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A climatic dipole drives short- and long-term patterns of postfire forest recovery in the western United States

Author(s): Caitlin E. Littlefield, Solomon Z. Dobrowski, John T. Abatzoglou, Sean A. Parks, Kimberley T. Davis
Year Published: 2020

Researchers are increasingly examining patterns and drivers of postfire forest recovery amid growing concern that climate change and intensifying fires will trigger ecosystem transformations. Diminished seed availability and postfire drought have emerged as key constraints on conifer recruitment. However, the spatial and temporal extent to which recurring modes of climatic variability shape patterns of postfire recovery remain largely unexplored. Here, we identify a north–south dipole in annual climatic moisture deficit anomalies across the Interior West of the US and characterize its influence on forest recovery from fire. We use annually resolved establishment models from dendrochronological records to correlate this climatic dipole with short-term postfire juvenile recruitment. We also examine longer-term recovery trajectories using Forest Inventory and Analysis data from 989 burned plots. We show that annual postfire ponderosa pine recruitment probabilities in the northern Rocky Mountains (NR) and the southwestern US (SW) track the strength of the dipole, while declining overall due to increasing aridity. This indicates that divergent recovery trajectories may be triggered concurrently across large spatial scales: favorable conditions in the SW can correspond to drought in the NR that inhibits ponderosa pine establishment, and vice versa. The imprint of this climatic dipole is manifest for years postfire, as evidenced by dampened long-term likelihoods of juvenile ponderosa pine presence in areas that experienced postfire drought. These findings underscore the importance of climatic variability at multiple spatiotemporal scales in driving cross-regional patterns of forest recovery and have implications for understanding ecosystem transformations and species range dynamics under global change.

Citation: Littlefield, Caitlin E.; Dobrowski, Solomon Z.; Abatzoglou, John T.; Parks, Sean A.; Davis, Kimberley T. 2020. A climatic dipole drives short- and long-term patterns of postfire forest recovery in the western United States. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 117(47):29730-29737. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2007434117
Topic(s): Fire Ecology, Fire Effects, Fire & Climate, Recovery after fire, Restoration
Ecosystem(s): None
Document Type: Book or Chapter or Journal Article
NRFSN number: 22299
FRAMES RCS number: 62317
Record updated: Dec 8, 2020