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Future fire-driven landscape changes along a southwestern US elevation gradient

Citation

Hurteau, Matthew; Remy, Cecile (2021), Future fire-driven landscape changes along a southwestern US elevation gradient, Dryad, Dataset, https://doi.org/10.5061/dryad.xgxd254f1

Abstract

Over the 21st century, the combined effects of increased fire activity and climate changes are expected to altered forest composition and structure in many ecosystems by changing post-fire successional trajectories and recovery. The southwestern US mountains encompass varied vegetation types and species according to elevation which do not respond the same to changing climate and fire regime. Moreover, fire exclusion applied during the early 20th century has altered forest structure and fuel loads compared to their natural states (i.e. without fire suppression). Consequently, uncertainties persist about future vegetation shifts along the elevation gradient.

In this study, we simulated future vegetation dynamics along an elevation gradient in the southwestern US comprising pinyon-juniper woodlands, ponderosa pine forests and mixed conifer forests for the period 2000-2099, to quantify the effects of future climate conditions and projected wildfires on species productivity and distribution.

While we expected to find larger changes at low elevation due to warmer and drier conditions, the largest changes occurred at high elevation in mixed-conifer forests and were caused by wildfire. The largest increase in high-severity and large fires were recorded in this vegetation type, leading to high mortality of the dominant species, Picea engelmannii and Abies lasiocarpa, which are not adapted to fire. The loss of these two species reduced biomass productivity at high elevation. In ponderosa pine forests and pinyon-juniper woodlands, fewer vegetation changes occurred due to higher abundance of well-adapted species to fire and the lower fuel loads mitigating projected fire activity, respectively.

Thus, future research should prioritize understanding of the processes involved in future vegetation shifts in mixed-conifer forests in order to mitigate the risk of loss of diversity specific to high-elevation forests and the decrease in biomass productivity, and thus carbon storage capacity, of these ecosystems due to wildfires.

Methods

These are simulation data for the upper Rio Grande Watershed in souththern Colorado and northern New Mexico.  Data were simulated using the LANDIS-II forest landscape simulation model, with the PnET succession extension to model carbon and water dynamics.  Simulation output was processed in R.

Funding

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Award: grant no. 2017-67004-26486/project accession no. 1012226

Joint Fire Science Program, Award: 16-1-05-8