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Resilience of a tropical montane pine forest to fire and severe droughts

Citation

Swann, Daniel; Bellingham, Peter; Martin, Patrick (2022), Resilience of a tropical montane pine forest to fire and severe droughts, Dryad, Dataset, https://doi.org/10.5061/dryad.qnk98sfm3

Abstract

1. Higher temperatures, declining precipitation, changing cloud cover, and increased wildfires threaten tropical montane pine forests by overriding the environmental heterogeneity that typically buffers these systems from catastrophic fires. Severe fires threaten to overwhelm forest resilience and tip this biome into alternate vegetation states.

2. This study focused on long-term dynamics of montane Pinus occidentalis forests in the Cordillera Central, Dominican Republic, after a ~1000 km2 fire in 2005, the largest since 1965. We used long-term records to investigate climate before and after the fire and a 19-year dataset of pre- and post-fire vegetation change from a network of 55 permanent plots (20 small 0.05 ha plots and 35 large 0.1 ha plots) established in 1999 to model overstorey and understorey vegetation dynamics.

3. The 2005 fire was synchronized with the most extreme drought in the region in over 60 years. The fire burned from < 1600 to > 3000 m a.s.l. in elevation across windward and leeward slopes, creating a mosaic of low-, moderate-, and high-severity patches. Lower elevations, leeward slopes, and stands with a higher proportion of smaller pine trees all burned at higher severities.

4. Growth rates of trees that survived the fire remained lower than pre-fire rates 13 years after the fire. The highest mortality rates were soon after the fire and in the census immediately after the post-fire droughts. Post-fire pine seedling abundance was significantly greater in stands with higher basal area of live canopy trees and significantly reduced by increased shrub abundance in the understorey. Understorey composition recovered rapidly to pre-fire states in sites affected by low- and moderate-severity fires, but sites affected by high-severity fires remained dissimilar to pre-fire composition 13 years after the fire. Even though high-severity patches had persistently low pine regeneration, 100% of small plots and 96% of large plots had at least one pine sapling or canopy tree recruit by 2018. Shrub taxa survived the fire in higher numbers and recovered to pre-fire densities much faster than the pine, especially in high-severity burns.

5. Synthesis. Climate change has increased the likelihood of wildfires in tropical montane pine forests, with long-lasting effects on vegetation dynamics. However, this biome may prove resilient to increasingly severe fires in the near future, given the ongoing recovery of Pinus occidentalis forests in Hispaniola despite repeated severe droughts. Nevertheless, highly drought- and fire-resistant taxa (e.g. shrubs) may form alternate stable states in drier portions of tropical montane landscapes in the future as droughts and high-severity fires become more common.

Funding

University of Denver