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  1. Abstract The wettest portion of the interior of western North America centers on the mountainous region spanning western Montana, Idaho, British Columbia, and Alberta. Inland ranges there capture the remnants of Pacific storms. Steep east–west hydroclimate gradients make the region sensitive to changes in inland-penetrating moisture that may have varied greatly during the Holocene. To investigate potential hydroclimate change, we produced a 7600-yr lake-level reconstruction from Silver Lake, located on the Montana–Idaho border. Ground-penetrating radar profiles and a transect of four shallow-water sediment cores that were dated using radiocarbon dating and tephrachronology revealed substantial changes in moisture through time. An organic-rich mud unit indicating wet and similar to modern conditions prior to 7000 cal yr BP is overlain by an erosional surface signifying drier than modern conditions from 7000–2800 cal yr BP. A subsequent time-transgressive increase in water levels from 2800–2300 cal yr BP is indicated by a layer of late Holocene muds, and is consistent with glacier expansion and increases in the abundance of mesic tree taxa in the region. Millennial-scale trends were likely driven by variations in orbital-scale forcing during the Holocene, but the regional outcomes probably depended upon factors such as the strength of the Aleutian Low,more »Pacific sea-surface temperature variability, and the frequency of atmospheric rivers over western North America.« less
    Free, publicly-accessible full text available May 30, 2023
  2. The 2020 fire season punctuated a decades-long trend of increased fire activity across the western United States, nearly doubling the total area burned in the central Rocky Mountains since 1984. Understanding the causes and implications of such extreme fire seasons, particularly in subalpine forests that have historically burned infrequently, requires a long-term perspective not afforded by observational records. We place 21st century fire activity in subalpine forests in the context of climate and fire history spanning the past 2,000 y using a unique network of 20 paleofire records. Largely because of extensive burning in 2020, the 21st century fire rotation period is now 117 y, reflecting nearly double the average rate of burning over the past 2,000 y. More strikingly, contemporary rates of burning are now 22% higher than the maximum rate reconstructed over the past two millennia, during the early Medieval Climate Anomaly (MCA) (770 to 870 Common Era), when Northern Hemisphere temperatures were ∼0.3 °C above the 20th century average. The 2020 fire season thus exemplifies how extreme events are demarcating newly emerging fire regimes as climate warms. With 21st century temperatures now surpassing those during the MCA, fire activity in Rocky Mountain subalpine forests is exceeding themore »range of variability that shaped these ecosystems for millennia.

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  3. Wildfire is a ubiquitous disturbance agent in subalpine forests in western North America. Lodgepole pine ( Pinus contorta var. latifolia), a dominant tree species in these forests, is largely resilient to high-severity fires, but this resilience may be compromised under future scenarios of altered climate and fire activity. We investigated fire occurrence and post-fire vegetation change in a lodgepole pine forest over the past 2500 years to understand ecosystem responses to variability in wildfire and climate. We reconstructed vegetation composition from pollen preserved in a sediment core from Chickaree Lake, Colorado, USA (1.5-ha lake), in Rocky Mountain National Park, and compared vegetation change to an existing fire history record. Pollen samples ( n = 52) were analyzed to characterize millennial-scale and short-term (decadal-scale) changes in vegetation associated with multiple high-severity fire events. Pollen assemblages were dominated by Pinus throughout the record, reflecting the persistence of lodgepole pine. Wildfires resulted in significant declines in Pinus pollen percentages, but pollen assemblages returned to pre-fire conditions after 18 fire events, within c.75 years. The primary broad-scale change was an increase in Picea, Artemisia, Rosaceae, and Arceuthobium pollen types, around 1155 calibrated years before present. The timing of this change is coincident with changesmore »in regional pollen records, and a shift toward wetter winter conditions identified from regional paleoclimate records. Our results indicate the overall stability of vegetation in Rocky Mountain lodgepole pine forests during climate changes and repeated high-severity fires. Contemporary deviations from this pattern of resilience could indicate future recovery challenges in these ecosystems.« less
  4. Boreal forest and tundra biomes are key components of the Earth system because the mobilization of large carbon stocks and changes in energy balance could act as positive feedbacks to ongoing climate change. In Alaska, wildfire is a primary driver of ecosystem structure and function, and a key mechanism coupling high‐latitude ecosystems to global climate. Paleoecological records reveal sensitivity of fire regimes to climatic and vegetation change over centennial–millennial time scales, highlighting increased burning concurrent with warming or elevated landscape flammability. To quantify spatiotemporal patterns in fire‐regime variability, we synthesized 27 published sediment‐charcoal records from four Alaskan ecoregions, and compared patterns to paleoclimate and paleovegetation records. Biomass burning and fire frequency increased significantly in boreal forest ecoregions with the expansion of black spruce, ca. 6,000–4,000 years before present (yr BP). Biomass burning also increased during warm periods, particularly in the Yukon Flats ecoregion from ca. 1,000 to 500 yr BP. Increases in biomass burning concurrent with constant fire return intervals suggest increases in average fire severity (i.e., more biomass burning per fire) during warm periods. Results also indicate increases in biomass burning over the last century across much of Alaska that exceed Holocene maxima, providing important context for ongoing change.more »Our analysis documents the sensitivity of fire activity to broad‐scale environmental change, including climate warming and biome‐scale shifts in vegetation. The lack of widespread, prolonged fire synchrony suggests regional heterogeneity limited simultaneous fire‐regime change across our study areas during the Holocene. This finding implies broad‐scale resilience of the boreal forest to extensive fire activity, but does not preclude novel responses to 21st‐century changes. If projected increases in fire activity over the 21st century are realized, they would be unprecedented in the context of the last 8,000 yr or more.« less
  5. Forests store a large amount of terrestrial carbon, but this storage capacity is vulnerable to wildfire. Combustion, and subsequent tree mortality and soil erosion, can lead to increased carbon release and decreased carbon uptake. Previous work has shown that non-constant fire return intervals over the past 4000 years strongly shaped subalpine forest carbon trajectories. The extent to which fire-regime variability has impacted carbon trajectories in other subalpine forest types is unknown. Here, we explored the interactions between fire and carbon dynamics of 14 subalpine watersheds in Colorado, USA. We tested the impact of varying fire frequency over a ~2000 year period on ecosystem productivity and carbon storage using an improved biogeochemical model. High fire frequency simulations had overall lower carbon stocks across all sites compared to scenarios with lower fire frequencies, highlighting the importance of fire-frequency in determining ecosystem carbon storage. Additionally, variability in fire-free periods strongly influenced carbon trajectories across all the sites. Biogeochemical trajectories (e.g., increasing or decreasing total ecosystem carbon and carbon-to-nitrogen (C:N) ratios) did not vary among forest types but there were trends that they may vary by elevation. Lower-elevations sites had lower overall soil C:N ratios, potentially because of higher fire frequencies reducing carbon inputsmore »more than nitrogen losses over time. Additional measurements of ecosystem response to fire-regime variability will be essential for improving estimates of carbon dynamics from Earth system models.« less
  6. Abstract Fire is an integral component of ecosystems globally and a tool that humans have harnessed for millennia. Altered fire regimes are a fundamental cause and consequence of global change, impacting people and the biophysical systems on which they depend. As part of the newly emerging Anthropocene, marked by human-caused climate change and radical changes to ecosystems, fire danger is increasing, and fires are having increasingly devastating impacts on human health, infrastructure, and ecosystem services. Increasing fire danger is a vexing problem that requires deep transdisciplinary, trans-sector, and inclusive partnerships to address. Here, we outline barriers and opportunities in the next generation of fire science and provide guidance for investment in future research. We synthesize insights needed to better address the long-standing challenges of innovation across disciplines to (i) promote coordinated research efforts; (ii) embrace different ways of knowing and knowledge generation; (iii) promote exploration of fundamental science; (iv) capitalize on the “firehose” of data for societal benefit; and (v) integrate human and natural systems into models across multiple scales. Fire science is thus at a critical transitional moment. We need to shift from observation and modeled representations of varying components of climate, people, vegetation, and fire to more integrativemore »and predictive approaches that support pathways towards mitigating and adapting to our increasingly flammable world, including the utilization of fire for human safety and benefit. Only through overcoming institutional silos and accessing knowledge across diverse communities can we effectively undertake research that improves outcomes in our more fiery future.« less
    Free, publicly-accessible full text available August 4, 2023