire record yet assembled), we examined forest fires at regional and subcontinental scales. Since 1550 CE, drought and forest fires covaried across the West, but in a manner contingent on SST modes. During certain phases of ENSO and PDO, fire was synchronous within broad subregions and sometimes asynchronous among those regions. In contrast, fires were most commonly synchronous across the West during warm phases of the AMO. ENSO and PDO were the main drivers of high-frequency variation in fire (interannual to decadal), whereas the AMO conditionally changed the strength and spatial influence of ENSO and PDO on wildfire occurrence at multidecadal scales. A current warming trend in AMO suggests that we may expect an increase in widespread, synchronous fires across the western U.S. in coming decades.
ABSTRACT: Historical variability of fire regimes must be understood within the context of climatic and human drivers of disturbance occurring at multiple temporal scales. We describe the relationship between fire occurrence and interannual to decadal climatic variability (Palmer Drought Severity Index [PDSI], El Nino/Southern Oscillation [ENSO], and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation [PDO]) and explain how land use changes in the 20th century affected these relationships.
We used 1701 fire-scarred trees collected in five study sites in central and eastern Washington State (USA) to investigate current year, lagged, and low frequency relationships between composite fire histories and PDSI, PDO, and ENSO (using the Southern Oscillation Index [SOI] as a measure of ENSO variability) using superposed epoch analysis and cross-spectral analysis. Fires tended to occur during dry summers and during the positive phase of the PDO. Cross-spectral analysis indicates that percentage of trees scarred by fire and the PDO are spectrally coherent at 47 years, the approximate cycle of the PDO. Similarly, percentage scarred and ENSO are spectrally coherent at six years, the approximate cycle of ENSO. However, other results suggest that ENSO was only a weak driver of fire occurrence in the past three centuries.
While drought and fire appear to be tightly linked between 1700 and 1900, the relationship between drought and fire occurrence was disrupted during the 20th century as a result of land use changes. We suggest that long-term fire planning using the PDO may be possible in the Pacific Northwest, potentially allowing decadal-scale management of fire regimes, prescribed fire, and vegetation dynamics.
ABSTRACT: We investigate relationships between climate and wildfire activity between 1929 and 2004 in Pacific coast forests of the United States. Self-Organizing Mapping (SOM) of annual area burned in National Forests (NF) in California, Oregon, and Washington identifies three contiguous NF groups and a fourth group of NF traversed by major highways. Large fire years in all groups are dry compared to small fire years. A sub-hemispheric circulation pattern of a strong trough over the North Pacific and a ridge over the West Coast is characteristic of large fire years in all groups. This pattern resembles the Pacific North American (PNA) teleconnection and positive phase of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO). A reverse PNA and negative PDO phase characterizes small fire years. Despite the effect of fire suppression management between 1929 and 2004, forest area burned is linked to climatic variations related to large-scale atmospheric circulation patterns.
C. M. Girod, G. C. Hurtt, S. Frolking, J. D. Aber, A. W. King (2007). The tension between fire risk and carbon storage: evaluating U.S. carbon and fire management strategies through ecosystem models. Earth Interactions 11 (2): 1-33
ABSTRACT: Fire risk and carbon storage are related environmental issues because fire reduction results in carbon storage through the buildup of woody vegetation, and stored carbon is a fuel for fires. The sustainability of the U.S. carbon sink and the extent of fire activity in the next 100 yr depend in part on the type and effectiveness of fire reduction employed. Previous studies have bracketed the range of dynamics from continued fire reduction to the complete failure of fire reduction activities. To improve these estimates, it is necessary to explicitly account for fire reduction in terrestrial models. A new fire reduction submodel that estimates the spatiotemporal pattern of reduction across the United States was developed using gridded data on biomass, climate, land-use, population, and economic factors. To the authors’ knowledge, it is the first large-scale, gridded fire model that explicitly accounts for fire reduction. The model was calibrated to 1° × 1° burned area statistics [Global Burnt Area 2000 Project (GBA-2000)] and compared favorably to three important diagnostics. The model was then implemented in a spatially explicit ecosystem model and used to analyze 1620 scenarios of future fire risk and fire reduction strategies. Under scenarios of climate change and urbanization, burned area and carbon emissions both increased in scenarios where fire reduction efforts were not adjusted to match new patterns of fire risk. Fuel reducing management strategies reduced burned area and fire risk, but also limited carbon storage. These results suggest that to promote carbon storage and minimize fire risk in the future, fire reduction efforts will need to be increased and spatially adjusted and will need to employ a mixture of fuel-reducing and non-fuel-reducing strategies.
ABSTRACT: A ponderosa pine/Douglas-fir forest (Pinus ponderosa Dougl., Pseudotsuga menziesii (Mirb.) Franco; PP/DF) and a lodgepole pine/Engelmann spruce forest (Pinus contorta Loud., Picea engelmannii Parry ex Engelm.; LP/ES) located on the eastern slopes of the Cascade Mountains in Washington state, USA, were examined following severe wildfire to compare total soil carbon and nitrogen capitals with unburned (control) forests. One year after fire, the average C content (60 cm depth) of PP/DF and LP/ES soil was 30% (25 Mg ha-1 ) and 10% (7 Mg ha-1 ) lower than control soil. Average N content on the burned PP/DF and LP/ES plots was 46% (3.0 Mg ha-1 ) and 13% (0.4 Mg ha-1 ) lower than control soil. The reduction in C and N in the PP/DF soil was largely the result of lower nutrient capitals in the burned Bw horizons (12–60 cm depth) relative to control plots. It is unlikely that the 1994 fire substantially affected nutrient capitals in the Bw horizons; however, natural variability or past fire history could be responsible for the varied nutrient capitals observed in the subsurface soils. Surface erosion (sheet plus rill) removed between 15 and 18 Mg ha-1 of soil from the burned plots. Nutrient losses through surface erosion were 280 kg C ha-1 and 14 kg N ha-1 in the PP/DF, whereas LP/ES losses were 640 and 22 kg ha-1 for C and N, respectively. In both forests, surface erosion of C and N was ~1% to 2% of the A-horizon capital of these elements in unburned soil. A bioassay (with lettuce as an indicator plant) was used to compare soils from low-, moderate- and high-severity burn areas relative to control soil. In both forests, low-severity fire increased lettuce yield by 70–100% of controls. With more severe fire, yield decreased in the LP/ES relative to the low-intensity burn soil; however, only in the high-severity treatment was yield reduced (14%) from the control. Moderate- and high-severity burn areas in the PP/DF were fertilized with ~56 kg ha-1 of N four months prior to soil sampling. In these soils, yield was 70–80% greater than the control. These results suggest that short-term site productivity can be stimulated by low-severity fire, but unaffected or reduced by more severe fire in the types of forests studied. Post-fire fertilization with N could increase soil productivity where other environmental factors do not limit growth.
ABSTRACT: Ecotones are boundaries between plant assemblages that can represent a physiological or competitive limit of species’ local distributions, usually through one or more biotic or abiotic constraints on species’ resource requirements. However, ecotones also result from the effects of chronic or episodic disturbances, and changes in disturbance regimes may have profound effects on vegetation patterns in transitional areas. In this study, centuries-long chronologies of surface fire events were reconstructed from fire-scarred ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa Dougl. ex Laws.) trees in three sites at the ecotone between ponderosa pine forest and Northern Great Plains mixed grass prairie in the southeastern Black Hills of South Dakota. The fire chronologies provide baseline data to assess the possible role of fire in this transitional area and to document historical variability in fire regimes in this region of the Northern Great Plains. Regular fire events were recorded at all three sites from the beginning of the fire chronologies in the 1500s up to the late 1800s or early 1900s, at which time spreading fires ceased. Fire frequencies derived from the fire chronologies were compared to each other and to four sites from interior ponderosa pine forest in the south-central Black Hills. Mean fire intervals at the savanna sites were between 10 to 12 years, whereas Weibull median probability intervals were one year shorter. Fire frequency at the savanna sites was twice as high as at the interior forest sites, and most likely was due to spatial extent of fires on the mixed-grass prairie coupled with warmer and drier climate regime. Post-settlement shifts in the ponderosa pine savanna during the twentieth century in this area may be largely attributed to lack of fire occurrences, although grazing and other factors also likely contributed to observed changes in forest and grassland margins.
ABSTRACT: Fire scars in giant sequoia [Sequoiadendron giganteum (Lindley) Buchholz] were used to reconstruct the spatial and temporal pattern of surface fires that burned episodically through five groves during the past 2000 years. Comparisons with independent dendroclimatic reconstructions indicate that regionally synchronous fire occurrence was inversely related to yearly fluctuations in precipitation and directly related to decadal-to-centennial variations in temperature. Frequent small fires occurred during a warm period from about A.D. 1000 to 1300, and less frequent but more widespread fires occurred during cooler periods from about A.D. 500 to 1000 and after A.D. 1300. Regionally synchronous fire histories demonstrate the importance of climate in maintaining nonequilibrium conditions.
ABSTRACT: Interannual time-scale associations between fire occurrence and drought indices, the Southern Oscillation, and other synoptic patterns demonstrate that large-scale, long-term atmospheric features are precursors to regional fire activity. However, our knowledge of fire-climate relations over longer (century) timescales is fragmentary because of the rarity of comparable climate and fire time-series with sufficient resolution, length and regional extent. In this study, we develop reconstructions of wildfire occurrence from tree-ring data collected from northwestern New Mexico to compare with a millennium-length dendroclimatic reconstruction of precipitation. Reconstructions of both wildfires and climate show simultaneous changes since AD 1700 that indicate climate forcing of wildfire regimes on interannual to century timescales. Following a centuries-long dry period with high fire frequency (c. AD 1400-1790), annual precipitation increased, fire frequency decreased, and the season of fire shifted from predominantly midsummer to late spring. We hypothesize that these shifts in fire regimes reflect long-term changes in rainfall patterns associated with changes in synoptic-scale atmospheric circulation patterns and the Southern Oscillation. Our evidence supports century-scale climate forcing of fire regimes in the American Southwest, providing a useful analogue of future wildfire regimes expected under changing global climate conditions.
ABSTRACT: Foy Lake in northwestern Montana provides a record of annual-to-decadal-scale landscape change. Sedimentary charcoal and pollen analyses were used to document fire and vegetation changes over the last 3800 years, which were then compared to similar records from AD 1880 to 2000. The long-term record at Foy Lake suggests shifts between forest and steppe as well as changes in fire regime that are likely the result of climate change. Fire activity (inferred from the frequency of charcoal peaks) averaged 18 fire episodes/1000 years from 3800 to 2125 cal year BP, and increased from 16 fire episodes/1000 years at 2125 cal year BP to 22 episodes/1000 years at 750 cal year BP, a period when the pollen data suggest that steppe vegetation yielded to increasing patches of forest cover. Between 2125 and 750 cal year BP, increased forest cover produced more background charcoal than before and after this period, when vegetation was dominated by steppe. Between 750 and 75 cal year BP steppe has expanded and fire episode frequency averaged 33 episodes/1000 years, increasing to a maximum of 40 episodes/1000 years at ca. 300 cal year BP and then decreasing to present levels. Since AD 1880, the pollen record indicates an increase in shrubs and grasses from AD 1895 to 1960 as a result of vegetation changes associated with timber harvesting and livestock grazing. No fires have been documented in the Foy Lake watershed since AD 1880. Charcoal from the extralocal fires of AD 1910, burning over 4,111,249 ha in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, however, is present in Foy Lake. Between AD 1970 and 2000, increased arboreal pollen in the record is consistent with observations that the forest has become more closed. The activities of Euro–Americans have led to a decline in forest cover between AD 1880 and 1970, followed by a recent increase as trees are now growing in areas previously occupied by steppe. Euro–Americans are likely the cause of a reduction in fire activity in watershed since AD 1880.
P. F. Hessburg, J. K. Agee, J. F. Franklin (2005). Dry forests and wildland fires of the inland Northwest USA: Contrasting the landscape ecology of the pre-settlement and modern eras. Forest Ecology and Management 211 (1-2): 117-139
ABSTRACT: Prior to Euro–American settlement, dry ponderosa pine and mixed conifer forests (hereafter, the “dry forests”) of the Inland Northwest were burned by frequent low- or mixed-severity fires. These mostly surface fires maintained low and variable tree densities, light and patchy ground fuels, simplified forest structure, and favored fire-tolerant trees, such as ponderosa pine, and a low and patchy cover of associated fire-tolerant shrubs and herbs.
Low- and mixed-severity fires provided other important feedbacks and effects to ponderosa pine-dominated stands and landscapes. For example, in stands, frequent surface fires favored an ongoing yet piecemeal regeneration of fire-tolerant trees by periodically exposing patches of mineral soil. They maintained fire-tolerant forest structures by elevating tree crown bases and scorching or consuming many seedlings, saplings, and pole-sized trees. They cycled nutrients from branches and foliage to the soil, where they could be used by other plants, and promoted the growth and development of low and patchy understory shrub and herb vegetation. Finally, surface fires reduced the long-term threat of running crown fires by reducing the fuel bed and metering out individual tree and group torching, and they reduced competition for site resources among surviving trees, shrubs, and herbs. In landscapes, the patterns of dry forest structure and composition that resulted from frequent fires reinforced the occurrence of low- or mixed-severity fires, because frequent burning spatially isolated conditions that supported high-severity fires. These spatial patterns reduced the likelihood of severe fire behavior and effects at each episode of fire. Rarely, dry forest landscapes were affected by more severe climate-driven events.
Extant dry forests no longer appear or function as they once did. Large landscapes are homogeneous in their composition and structure, and the regional landscape is set up for severe, large fire and insect disturbance events. Among ecologists, there is also a high degree of concern about how future dry forests will develop, if fires continue to be large and severe. In this paper, we describe the key landscape pattern and process changes wrought by the sum of the settlement and management influences to date, and we point to an uncertain future for ecosystem management. Widespread selection cutting of the largest and oldest ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir in the 20th century has reduced much of the economic opportunity that might have been associated with restoration, and long-term investment will likely be needed, if large-scale restoration activities are attempted. An uncertain future for ecosystem management is based on the lack of current and improbable future social consensus concerning desired outcomes for public forestlands, the need for significant financial investment in ecosystem restoration, a lack of integrated planning and decision tools, and mismatches between the existing planning process, Congressional appropriations, and complex management and restoration problems.
ABSTRACT: A 17 000 yr fire history from Yellowstone National Park demonstrates a strong link between changes in climate and variations in fire frequency on millennial time scales. The fire history reconstruction is based on a detailed charcoal stratigraphy from Cygnet Lake in the rhyolite plateau region. Macroscopic charcoal particles were tallied from contiguous 1 cm samples of a 6.69-m-long core, and the data were converted to charcoal-accumulation rates at evenly spaced time intervals. Intervals of high charcoal-accumulation rates were interpreted as local fire events on the basis of information obtained from modern charcoal-calibration studies in the Yellowstone region. The record indicates that fire frequency was moderate (4 fires/1000 yr) during the late glacial period, reached highest values in the early Holocene (>10 fires/1000 yr), and decreased after 7000 calendar yr B.P. The present fire regime (2–3 fires/1000 yr) was established in the past 2000 yr. The charcoal stratigraphy correlates well with variations in July insolation through time, which suggests that regional climate changes are responsible for the long-term variations in fire frequency. In the early Holocene, summer insolation was near its maximum, which resulted in warmer, effectively drier conditions throughout the northwestern United States. At this time, the fire frequency near Cygnet Lake was at its highest. After 7000 calendar yr B.P., summer insolation decreased to present values, the regional climate became cooler and wetter, and fires were less frequent. The Cygnet Lake record suggests that long-term fire frequencies have varied continuously with climate change, even when the vegetation has remained constant
ABSTRACT: Fire was arguably the most important forest and rangeland disturbance process in the Inland Northwest United States for millennia. Prior to the Lewis and Clark expedition, fire regimes ranged from high severity with return intervals of one to five centuries, to low severity with fire-free periods lasting three decades or less. Indoamerican burning contributed to the fire ecology of grasslands and lower and mid-montane dry forests, especially where ponderosa pine was the dominant overstory species, but the extent of this contribution is difficult to quantify. Two centuries of settlement, exploitation, management, and climate variation have transformed the fire regimes, vegetation and fuel patterns, and overall functionality of these forests. We present a narrative that portrays conditions beginning at the first contact of Euro-American settlers with Indoamericans of the region and extending to the present. Due in part to its geographic isolation, the Inland Northwest was among the last regions to be discovered by Euro-Americans. In 200 years the region has undergone fur trapping and trading, sheep, cattle, and horse grazing, timber harvesting, mining, road construction, native grassland conversion to agricultural production, urban and rural area development, fire prevention, and fire suppression. We highlight key changes to forest landscape patterns and processes that occurred under these combined influences, discuss implications of the changes, and progress towards restoring sustainability. An adaptive ecosystem management model has been adopted by public land management agencies to remedy current conditions. Ecosystem management is a relatively new concept that emphasizes the integrity and sustainability of land systems rather than outputs from the land. Adaptive management emphasizes the twin notions that incomplete knowledge and high degrees of risk and uncertainty about earth and climate systems will always limit land and resource planning and management decisions, and that management is chiefly a learning and adapting process. We discuss current issues and future options associated with ecosystem management, including the low likelihood of social consensus concerning desired outcomes, the lack of integrated planning, analysis, and decision support tools, and mismatches between existing land management planning processes, Congressional appropriations, and complex management and restoration problems.
G.A. Meyer, S. G. Wells, A. J. T. Jull (1995). Fire and alluvial chronology in Yellowstone National Park: Climatic and intrinsic controls on Holocene geomorphic processes. Geological Society of America Bulletin 107 (10): 1211-1230
ABSTRACT: We employed a systemwide approach, a large and robust set of radiocarbon ages, and modern process analogs to interpret the Holocene history of forest fire–related sedimentation and overall alluvial activity in northeastern Yellowstone National Park. Debris-flow and flood events following the 1988 fires provided facies models for interpreting the stratigraphic record of fire-related sedimentation within valley-side alluvial fans of Soda Butte Creek. Fire-related deposits make up approximately 30% of the late Holocene fan alluvium. Fifty14 C ages on fire-related events cluster within the intervals of 3300–2900, 2600–2400, 2200–1800, and 1400–800 yr B.P. and suggest earlier episodes of large fires and fan aggradation around 7500, 5500, and 4600–4000 yr B.P. A major pulse of fire-related debris-flow activity between 950 and 800 yr B.P. coincided with the height of the widely recognized Medieval Warm Period (ca. a.d. 1050–1200). Instrumental climate records over the last 100 yr in Yellowstone imply that the intensity and interannual variability of summer precipitation are greater during warmer periods, enhancing the potential for severe short-term drought, major forest fires, and storm-generated fan deposition.
Along lower Soda Butte Creek, fill-cut terrace treads were created by lateral migration of channels and accumulation of overbank sediments ca. 8000 yr B.P. (terrace level T1a), 7000–5600 (T1b), 3100–2600 (T2), 2000–1300 (T3), and post–800 yr B.P. (T4). These periods coincide with overbank sedimentation on Slough Creek and the Lamar River but alternate with intervals of fire-related fan deposition, implying a strong climatic control. Local paleoclimatic data suggest cooler, effectively wetter conditions during terrace tread formation. In warmer, drier intervals, reduced average runoff in axial streams results in meander-belt narrowing; concurrent channel incision may be caused by infrequent large floods. Greater resistance to downcutting, however, allowed fewer terraces to be formed along Slough Creek and the Lamar River. Alluvial systems in northeastern Yellowstone show a clear response to millennial-scale climatic cycles, wherein alluvial fans aggrade and prograde over flood plains in drier periods. Axial streams widen their flood plains and trim back the fans during wetter periods. “Small-scale” climatic fluctuations of the Holocene thus had substantial impact on postglacial landscapes in northeastern Yellowstone.
ABSTRACT: Holocene fire–climate–vegetation linkages are mostly understood at individual sites by comparing charcoal and pollen records with other paleoenvironmental proxy and model simulations. This scale of reconstruction often obscures detection of large-scale patterns in past fire activity that are related to changes in regional climate and vegetation. A network of 31 charcoal records from southern South America was examined to assess fire history along a transect from subtropic to subantarctic biomes. The charcoal data indicate that fire activity was greater than present at ca. 12,000 cal yr BP and increased further and was widespread at 9500 cal yr BP. Fire activity decreased and became more spatially variable by 6000 cal yr BP, and this trend continued to present. Atmospheric circulation anomalies during recent high-fire years show a southward shift in westerlies, and paleoclimate model simulations and data syntheses suggest that such conditions may have prevailed for millennia in the early Holocene when the pole-to-equator temperature gradients were weaker and annual temperatures were higher than present, in response to orbital-time-scale insolation changes.
ABSTRACT: Fire history data provide information on the role of fire as a long-term ecological process and the changes in fire activity that have occurred in response to variations in climate, vegetation and human activity. Fire reconstructions are derived from dendrochronological records that span the last few centuries and charcoal records obtained from the sediments of lakes and wetlands that span millennia. Several advances in the study of charcoal records have improved their usefulness for palaeoecological research. For example, calibration studies of charcoal inputs during and following recent fires indicate that macroscopic charcoal particles are not transported far from the source area. In addition, high-resolution charcoal time series are now interpreted in terms of two components—a peaks component that registers past fire events and a background component that represents long-term variations in charcoal production and transport. This paper presents an examination of charcoal and pollen records from the western United States that illustrates the potential of this type of research for reconstructing past environments.
ABSTRACT: The environmental history of the Northern Rocky Mountains was reconstructed using lake sediments from Burnt Knob Lake, Idaho, and comparing the results with those from other previously published sites in the region to understand how vegetation and fire regimes responded to large-scale climate changes during the Holocene. Vegetation reconstructions indicate parkland or alpine meadow at the end of the glacial period indicating cold-dry conditions. From 14,000 to 12,000 cal yr B.P., abundant Pinus pollen suggests warmer, moister conditions than the previous period. Most sites record the development of a forest with Pseudotsuga ca. 9500 cal yr B.P. indicating warm dry climate coincident with the summer insolation maximum. As the amplification of the seasonal cycle of insolation waned during the middle Holocene, Pseudotsuga was replaced by Pinus and Abies suggesting cool, moist conditions. The fire reconstructions show less synchroneity. In general, the sites west of the continental divide display a fire-frequency maximum around 12,000–8000 cal yr B.P., which coincides with the interval of high summer insolation and stronger-than-present subtropical high. The sites on the east side of the continental divide have the highest fire frequency ca. 6000–3500 cal yr B.P. and may be responding to a decrease in summer precipitation as monsoonal circulation weakened in the middle and late Holocene. This study demonstrated that the fire frequency of the last two decades does not exceed the historical range of variability in that periods of even higher-than-present fire frequency occurred in the past.
ABSTRACT: Western US ponderosa pine forests have recently suffered extensive stand-replacing fires followed by hillslope erosion and sedimentation. These fires are usually attributed to increased stand density as a result of fire suppression, grazing and other land use, and are often considered uncharacteristic or unprecedented. Tree-ring records from the past 500 years indicate that before Euro-American settlement, frequent, low-severity fires maintained open stands. However, the pre-settlement period between about AD 1500 and AD 1900 was also generally colder than present, raising the possibility that rapid twentieth-century warming promoted recent catastrophic fires. Here we date fire-related sediment deposits in alluvial fans in central Idaho to reconstruct Holocene fire history in xeric ponderosa pine forests and examine links to climate. We find that colder periods experienced frequent low-severity fires, probably fuelled by increased understory growth. Warmer periods experienced severe droughts, stand-replacing fires and large debris-flow events that comprise a large component of long-term erosion and coincide with similar events in sub-alpine forests of Yellowstone National Park. Our results suggest that given the powerful influence of climate, restoration of processes typical of pre-settlement times may be difficult in a warmer future that promotes severe fires.
ABSTRACT: Western United States forest wildfire activity is widely thought to have increased in recent decades, but surprisingly, the extent of recent changes has never been systematically documented. Nor has it been established to what degree climate may be driving regional changes in wildfire. Much of the public and scientific discussion of changes in western United States wildfire has focused rather on the effects of 19th and 20th century land-use history. We compiled a comprehensive database of large wildfires in western United States forests since 1970 and compared it to hydro-climatic and land-surface data. Here, we show that large wildfire activity increased suddenly and dramatically in the mid-1980s, with higher large-wildfire frequency, longer wildfire durations, and longer wildfire seasons. The greatest increases occurred in mid-elevation, Northern Rockies forests, where land-use histories have relatively little effect on fire risks, and are strongly associated with increased spring and summer temperatures and an earlier spring snowmelt.
T. J. Brown, B. L. Hall, A. L. Westerling (2004). The impact of twenty-first century climate change on wildland fire danger in the western United States: an applications perspective. Climatic Change 62 (1-3): 365-388
ABSTRACT: High-temporal resolution meteorological output from the Parallel Climate Model (PCM) is used to assess changes in wildland fire danger across the western United States due to climatic changes projected in the 21st century. A business-as-usual scenario incorporating changing greenhouse gas and aerosol concentrations until the year 2089 is compared to a 1975–1996 base period. Changes in relative humidity, especially drying over much of the West, are projected to increase the number of days of high fire danger (based on the energy release component (ERC) index) at least through the year 2089 in comparison to the base period. The regions most affected are the northern Rockies, Great Basin and the Southwest – regions that have already experienced significant fire activity early this century. In these regions starting around the year 2070, when the model climate CO2 has doubled from present-day, the increase in the number of days that ERC (fuel model G) exceeds a value of 60 is as much as two to three weeks. The Front Range of the Rockies and the High Plains regions do not show a similar change. For regions where change is predicted, new fire and fuels management strategies and policies may be needed to address added climatic risks while also accommodating complex and changing ecosystems subject to human stresses on the region. These results, and their potential impact on fire and land management policy development, demonstrate the value of climate models for important management applications, as encouraged under the Department of Energy Accelerated Climate Prediction Initiative (ACPI), under whose auspices this work was performed.
ABSTRACT: Fire, other disturbances, physical setting, weather, and climate shape the structure and function of forests throughout the Western United States. More than 80 years of fire research have shown that physical setting, fuels, and weather combine to determine wildfire intensity (the rate at which it consumes fuel) and severity (the effect fire has on vegetation, soils, buildings, watersheds, and so forth). As a result of fire exclusion, timber harvesting, and livestock grazing, millions of acres of forestlands (mainly in dry forests dominated by ponderosa pine and/or Douglas-fir) contain a high accumulation of flammable fuels compared to conditions prior to the 20th century. Forests with high stem density and fuel loading combined with extreme fire weather conditions have led to severe and large wildfires (such as those seen in the summers of 2000 and 2002 and the fall of 2003) that have put a number of important values at risk. Although homes in the path of a wildfire are perhaps the most immediately recognized value, these wildfires also put numerous other human and ecological values at risk, such as power grids, drinking water supplies, firefighter safety, critical habitat, soil productivity, and air quality.
For a given set of weather conditions, fire behavior is strongly influenced by stand and fuel structure. Crown fires in the dry forest types represent an increasing challenge for fire management as well as a general threat to the ecology of these forests and the closely associated human values. Crown fires are dependent on the sequence of available fuels starting from the ground surface to the canopy. Limiting crown fire in these forests can, thus, be accomplished by fuel management actions that first reduce surface and ladder fuels before manipulating canopy fuels. Reducing crown fire and wildland fire growth across landscapes decreases the chances of developing large wildfires that affect human values adjacent to forested areas. However, a narrow focus on minimizing crown fire potential will not necessarily reduce the damage to homes and ecosystems when fires do occur there. Homes are often ignited by embers flying far from the fire front, and by surface fires. Fire effects on ecosystems can also occur during surface fires where fine fuels and deep organic layers are sufficient to generate high temperatures for long periods.
Fuel treatments can help produce forest structures and fuel characteristics that then reduce the likelihood that wildfires will cause large, rapid changes in biophysical conditions. Fuel treatments can also help modify fire behavior sufficiently so that some wildfires can be suppressed more easily. Subsequent, sustained fuel treatments can maintain these conditions. Different fuel reduction methods target different components of the fuel bed. Thinning mainly affects standing vegetation, and other types of fuel treatments such as prescribed fire and pile burning woody fuels are needed to modify the combustion environment of surface fuels. In forests that have not experienced fire for many decades, multiple fuel treatments-that is, thinning and surface fuel reduction-may be required to significantly affect crown fire and surface fire hazard. Fuel treatments cannot guarantee benign fire behavior but can reduce the probability that extreme fire behavior will occur. Fuel treatments can be designed to restore forest conditions to a more resilient and resistant condition than now exists in many forests, and subsequent management could maintain these conditions, particularly in dry forests (ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir) where crown fires were infrequent. The degree of risk reduction will depend to some degree on the level of investment, social and economic acceptability of treatments, and concurrent consideration of other resource values (for example, wildlife).
This report describes the kinds, quality, amount, and gaps of scientific knowledge for making informed decisions on fuel treatments used to modify wildfire behavior and effects in dry forests of the interior Western United States (especially forests dominated by ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir). A review of scientific principles and applications relevant to fuel treatment primarily for the dry forests (ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir dominated) of the Western United States is provided for the following topics: fuels, fire hazard, fire behavior, fire effects, forest structure, treatment effects and longevity, landscape fuel patterns, and scientific tools useful for management and planning.
ABSTRACT: Wildland fire is an important disturbance agent in forests of the American Northwest. Historical fire suppression efforts have contributed to an accumulation of fuels in many Northwestern forests and may result in more frequent and/or more severe wildfire events. Here we investigate the extent to which atmospheric and climatic variability may contribute to variability in annual area burned on 20 National Forests in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. Empirical orthogonal function (EOF) analysis was used to identify coherent patterns in area burned by wildfire in the Pacific Northwest. Anomaly fields of 500-hPa height were regressed onto the resulting principal-component time series to identify the patterns in atmospheric circulation that are associated with variability in area burned by wildfire. Additionally, cross-correlation functions were calculated for the Palmer drought severity index (PDSI) over the year preceding the wildfire season. Parallel analyses based on superposed epoch analysis focused only on the extreme fire years (both large and small) to discriminate the controls on extreme years from the linear responses identified in the regression analyses. Four distinct patterns in area burned were identified, each associated with distinct climatic processes. Extreme wildfire years are forced at least in part by antecedent drought and summertime blocking in the 500-hPa height field. However the response to these forcings is modulated by the ecology of the dominant forest. In more mesic forest types antecedent drought is a necessary precondition for forests to burn, but it is not a good predictor of area burned due to the rarity of subsequent ignition. At especially dry locations, summertime blocking events can lead to increases in area burned even in the absence of antecedent drought. At particularly xeric locations summertime cyclones can also lead to increased area burned, probably due to dry lightning storms that bring ignition and strong winds but little precipitation. These results suggest that fuels treatments alone may not be effective at reducing area burned under extreme climatic conditions and furthermore that anthropogenic climate change may have important implications for forest management.
ABSTRACT: The purpose of this study was to partition the components of a mixed fire frequency, and empirically relate these components to temporal and spatial differences in fire frequency. The method of reconstructing the fire frequency was to build a stand—origin map, from this estimate the mixed time—since—fire distribution, and then use a graphic technique to partition the mixed distribution into two homogeneous fire—frequency distributions. The fire frequency for the last 380 yr in the 495—km2 Kananaskis Watershed showed a temporal change in fire frequency at °1730. This change in fire frequency is related to a change from a warmer and drier climate before 1730 to a cooler and moisture climate since then. When the fire—frequency data were partitioned by a graphic technique, the two resulting fire frequencies fit negative exponential distributions. For the period 1730—1980 the fire cycle (the time required to burn an area equal to the area of study, or one divided by the scale parameter of the exponential distribution) was 90 yr. For the period before 1730 the fire cycle was 50 yr. The Watershed could not be subdivided into smaller, spatially homogeneous fire—frequency units. The negative exponential distribution of fire frequencies suggests a constant hazard function (mortality force). This constant hazard was corroborated by a spatial correlation (Moran's I) tests which found no spatial pattern other than ones expected by chance between forest ages on either side of all fire boundaries. Thus, there was no tendency for young stands to be associated either with only younger— or only older—aged stands. Other studies on fire behavior in the Watershed corroborate the short fire cycle, constant hazard, and lack of spatial fire—frequency differences, and suggest that the regional climate control of the temporal fire frequency is related to a characteristic synoptic weather pattern and the resulting high intensity and high rate—of—spread of fires.
ABSTRACT: Climatic variability is a dominant factor affecting large wildfires in the western United States, an observation supported by palaeoecological data on charcoal in lake sediments and reconstructions from fire-scarred trees. Although current fire management focuses on fuel reductions to bring fuel loadings back to their historical ranges, at the regional scale extreme fire weather is still the dominant influence on area burned and fire severity. Current forecasting tools are limited to short-term predictions of fire weather, but increased understanding of large-scale oceanic and atmospheric patterns in the Pacific Ocean (e.g., El Niño Southern Oscillation, Pacific Decadal Oscillation) may improve our ability to predict climatic variability at seasonal to annual leads. Associations between these quasi-periodic patterns and fire occurrence, though evident in some regions, have been difficult to establish in others. Increased temperature in the future will likely extend fire seasons throughout the western United States, with more fires occurring earlier and later than is currently typical, and will increase the total area burned in some regions. If climatic change increases the amplitude and duration of extreme fire weather, we can expect significant changes in the distribution and abundance of dominant plant species in some ecosystems, which would thus affect habitat of some sensitive plant and animal species. Some species that are sensitive to fire may decline, whereas the distribution and abundance of species favored by fire may be enhanced. The effects of climatic change will partially depend on the extent to which resource management modifies vegetation structure and fuels.
ABSTRACT: A 21-yr gridded monthly fire-starts and acres-burned dataset from U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, and Bureau of Indian Affairs fire reports recreates the seasonality and interannual variability of wildfire in the western United States. Despite pervasive human influence in western fire regimes, it is striking how strongly these data reveal a fire season responding to variations in climate. Correlating anomalous wildfire frequency and extent with the Palmer Drought Severity Index illustrates the importance of prior and accumulated precipitation anomalies for future wildfire season severity. This link to antecedent seasons' moisture conditions varies widely with differences in predominant fuel type. Furthermore, these data demonstrate that the relationship between wildfire season severity and observed moisture anomalies from antecedent seasons is strong enough to forecast fire season severity at lead times of one season to a year in advance.
ARTICLE INTRODUCTION: Seemingly unprecedented events in human lifetimes can be business-as-usual when viewed on longer time-frames. But that's not always recognized. For example, management strategies in the United States that seek to restore landscapes to the conditions that prevailed at the time of first European contact often fail to consider the events that created those conditions. This short-sightedness is particularly evident in the area of wildfire management.
On page 87 of this issue, however, Pierce et al.1 provide a long-term perspective on the effects of fire in 'low-elevation' pine forests in the western United States. These dry, open forests lie above the steppe and grasslands that occupy most intermontane basins in the Rocky Mountains; in more moist settings at higher elevations, they are replaced by closed montane and subalpine forests. The low-elevation forests have been extensively modified by human activities, and there is intense debate about the appropriate action needed to restore them to their prehistoric state2 .
ABSTRACT: Fire scar and tree growth chronologies (1700 to 1905) and fire statistics (since 1905) from Arizona and New Mexico show that small areas burn after wet springs associated with the low phase of the Southern Oscillation (SO), whereas large areas burn after dry springs associated with the high phase of the SO. Through its synergistic influence on spring weather and fuel conditions, climatic variability in the tropical Pacific significantly influences vegetation dynamics in the southwestern United States. Synchrony of fire-free and severe fire years across diverse southwestern forests implies that climate forces fire regimes on a subcontinental scale; it also underscores the importance of exogenous factors in ecosystem dynamics.
ABSTRACT:Fires emit significant amounts of CO2 to the atmosphere. These emissions, however, are highly variable in both space and time. Additionally, CO2 emissions estimates from fires are very uncertain. The combination of high spatial and temporal variability and substantial uncertainty associated with fire CO2 emissions can be problematic to efforts to develop remote sensing, monitoring, and inverse modeling techniques to quantify carbon fluxes at the continental scale. Policy and carbon management decisions based on atmospheric sampling/modeling techniques must account for the impact of fire CO2 emissions; a task that may prove very difficult for the foreseeable future. This paper addresses the variability of CO2 emissions from fires across the US, how these emissions compare to anthropogenic emissions of CO2 and Net Primary Productivity, and the potential implications for monitoring programs and policy development.Average annual CO2 emissions from fires in the lower 48 (LOWER48) states from 2002–2006 are estimated to be 213 (± 50 std. dev.) Tg CO2 yr-1 and 80 (± 89 std. dev.) Tg CO2 yr-1 in Alaska. These estimates have significant interannual and spatial variability. Needleleaf forests in the Southeastern US and the Western US are the dominant source regions for US fire CO2 emissions. Very high emission years typically coincide with droughts, and climatic variability is a major driver of the high interannual and spatial variation in fire emissions. The amount of CO2 emitted from fires in the US is equivalent to 4–6% of anthropogenic emissions at the continental scale and, at the state-level, fire emissions of CO2 can, in some cases, exceed annual emissions of CO2 from fossil fuel usage.The CO2 released from fires, overall, is a small fraction of the estimated average annual Net Primary Productivity and, unlike fossil fuel CO2 emissions, the pulsed emissions of CO2 during fires are partially counterbalanced by uptake of CO2 by regrowing vegetation in the decades following fire. Changes in fire severity and frequency can, however, lead to net changes in atmospheric CO2 and the short-term impacts of fire emissions on monitoring, modeling, and carbon management policy are substantial.
Barton, A.M., T. W. Swetnam, C. H. Baisan (2001). Arizona pine (Pinus arizonica ) stand dynamics: local and regional factors in a fire-prone madrean gallery forest of Southeast Arizona, USA. Landscape Ecology 16 (4): 351-369
ABSTRACT: In southwestern North America, large-scale climate patterns appear to exert control on moisture availability, fire occurrence, and tree demography, raising the compelling possibility of regional synchronization of forest dynamics. Such regional signals may be obscured, however, by local, site-specific factors, such as disturbance history and land use. Contiguous sites with similar physical environments, lower and middle Rhyolite Canyon, Arizona, USA, shared nearly the same fire history from 1660-1801, but then diverged. For the next 50 years, fires continued to occur frequently in lower Rhyolite, but, probably as result of flood-induced debris deposition, largely ceased in middle Rhyolite. We related stand dynamics of Arizona pine (Pinus arizonica ) to fire history and drought severity and compared the dynamics in the two sites before and after the divergence in fire frequency. Fires occurred during unusually dry years, and possibly following unusually moist years. Arizona pine exhibited three age structure peaks: two (1810–1830 and 1870–1900) shared by the two sites and one (1610–1640) only in middle Rhyolite. The latter two peaks occurred during periods of unusually low fire frequency, suggesting that fire-induced mortality shapes age structure. Evidence was mixed for the role of favorable moisture availability in age structure. As expected, moisture availability had a prominent positive effect on radial growth, but the effect of fire was largely neutral. The two sites differed only moderately in stand dynamics during the period of divergence, exhibiting subtle age structure contrasts and, in middle Rhyolite only, reduced growth during a 50-year fire hiatus followed by fire-induced release. These results suggest that, despite local differences in disturbance history, forest responses to regional fire and climate processes can persist.
Whitlock, C., S. L. Shafer, J. Marlon (2003). The role of climate and vegetation change in shaping past and future fire regimes in the northwestern US and the implications for ecosystem management. Forest Ecology and Management 178 (1-2): 5-21
ABSTRACT: Fire is an important part of the disturbance regimes of northwestern US forests and its role in maintaining and altering forest vegetation is evident in the paleoecological record of the region. Long-term reconstructions of Holocene fire regimes, provided by the analysis of charcoal, pollen, and other fire proxies in a network of lake records, indicate that the Pacific Northwest and summer-dry regions of the northern Rocky Mountains experienced their highest fire activity in the early Holocene (11,000–7000 years ago) and during the Medieval Warm Period (ca. 1000 years ago) when drought conditions were more severe than today. In contrast, in summer-wet areas of the northern Rocky Mountains, the period of highest fire activity was registered in the last 7000 years when dry woodland vegetation developed. When synthesized across the entire northwestern US, the paleoecological record reveals that past and present fire regimes are strongly controlled by climate changes occurring on multiple time scales. The scarcity of fires in the 20th century in some northwestern US ecosystems may be the result of successful fire suppression policies, but in wetter forests this absence is consistent with long-term fire regime patterns. In addition, simulations of potential future climate and vegetation indicate that future fire conditions in some parts of the northwestern US could be more severe than they are today. The Holocene record of periods of intensified summer drought is used to assess the nature of future fire–climate–vegetation linkages in the region.
Meyer, G.A., J. L. Pierce (2003). Climatic controls on fire-induced sediment pulses in Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho: a long-term perspective. Forest Ecology and Management 178 (1-2): 89-104
ABSTRACT: Fire management addressing postfire erosion and aquatic ecosystems tends to focus on short-term effects persisting up to about a decade after fire. A longer perspective is important in understanding natural variability in postfire erosion and sedimentation, the role of these processes in structuring habitat, and future expectations in light of a warming climate and environmental change. In cool high-elevation forests of northern Yellowstone National Park, stand ages indicate infrequent large stand-replacing fires. In warmer low-elevation forests of the Payette River region of Idaho, fire-scarred tree-rings record frequent low-severity fires before 1900; stand-replacing fires and resulting debris flows in recent decades are usually attributed to 20th-century fire suppression, grazing, and other land uses. In both areas, however, tree-ring records extend back only about 500 years. We use14 C-dated geologic records to examine spatial and temporal patterns of fire-induced sedimentation and its relation to climate over the last 10 000 years. We review sedimentation processes in modern postfire events, which vary in magnitude and impact on stream systems depending on burn severity, basin geomorphology, and the timing and characteristics of postfire storms. Modern deposits also provide analogs for identification of fire-related deposits in alluvial fans. In Yellowstone, episodes of fire-induced sedimentation occurred at intervals of about 300–450 years during the last 3500 years, indicating a regime of infrequent high-severity fires. Millennial-scale variations in the fire-sedimentation record appear to relate to hemispheric-scale climatic change. Fire-related sedimentation is rare in Yellowstone during cooler episodes (e.g., the Little Ice Age ~1200–1900), probably because effectively wetter conditions prevented most fires from spreading. During some of the same cool periods, the Payette region experienced light surface fires and frequent, small pulses of fire-induced sediment. Between 900 and 1200, however, large fire-related debris flows occurred in both study areas, coincident with the Medieval Warm Period. During that time, drought may have limited grass growth in xeric Payette-region forests, restricting surface fire spread and allowing understory shrubs and trees to create ladder fuels. Although fire suppression and land-use effects are clearly involved in recent catastrophic fires in the Payette region, a warming climate and severe drought are probable contributors to major stand-replacing fires and postfire sedimentation, both past and present. Restoration and maintenance of conditions prior to European settlement may be unrealistic because of the potent influence of climate, and the incidence of severe fires will likely increase in both areas with future warming.
ABSTRACT: Annual area burned (AAB) variability in northwestern North America was inferred from 38 tree-ring width chronologies widely distributed across boreal regions and spanning the past 300 years and the minimum 1833—1998 interval. AAB estimates accounted for up to 61% of the variance in AAB observed from 1959 to 1998, and were verified using a split sample calibration-verification scheme. Spatial correlation maps of gridded temperature and precipitation data provided an indication of the reliability of the reconstruction to approximate fire-conducive climate variability beyond the period of calibration. Singular spectrum analysis and analysis of variance suggested that AAB has significantly changed during the course of the past 150 years toward increasing variance. Recent 1959—1998 decadal changes in AAB of northwestern North America fitted well within an oscillatory mode centred on 26.7 years and accounting for 21.1% of the variance in the reconstruction. As in previous studies, the current findings suggest that AAB is correlated to seasonal land/ocean temperature variability and that future warming could lead to greater AAB. However, the study has the weakness of not accounting for complex interactions between climate and ecosystem processes and thus its results should be interpreted with caution. We suggest that a calibration model conducted on multiple types of fire proxies (tree rings, charcoal data, fire scars and stand-establishment records) could be relevant for addressing these weaknesses.
Antoninka, A., Wolf, J. E., Bowker, M., Classen, A. T., Johnson, N. C. (2009). Linking above- and belowground responses to global change at community and ecosystem scales. Global Change Biology 15 (4): 914-929
ABSTRACT: Cryptic belowground organisms are difficult to observe and their responses to global changes are not well understood. Nevertheless, there is reason to believe that interactions among above- and belowground communities may mediate ecosystem responses to global change. We used grassland mesocosms to manipulate the abundance of one important group of soil organisms, arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) fungi, and to study community and ecosystem responses to CO2 and N enrichment. Responses of plants, AM fungi, phospholipid fatty acids and community-level physiological profiles were measured after two growing seasons. Ecosystem responses were examined by measuring net primary production (NPP), evapotranspiration, total soil organic matter (SOM), and extractable mineral N. Structural equation modeling was used to examine the causal relationships among treatments and response variables. We found that while CO2 and N tended to directly impact ecosystem functions (evapotranspiration and NPP, respectively), AM fungi indirectly impacted ecosystem functions by influencing the community composition of plants and other root fungi, soil fungi and soil bacteria. We found that the mycotrophic status of the dominant plant species in the mesocosms determined whether the presence of AM fungi increased or decreased NPP. Mycotrophic grasses dominated the mesocosm communities during the first growing season, and the mycorrhizal treatments had the highest NPP. In contrast, nonmycotrophic forbs were dominant during the second growing season and the mycorrhizal treatments had the lowest NPP. The composition of the plant community strongly influenced soil N, and the community composition of soil organisms strongly influenced SOM accumulation in the mesocosms. These results show how linkages between above- and belowground communities can determine ecosystem responses to global change.
Balshi, M. S., McGuire, A. D., Duffy, P., Flannigan, M., Walsh, J., Melillo, J. (2009). Assessing the response of area burned to changing climate in western boreal North America using a Multivariate Adaptive Regression Splines (MARS) approach. Global Change Biology 15 (3): 578-600
ABSTRACT: Fire is a common disturbance in the North American boreal forest that influences ecosystem structure and function. The temporal and spatial dynamics of fire are likely to be altered as climate continues to change. In this study, we ask the question: how will area burned in boreal North America by wildfire respond to future changes in climate? To evaluate this question, we developed temporally and spatially explicit relationships between air temperature and fuel moisture codes derived from the Canadian Fire Weather Index System to estimate annual area burned at 2.5° (latitude × longitude) resolution using a Multivariate Adaptive Regression Spline (MARS) approach across Alaska and Canada. Burned area was substantially more predictable in the western portion of boreal North America than in eastern Canada. Burned area was also not very predictable in areas of substantial topographic relief and in areas along the transition between boreal forest and tundra. At the scale of Alaska and western Canada, the empirical fire models explain on the order of 82% of the variation in annual area burned for the period 1960–2002. July temperature was the most frequently occurring predictor across all models, but the fuel moisture codes for the months June through August (as a group) entered the models as the most important predictors of annual area burned. To predict changes in the temporal and spatial dynamics of fire under future climate, the empirical fire models used output from the Canadian Climate Center CGCM2 global climate model to predict annual area burned through the year 2100 across Alaska and western Canada. Relative to 1991–2000, the results suggest that average area burned per decade will double by 2041–2050 and will increase on the order of 3.5–5.5 times by the last decade of the 21st century. To improve the ability to better predict wildfire across Alaska and Canada, future research should focus on incorporating additional effects of long-term and successional vegetation changes on area burned to account more fully for interactions among fire, climate, and vegetation dynamics.