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Topography and post-fire climatic conditions shape spatio-temporal patterns of conifer establishment and growth

Author(s): Caitlin E. Littlefield
Year Published: 2019

Background: Concern is mounting that larger, stand-replacing forest fires may accelerate compositional shifts or conversions to non-forested states under a warming climate. Post-fire climatic conditions influence system trajectories by facilitating or hindering juvenile recruitment. But without an accurate, long-term understanding of where, when, and how climatic variability and other ecological factors affect regeneration, our ability to predict post-fire trajectories is limited. I quantified multiple, interacting facets of post-fire conifer regeneration—including annual establishment rates and growth—one decade after stand-replacing fire on the eastern slopes of the North Cascades, Washington, USA. Sites were stratified across topographic settings to specifically capture the potential for topography to moderate seasonal and interannual climatic conditions.

Results: Recruitment of juvenile conifers occurred every year since fire, with considerable species-specific variability across topographic settings and distance to seed source. Juveniles of all species, except lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta var. latifolia Engelm. ex S. Watson), were rarely observed when live, conspecific seed source was more than 75 m away. Lodgepole pine was the only species for which greater distance to live seed source was not associated with lower densities, a pattern attributable to serotiny. Annual establishment rates were strongly correlated with post-fire conditions: rates were highest when growing seasons were relatively cool and moist. A lagged climate signal was apparent in annual growth rates, but standardized climate–growth relationships did not vary across topographic settings, suggesting that topographic setting did not decouple site conditions from broader climatic trends to a degree that affected growth patterns.

Conclusions: These results underscore the importance of favorable post-fire climatic conditions in promoting robust establishment and growth while also highlighting the importance of topography and endogenous, stand-level processes (e.g., seed availability and delivery) in shaping recovery over time. Furthermore, these results suggest that, while the growing concern of post-fire regeneration failure may indeed be warranted under some conditions, failure is not yet the rule in all places and at all times. A more detailed understanding of recovery dynamics through long-term monitoring and by examining multiple, interacting facets of regeneration across scales will improve our predictions of where and when regeneration failure or, conversely, robust recovery may occur under a changing climate.

Citation: Littlefield CE. 2019. Topography and post-fire climatic conditions shape spatio-temporal patterns of conifer establishment and growth. Fire Ecology 15, Article number: 34.
Topic(s): Fire & Climate, Post-fire Management
Ecosystem(s): None
Document Type: Book or Chapter or Journal Article
NRFSN number: 20108
Record updated: Oct 16, 2019