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Title: Evidence for declining forest resilience to wildfires under climate change

Forest resilience to climate change is a global concern given the potential effects of increased disturbance activity, warming temperatures and increased moisture stress on plants. We used a multi‐regional dataset of 1485 sites across 52 wildfires from the US Rocky Mountains to ask if and how changing climate over the last several decades impacted post‐fire tree regeneration, a key indicator of forest resilience. Results highlight significant decreases in tree regeneration in the 21st century. Annual moisture deficits were significantly greater from 2000 to 2015 as compared to 1985–1999, suggesting increasingly unfavourable post‐fire growing conditions, corresponding to significantly lower seedling densities and increased regeneration failure. Dry forests that already occur at the edge of their climatic tolerance are most prone to conversion to non‐forests after wildfires. Major climate‐induced reduction in forest density and extent has important consequences for a myriad of ecosystem services now and in the future.

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Author(s) / Creator(s):
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Publisher / Repository:
Date Published:
Journal Name:
Ecology Letters
Page Range / eLocation ID:
p. 243-252
Medium: X
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
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  1. Abstract

    We studied the impacts of climate variability on low‐elevation forests in the U.S. northern Rocky Mountains by quantifying how post‐fire tree regeneration and radial growth varied with growing‐season climate. We reconstructed post‐fire regeneration and radial growth rates ofPinus ponderosaandPseudotsuga menziesiiat 33 sites that burned between 1992 and 2007, by aging seedlings at the root–shoot boundary. We also measured radial growth in adult trees from 12 additional sites that burned between 1900 and 1990. To quantify the relationship between climate and regeneration, we characterized seasonal climate before, during, and after recruitment pulses using superposed epoch analysis. To quantify growth sensitivity to climate, we performed moving regression analysis for each species and for juvenile and adult life stages. Climatic conditions favoring regeneration and tree growth differed between species. Water deficit and temperature were significantly lower than average during recruitment pulses of ponderosa pine, suggesting that germination‐year climate limits regeneration. Growing degree days were significantly higher than average during years with Douglas‐fir recruitment pulses, but water deficit was significantly lower one year following pulses, suggesting moisture sensitivity in two‐year‐old seedlings. Growth was also sensitive to water deficit, but effects varied between life stages, species, and through time, with juvenile ponderosa pine growth more sensitive to climate than adult growth and juvenile Douglas‐fir growth. Increasing water deficit corresponded with reduced adult growth of both species. Increases in maximum temperature and water deficit corresponded with increases in juvenile growth of both species in the early 20th century but strong reductions in growth for juvenile ponderosa pine in recent decades. Changing sensitivity of growth to climate suggests that increased temperature and water deficit may be pushing these species toward the edge of their climatic tolerances. Our study demonstrates increased vulnerability of dry mixed‐conifer forests to post‐fire regeneration failures and decreased growth as temperatures and drought increase. Shifts toward unfavorable conditions for regeneration and juvenile growth may alter the composition and resilience of low‐elevation forests to future climate and fire activity.

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  2. Abstract Aim

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    Montane forests, Rocky Mountains, USA.

    Time period


    Taxa studied

    Pinus ponderosa;Pseudotsuga menziesii.


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    Main conclusions

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