Resistance of the boreal forest to high burn rates.
ABSTRACT: Boreal ecosystems and their large carbon stocks are strongly shaped by extensive wildfires. Coupling climate projections with records of area burned during the last 3 decades across the North American boreal zone suggests that area burned will increase by 30-500% by the end of the 21st century, with a cascading effect on ecosystem dynamics and on the boreal carbon balance. Fire size and the frequency of large-fire years are both expected to increase. However, how fire size and time since previous fire will influence future burn rates is poorly understood, mostly because of incomplete records of past fire overlaps. Here, we reconstruct the length of overlapping fires along a 190-km-long transect during the last 200 y in one of the most fire-prone boreal regions of North America to document how fire size and time since previous fire will influence future fire recurrence. We provide direct field evidence that extreme burn rates can be sustained by a few occasional droughts triggering immense fires. However, we also show that the most fire-prone areas of the North American boreal forest are resistant to high burn rates because of overabundant young forest stands, thereby creating a fuel-mediated negative feedback on fire activity. These findings will help refine projections of fire effect on boreal ecosystems and their large carbon stocks.
Project description:Subalpine forests in the northern Rocky Mountains have been resilient to stand-replacing fires that historically burned at 100- to 300-year intervals. Fire intervals are projected to decline drastically as climate warms, and forests that reburn before recovering from previous fire may lose their ability to rebound. We studied recent fires in Greater Yellowstone (Wyoming, United States) and asked whether short-interval (<30 years) stand-replacing fires can erode lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta var. latifolia) forest resilience via increased burn severity, reduced early postfire tree regeneration, reduced carbon stocks, and slower carbon recovery. During 2016, fires reburned young lodgepole pine forests that regenerated after wildfires in 1988 and 2000. During 2017, we sampled 0.25-ha plots in stand-replacing reburns (n = 18) and nearby young forests that did not reburn (n = 9). We also simulated stand development with and without reburns to assess carbon recovery trajectories. Nearly all prefire biomass was combusted ("crown fire plus") in some reburns in which prefire trees were dense and small (?4-cm basal diameter). Postfire tree seedling density was reduced sixfold relative to the previous (long-interval) fire, and high-density stands (>40,000 stems ha-1) were converted to sparse stands (<1,000 stems ha-1). In reburns, coarse wood biomass and aboveground carbon stocks were reduced by 65 and 62%, respectively, relative to areas that did not reburn. Increased carbon loss plus sparse tree regeneration delayed simulated carbon recovery by >150 years. Forests did not transition to nonforest, but extreme burn severity and reduced tree recovery foreshadow an erosion of forest resilience.
Project description:Fire-induced permafrost degradation is well documented in boreal forests, but the role of fires in initiating thermokarst development in Arctic tundra is less well understood. Here we show that Arctic tundra fires may induce widespread thaw subsidence of permafrost terrain in the first seven years following the disturbance. Quantitative analysis of airborne LiDAR data acquired two and seven years post-fire, detected permafrost thaw subsidence across 34% of the burned tundra area studied, compared to less than 1% in similar undisturbed, ice-rich tundra terrain units. The variability in thermokarst development appears to be influenced by the interaction of tundra fire burn severity and near-surface, ground-ice content. Subsidence was greatest in severely burned, ice-rich upland terrain (yedoma), accounting for ~50% of the detected subsidence, despite representing only 30% of the fire disturbed study area. Microtopography increased by 340% in this terrain unit as a result of ice wedge degradation. Increases in the frequency, magnitude, and severity of tundra fires will contribute to future thermokarst development and associated landscape change in Arctic tundra regions.
Project description:Climate influences vegetation directly and through climate-mediated disturbance processes, such as wildfire. Temperature and area burned are positively associated, conditional on availability of vegetation to burn. Fire is a self-limiting process that is influenced by productivity. Yet, many fire projections assume sufficient vegetation to support fire, with substantial implications for carbon (C) dynamics and emissions. We simulated forest dynamics under projected climate and wildfire for the Sierra Nevada, accounting for climate effects on fuel flammability (static) and climate and prior fire effects on fuel availability and flammability (dynamic). We show that compared to climate effects on flammability alone, accounting for the interaction of prior fires and climate on fuel availability and flammability moderates the projected increase in area burned by 14.3%. This reduces predicted increases in area-weighted median cumulative emissions by 38.3 Tg carbon dioxide (CO<sub>2</sub>) and 0.6 Tg particulate matter (PM1), or 12.9% and 11.5%, respectively. Our results demonstrate that after correcting for potential over-estimates of the effects of climate-driven increases in area burned, California is likely to continue facing significant wildfire and air quality challenges with on-going climate change.
Project description:Carbon release through boreal fires could considerably accelerate Arctic warming; however, boreal fire occurrence mechanisms and dynamics remain largely unknown. Here, we analyze fire activity and relevant large-scale atmospheric conditions over southeastern Siberia, which has the largest burned area fraction in the circumboreal and high-level carbon emissions due to high-density peatlands. It is found that the annual burned area increased when a positive Arctic Oscillation (AO) takes place in early months of the year, despite peak fire season occurring 1 to 2 months later. A local high-pressure system linked to the AO drives a high-temperature anomaly in late winter, causing premature snowmelt. This causes earlier ground surface exposure and drier ground in spring due to enhanced evaporation, promoting fire spreading. Recently, southeastern Siberia has experienced warming and snow retreat; therefore, southeastern Siberia requires appropriate fire management strategies to prevent massive carbon release and accelerated global warming.
Project description:Climate change is likely to alter wildfire regimes, but the magnitude and timing of potential climate-driven changes in regional fire regimes are not well understood. We considered how the occurrence, size, and spatial location of large fires might respond to climate projections in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem (GYE) (Wyoming), a large wildland ecosystem dominated by conifer forests and characterized by infrequent, high-severity fire. We developed a suite of statistical models that related monthly climate data (1972-1999) to the occurrence and size of fires >200 ha in the northern Rocky Mountains; these models were cross-validated and then used with downscaled (~12 km × 12 km) climate projections from three global climate models to predict fire occurrence and area burned in the GYE through 2099. All models predicted substantial increases in fire by midcentury, with fire rotation (the time to burn an area equal to the landscape area) reduced to <30 y from the historical 100-300 y for most of the GYE. Years without large fires were common historically but are expected to become rare as annual area burned and the frequency of regionally synchronous fires increase. Our findings suggest a shift to novel fire-climate-vegetation relationships in Greater Yellowstone by midcentury because fire frequency and extent would be inconsistent with persistence of the current suite of conifer species. The predicted new fire regime would transform the flora, fauna, and ecosystem processes in this landscape and may indicate similar changes for other subalpine forests.
Project description:BACKGROUND:Anthropogenic uses of fire play a key role in regulating fire regimes in African savannas. These fires contribute the highest proportion of the globally burned area, substantial biomass burning emissions and threaten maintenance and enhancement of carbon stocks. An understanding of fire regimes at local scales is required for the estimation and prediction of the contribution of these fires to the global carbon cycle and for fire management. We assessed the spatio-temporal distribution of fires in miombo woodlands of Tanzania, utilizing the MODIS active fire product and Landsat satellite images for the past ~40 years. RESULTS:Our results show that up to 50.6% of the woodland area is affected by fire each year. An early and a late dry season peak in wetter and drier miombo, respectively, characterize the annual fire season. Wetter miombo areas have higher fire activity within a shorter annual fire season and have shorter return intervals. The fire regime is characterized by small-sized fires, with a higher ratio of small than large burned areas in the frequency-size distribution (? = 2.16 ± 0.04). Large-sized fires are rare, and occur more frequently in drier than in wetter miombo. Both fire prevalence and burned extents have decreased in the past decade. At a large scale, more than half of the woodland area has less than 2 years of fire return intervals, which prevent the occurrence of large intense fires. CONCLUSION:The sizes of fires, season of burning and spatial extent of occurrence are generally consistent across time, at the scale of the current analysis. Where traditional use of fire is restricted, a reassessment of fire management strategies may be required, if sustainability of tree cover is a priority. In such cases, there is a need to combine traditional and contemporary fire management practices.
Project description:Wildfire activity in North American boreal forests increased during the last decades of the 20th century, partly owing to ongoing human-caused climatic changes. How these changes affect regional fire regimes (annual area burned, seasonality, and number, size, and severity of fires) remains uncertain as data available to explore fire-climate-vegetation interactions have limited temporal depth. Here we present a Holocene reconstruction of fire regime, combining lacustrine charcoal analyses with past drought and fire-season length simulations to elucidate the mechanisms linking long-term fire regime and climatic changes. We decomposed fire regime into fire frequency (FF) and biomass burned (BB) and recombined these into a new index to assess fire size (FS) fluctuations. Results indicated that an earlier termination of the fire season, due to decreasing summer radiative insolation and increasing precipitation over the last 7.0 ky, induced a sharp decrease in FF and BB ca. 3.0 kyBP toward the present. In contrast, a progressive increase of FS was recorded, which is most likely related to a gradual increase in temperatures during the spring fire season. Continuing climatic warming could lead to a change in the fire regime toward larger spring wildfires in eastern boreal North America.
Project description:Understanding feedbacks between terrestrial and atmospheric systems is vital for predicting the consequences of global change, particularly in the rapidly changing Arctic. Fire is a key process in this context, but the consequences of altered fire regimes in tundra ecosystems are rarely considered, largely because tundra fires occur infrequently on the modern landscape. We present paleoecological data that indicate frequent tundra fires in northcentral Alaska between 14,000 and 10,000 years ago. Charcoal and pollen from lake sediments reveal that ancient birch-dominated shrub tundra burned as often as modern boreal forests in the region, every 144 years on average (+/- 90 s.d.; n = 44). Although paleoclimate interpretations and data from modern tundra fires suggest that increased burning was aided by low effective moisture, vegetation cover clearly played a critical role in facilitating the paleofires by creating an abundance of fine fuels. These records suggest that greater fire activity will likely accompany temperature-related increases in shrub-dominated tundra predicted for the 21(st) century and beyond. Increased tundra burning will have broad impacts on physical and biological systems as well as on land-atmosphere interactions in the Arctic, including the potential to release stored organic carbon to the atmosphere.
Project description:Fire is an essential Earth system process that alters ecosystem and atmospheric composition. Here we assessed long-term fire trends using multiple satellite data sets. We found that global burned area declined by 24.3 ± 8.8% over the past 18 years. The estimated decrease in burned area remained robust after adjusting for precipitation variability and was largest in savannas. Agricultural expansion and intensification were primary drivers of declining fire activity. Fewer and smaller fires reduced aerosol concentrations, modified vegetation structure, and increased the magnitude of the terrestrial carbon sink. Fire models were unable to reproduce the pattern and magnitude of observed declines, suggesting that they may overestimate fire emissions in future projections. Using economic and demographic variables, we developed a conceptual model for predicting fire in human-dominated landscapes.
Project description:Wildfires and harvesting are important disturbances to forest ecosystems, but their effects on soil microbial communities are not well characterized and have not previously been compared directly. This study was conducted at sites with similar soil, climatic, and other properties in a spruce-dominated boreal forest near Chisholm, Alberta, Canada. Soil microbial communities were assessed following four treatments: control, harvest, burn, and burn plus timber salvage (burn-salvage). Burn treatments were at sites affected by a large wildfire in May 2001, and the communities were sampled 1 year after the fire. Microbial biomass carbon decreased 18%, 74%, and 53% in the harvest, burn, and burn-salvage treatments, respectively. Microbial biomass nitrogen decreased 25% in the harvest treatment, but increased in the burn treatments, probably because of microbial assimilation of the increased amounts of available NH(4)(+) and NO(3)(-) due to burning. Bacterial community composition was analyzed by nonparametric ordination of molecular fingerprint data of 119 samples from both ribosomal intergenic spacer analysis (RISA) and rRNA gene denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis. On the basis of multiresponse permutation procedures, community composition was significantly different among all treatments, with the greatest differences between the two burned treatments versus the two unburned treatments. The sequencing of DNA bands from RISA fingerprints revealed distinct distributions of bacterial divisions among the treatments. Gamma- and Alphaproteobacteria were highly characteristic of the unburned treatments, while Betaproteobacteria and members of Bacillus were highly characteristic of the burned treatments. Wildfire had distinct and more pronounced effects on the soil microbial community than did harvesting.