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Holocene vegetation-fire-climate linkages in Northern Yellowstone National Park, USA

Author(s): Mariana A. Huerta, Cathy L. Whitlock, Jason Yale
Year Published: 2009

Yellowstone National Park has been an important location for paleoecologic studies that focus on the use of charcoal data to reconstruct past fire activity and on the role of climate variations in shaping past vegetation and fire regimes. One hypothesis, which has been explored in other parts of the western U.S., is the idea that present-day summer-dry and summer-wet precipitation regimes were intensified during the early Holocene as a result of greater-than-present summer insolation and its effect on atmospheric circulation patterns. In Yellowstone, this hypothesis was previously examined at two sites, one in summer-wet and one in summer-dry precipitation regions. The records showed variation in both fire and vegetation history that supported the hypothesis. We present a fire and vegetation history from Blacktail Pond, located in Pseudotsuga parkland in the transitional region. The Blacktail Pond data indicate the following ecological history: prior to 12,000 cal yr BP, the site supported tundra vegetation and fire episodes were infrequent. Between 12,000 and 11,000 cal yr BP, Picea–Pinus parkland was established and fire activity increased; these changes are consistent with increasing temperature, as a result of rising summer insolation. From 11,000 to 7600 cal yr BP, the presence of a closed forest of Pinus and some Picea is attributed to high levels of winter moisture, but high fire activity indicates that summers were drier than at present. After 7600 cal yr BP, the presence of forest and steppe vegetation in combination with high fire activity suggest that middle-Holocene conditions were warm and dry. The decrease in Picea and Betula in the last 4000 cal yr indicates continued drying in the late Holocene, although fire-episode frequency was relatively high until 2000 cal yr BP. The pollen data at Blacktail Pond and other low-elevation sites in the northern Rocky Mountains suggest a widespread vegetation response in summer-wet regions to effectively wetter conditions in the early Holocene and decreased moisture in the middle and late Holocene. In contrast, the more-variable fire history among the three sites implies either that (1) summer moisture stress and fire conditions are related to year-round moisture balance and not well predicted by the hypothesis, (2) the transitional area between summer-wet and summer-dry precipitation regimes experienced complicated shifts in effective moisture through time, and/or (3) fire-episode data have a limited source area that makes it difficult to separate local influences from regional climate changes in understanding long-term variations in fire-episode frequency.

Citation: Huerta, M.A.; Whitlock, C.; Yale, J. 2009. Holocene vegetation-fire-climate linkages in Northern Yellowstone National Park, USA. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology. 271(2009): 170–181
Topic(s): Fire History
Ecosystem(s): Subalpine wet spruce-fir forest, Subalpine dry spruce-fir forest
Document Type: Book or Chapter or Journal Article
NRFSN number: 13519
Record updated: Mar 21, 2018