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Origins of abrupt change? Postfire subalpine conifer regeneration declines nonlinearly with warming and drying

Author(s): Winslow D. Hansen, Monica G. Turner
Year Published: 2019

Robust tree regeneration following high‐severity wildfire is key to the resilience of subalpine and boreal forests, and 21st century climate could initiate abrupt change in forests if postfire temperature and soil moisture become less suitable for tree seedling establishment. Using two widespread conifer species, lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta var. latifolia) and Douglas‐fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii var. glauca), we conducted complementary experiments to ask (1) How will projected early‐ to mid‐21st‐century warming and drying affect postfire tree seedling establishment and mortality? (2) How does early seedling growth differ between species and vary with warming and drying? With a four‐year in situ seed‐planting experiment and a one growing season controlled‐environment experiment, we explored effects of climate on tree seedling establishment, growth, and survival and identified nonlinear responses to temperature and soil moisture. In our field experiment, warmer and drier conditions, consistent with mid‐21st‐century projections, led to a 92% and 76% reduction in establishment of lodgepole pine and Douglas‐fir. Within three years, all seedlings that established under warmer conditions died, as might be expected at lower elevations and lower latitudes of species’ ranges. Seedling establishment and mortality also varied with aspect; approximately 1.7 times more seedlings established on mesic vs. xeric aspects, and fewer seedlings died. In the controlled‐environment experiment, soil temperatures were 2.0°-5.5°C cooler than the field experiment, and warming led to increased tree seedling establishment, as might be expected at upper treeline or higher latitudes. Lodgepole pine grew taller than Douglas‐fir and produced more needles with warming. Douglas‐fir grew longer roots relative to shoots, compared with lodgepole pine, particularly in dry soils. Differences in early growth between species may mediate climate change effects on competitive interactions, successional trajectories, and species distributions. This study demonstrates that climate following high‐severity fire exerts strong control over postfire tree regeneration in subalpine conifer forests. Climate change experiments, such as those reported here, hold great potential for identifying mechanisms that could underpin fundamental ecological change in 21st‐century ecosystems.

Citation: Hansen, Winslow D.; Turner, Monica G. 2019. Origins of abrupt change? Postfire subalpine conifer regeneration declines nonlinearly with warming and drying. Ecological Monographs 89(1):e01340. https://doi.org/10.1002/ecm.1340
Topic(s): Fire Behavior, Weather, Fire Effects, Ecological - Second Order, Vegetation, Fire & Climate, Post-fire Management, Post-fire Rehabilitation, Seeding, Recovery after fire, Resilience
Ecosystem(s): None
Document Type: Book or Chapter or Journal Article
NRFSN number: 19044
FRAMES RCS number: 57140
Record updated: Mar 14, 2019