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Title: A climatic dipole drives short- and long-term patterns of postfire forest recovery in the western United States
Researchers are increasingly examining patterns and drivers of postfire forest recovery amid growing concern that climate change and intensifying fires will trigger ecosystem transformations. Diminished seed availability and postfire drought have emerged as key constraints on conifer recruitment. However, the spatial and temporal extent to which recurring modes of climatic variability shape patterns of postfire recovery remain largely unexplored. Here, we identify a north–south dipole in annual climatic moisture deficit anomalies across the Interior West of the US and characterize its influence on forest recovery from fire. We use annually resolved establishment models from dendrochronological records to correlate this climatic dipole with short-term postfire juvenile recruitment. We also examine longer-term recovery trajectories using Forest Inventory and Analysis data from 989 burned plots. We show that annual postfire ponderosa pine recruitment probabilities in the northern Rocky Mountains (NR) and the southwestern US (SW) track the strength of the dipole, while declining overall due to increasing aridity. This indicates that divergent recovery trajectories may be triggered concurrently across large spatial scales: favorable conditions in the SW can correspond to drought in the NR that inhibits ponderosa pine establishment, and vice versa. The imprint of this climatic dipole is manifest for years postfire, as evidenced by dampened long-term likelihoods of juvenile ponderosa pine presence in areas that experienced postfire drought. These findings underscore the importance of climatic variability at multiple spatiotemporal scales in driving cross-regional patterns of forest recovery and have implications for understanding ecosystem transformations and species range dynamics under global change.  more » « less
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Date Published:
Journal Name:
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Page Range / eLocation ID:
29730 to 29737
Medium: X
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
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    Montane forests, Rocky Mountains, USA.

    Time period


    Taxa studied

    Pinus ponderosa;Pseudotsuga menziesii.


    We developed a database of dendrochronological samples (n = 717) and plots (n = 1,301) in post‐fire environments spanning a range of topoclimatic settings. We then used statistical models to predict annual post‐fire seedling establishment suitability and total post‐fire seedling abundance from a suite of biophysical correlates. Finally, we reconstructed recent trends in post‐fire recovery and projected future dynamics using three general circulation models (GCMs) under moderate and extreme CO2emission scenarios.


    Though growing season (April–September) precipitation during the recent period (1981–2015) was positively associated with suitability for post‐fire tree seedling establishment, future (2021–2099) trends in precipitation were widely variable among GCMs, leading to mixed projections of future establishment suitability. In contrast, climatic water deficit (CWD), which is indicative of warm, dry conditions, was negatively associated with post‐fire seedling abundance during the recent period and was projected to increase throughout the southern Rocky Mountains in the future. Our findings suggest that future increases in CWD and an increased frequency of extreme drought years will substantially reduce post‐fire seedling densities.

    Main conclusions

    This study highlights the key roles of warming and drying in declining forest resilience to wildfire. Moisture stress, driven by macroclimate and topographic setting, will interact with wildfire activity to shape future vegetation patterns throughout the southern Rocky Mountains, USA.

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  5. Abstract

    Increased wildfire activity combined with warm and dry post-fire conditions may undermine the mechanisms maintaining forest resilience to wildfires, potentially causing ecosystem transitions, or fire-catalyzed vegetation shifts. Stand-replacing fire is especially likely to catalyze vegetation shifts expected from climate change, by killing mature trees that are less sensitive to climate than juveniles. To understand the vulnerability of forests to fire-catalyzed vegetation shifts it is critical to identify both where fires will burn with stand-replacing severity and where climate conditions limit seedling recruitment. We used an extensive dendrochronological dataset to model the influence of seasonal climate on post-fire recruitment probability for ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir. We applied this model to project annual recruitment probability in the US intermountain west under contemporary and future climate conditions, which we compared to modeled probability of stand-replacing fire. We categorized areas as ‘vulnerable to fire-catalyzed vegetation shifts,’ if they were likely to burn at stand-replacing severity, if a fire were to occur, and had post-fire climate conditions unsuitable for tree recruitment. Climate suitability for recruitment declined over time in all ecoregions: 21% and 15% of the range of ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir, respectively, had climate conditions unsuitable for recruitment in the 1980s, whereas these values increased to 61% (ponderosa pine) and 34% (Douglas-fir) for the future climate scenario. Less area was vulnerable to fire-catalyzed vegetation shifts, but these values also increased over time, from 6% and 4% of the range of ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir in the 1980s, to 16% (ponderosa pine) and 10% (Douglas-fir) under the future climate scenario. Southern ecoregions had considerably higher vulnerability to fire-catalyzed vegetation shifts than northern ecoregions. Overall, our results suggest that the combination of climate warming and an increase in wildfire activity may substantially impact species distributions through fire-catalyzed vegetation shifts.

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