Funded Research Projects: FOREST ECOLOGY

COLLABORATIVE RESEARCH: The 2016 Yellowstone Fires: early indicators of ecosystem transitions in a more fiery future?

Research Sponsored By: National Science Foundation (NSF)
Principal Investigator: Brian Harvey
Project Description
Conifer forests in western North America are facing warmer temperatures and larger, more severe wildfires than at any time in recorded history. The increase in fire size, severity, and frequency is clear, but the consequences for forest ecosystems are not. Subalpine forests historically burned in severe (stand-replacing) fires separated by centuries-long fire-free intervals. As climate warms, fire return intervals are projected to decline sharply by mid century, from 100-300 yrs to only a few decades. The timing, sequence, and location of wildfires cannot be planned in advance, so ecologists must respond quickly when opportunities to study effects of changing disturbance regimes arise. In an event of unprecedented extent in recent history, the 2016 Yellowstone Fires re-burned young (< 30 yrs) postfire forests and produced a time-sensitive opportunity to evaluate mechanisms of forest resilience in a well-studied landscape, under conditions expected to become commonplace in the near future. Field studies in areas of young postfire forest that reburned during the 2016 Yellowstone Fires will test three general hypotheses associated with mechanisms that underpin resilience in temperate and boreal forests. Investigations during the first year postfire will quantify three time-critical responses: burn severity, postfire tree seedling establishment and carbon storage. A seed addition experiment will be initiated to disentangle effects of seed supply from postfire climate conditions on tree seedling establishment. Field data will be used to develop robust burn-severity metrics based on remotely sensed data and to assess effects of short FRI on landscape patterns of burn severity across the US northern Rocky Mountains. RAPID funding is necessary because measurements of burn severity and wood consumption cannot be measured reliably in later years, and tree seedling establishment in stand-replacing crown fires occurs almost entirely during the first year postfire. Thus, disentangling effects of seed supply and postfire climate conditions requires first-year data.