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  1. Free, publicly-accessible full text available October 1, 2023
  2. Abstract Recent record-breaking wildfire seasons in California prompt an investigation into the climate patterns that typically precede anomalous summer burned forest area. Using burned-area data from the U.S. Forest Service’s Monitoring Trends in Burn Severity (MTBS) product and climate data from the fifth major global reanalysis produced by the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ERA5) over 1984–2018, relationships between the interannual variability of antecedent climate anomalies and July California burned area are spatially and temporally characterized. Lag correlations show that antecedent high vapor pressure deficit (VPD), high temperatures, frequent extreme high temperature days, low precipitation, high subsidence, high geopotential height, low soil moisture, and low snowpack and snowmelt anomalies all correlate significantly with July California burned area as far back as the January before the fire season. Seasonal regression maps indicate that a global midlatitude atmospheric wave train in late winter is associated with anomalous July California burned area. July 2018, a year with especially high burned area, was to some extent consistent with the general patterns revealed by the regressions: low winter precipitation and high spring VPD preceded the extreme burned area. However, geopotential height anomaly patterns were distinct from those in the regressions. Extreme July heat likelymore »contributed to the extent of the fires ignited that month, even though extreme July temperatures do not historically significantly correlate with July burned area. While the 2018 antecedent climate conditions were typical of a high-burned-area year, they were not extreme, demonstrating the likely limits of statistical prediction of extreme fire seasons and the need for individual case studies of extreme years. Significance Statement The purpose of this study is to identify the local and global climate patterns in the preceding seasons that influence how the burned summer forest area in California varies year-to-year. We find that a dry atmosphere, high temperatures, dry soils, less snowpack, low precipitation, subsiding air, and high pressure centered west of California all correlate significantly with large summer burned area as far back as the preceding January. These climate anomalies occur as part of a hemispheric scale pattern with weak connections to the tropical Pacific Ocean. We also describe the climate anomalies preceding the extreme and record-breaking burned-area year of 2018, and how these compared with the more general patterns found. These results give important insight into how well and how early it might be possible to predict the severity of an upcoming summer wildfire season in California.« less
    Free, publicly-accessible full text available August 1, 2023
  3. Abstract

    Inter-annual climate variability (hereafter climate variability) is increasing in many forested regions due to climate change. This variability could have larger near-term impacts on forests than decadal shifts in mean climate, but how forests will respond remains poorly resolved, particularly at broad scales. Individual trees, and even forest communities, often have traits and ecological strategies—the legacies of exposure to past variable conditions—that confer tolerance to subsequent climate variability. However, whether local legacies also shape global forest responses is unknown. Our objective was to assess how past and current climate variability influences global forest productivity. We hypothesized that forests exposed to large climate variability in the past would better tolerate current climate variability than forests for which past climate was relatively stable. We used historical (1950–1969) and contemporary (2000–2019) temperature, precipitation, and vapor pressure deficit (VPD) and the remotely sensed enhanced vegetation index (EVI) to quantify how historical and contemporary climate variability relate to patterns of contemporary forest productivity. Consistent with our hypothesis, forests exposed to large temperature variability in the past were more tolerant of contemporary temperature variability than forests where past temperatures were less variable. Forests were 19-fold times less sensitive to contemporary temperature variability where historical inter-annualmore »temperature variability was 0.66 °C (two standard deviations) greater than the global average historical temperature variability. We also found that larger increases in temperature variability between the two study periods often eroded the tolerance conferred by the legacy effects of historical temperature variability. However, the hypothesis was not supported in the case of precipitation and VPD variability, potentially due to physiological tradeoffs inherent in how trees cope with dry conditions. We conclude that the sensitivity of forest productivity to imminent increases in temperature variability may be partially predictable based on the legacies of past conditions.

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  4. Free, publicly-accessible full text available August 1, 2023
  5. Streamflow often increases after fire, but the persistence of this effect and its importance to present and future regional water resources are unclear. This paper addresses these knowledge gaps for the western United States (WUS), where annual forest fire area increased by more than 1,100% during 1984 to 2020. Among 72 forested basins across the WUS that burned between 1984 and 2019, the multibasin mean streamflow was significantly elevated by 0.19 SDs ( P < 0.01) for an average of 6 water years postfire, compared to the range of results expected from climate alone. Significance is assessed by comparing prefire and postfire streamflow responses to climate and also to streamflow among 107 control basins that experienced little to no wildfire during the study period. The streamflow response scales with fire extent: among the 29 basins where >20% of forest area burned in a year, streamflow over the first 6 water years postfire increased by a multibasin average of 0.38 SDs, or 30%. Postfire streamflow increases were significant in all four seasons. Historical fire–climate relationships combined with climate model projections suggest that 2021 to 2050 will see repeated years when climate is more fire-conducive than in 2020, the year currently holdingmore »the modern record for WUS forest area burned. These findings center on relatively small, minimally managed basins, but our results suggest that burned areas will grow enough over the next 3 decades to enhance streamflow at regional scales. Wildfire is an emerging driver of runoff change that will increasingly alter climate impacts on water supplies and runoff-related risks.« less
  6. Free, publicly-accessible full text available November 1, 2023
  7. Abstract

    Escalating burned area in western US forests punctuated by the 2020 fire season has heightened the need to explore near-term macroscale forest-fire area trajectories. As fires remove fuels for subsequent fires, feedbacks may impose constraints on the otherwise climate-driven trend of increasing forest-fire area. Here, we test how fire-fuel feedbacks moderate near-term (2021–2050) climate-driven increases in forest-fire area across the western US. Assuming constant fuels, climate–fire models project a doubling of  forest-fire area compared to 1991–2020. Fire-fuel feedbacks only modestly attenuate the projected increase in forest-fire area. Even models with strong feedbacks project increasing interannual variability in forest-fire area and more than a two-fold increase in the likelihood of years exceeding the 2020 fire season. Fuel limitations from fire-fuel feedbacks are unlikely to strongly constrain the profound climate-driven broad-scale increases in forest-fire area by the mid-21st century, highlighting the need for proactive adaptation to increased western US forest-fire impacts.