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Fire enhances the complexity of forest structure in alpine treeline ecotones

Author(s): C. Alina Cansler, Donald McKenzie, Charles B. Halpern
Year Published: 2018

Alpine treelines are expected to move upward in a warming climate, but downward in response to increases in wildfire. We studied the effects of fire on vegetation structure and composition across four alpine treeline ecotones extending from Abies lasiocarpa/Picea engelmannii forests at lower elevations, through Pinus albicaulis/Larix lyallii parkland, to alpine tundra. We estimated the probabilities of burning and transitions between states following fire among four canopy-cover (structural) classes: non-forest (0% tree cover), sparse woodland (<10% tree cover), open forest (10–40% tree cover), and closed forest (>40% tree cover). We also evaluated changes in the size structure and composition of live overstory trees (≥1.4 m height) due to mortality following fire. The severity and resulting effects of fire varied among structural classes: Non-forest was less likely to burn than the landscape as a whole; open forest was more likely to remain forest than to change to non-forest; and closed forest never changed to non-forest, irrespective of burn severity. Higher-severity fires caused greater mortality of larger-diameter trees than of smaller-diameter trees. Our results suggest that structural components of the alpine treeline will not respond unidirectionally to a warming climate nor to an increase in fire. Instead, the ecotone will expand bidirectionally and develop larger, more heterogeneous patches of vegetation.

Citation: Cansler, C. A., D. McKenzie, and C. B. Halpern. 2018. Fire enhances the complexity of forest structure in alpine treeline ecotones. Ecosphere 9(2):e02091. 10.1002/ecs2.2091
Topic(s): Fire Effects, Ecological - First Order, Fire Intensity / Burn Severity, Ecological - Second Order, Vegetation, Fire Regime
Ecosystem(s): None
Document Type: Book or Chapter or Journal Article
NRFSN number: 16637
Record updated: May 10, 2018