Rain-shadow forest margins resilient to low-severity fire and climate change but not high-severity fire

Lucas B. Harris, Alan H. Taylor

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations

Abstract

At semi-arid forest margins, increasing climatic stress combined with disturbances like wildfire threatens to cause widespread forest loss. However, forest resilience is likely to vary over gradients of topoclimate and vegetation characteristics, and the influences of local climate and tree species on tree regeneration remain key uncertainties in assessing forest recovery from wildfire. We surveyed tree regeneration 9–15 yr post-fire at 397 gridded field plots across four sites at a lower montane forest-steppe ecotone in the eastern Sierra Nevada, California, USA, and then used statistical modeling to characterize how the probability of tree regeneration presence for different species varied along gradients of fire severity, topoclimate, and post-fire vegetation structure and composition. Tree regeneration was absent in half the field plots, and only 19% of plots contained >250 seedlings and saplings per ha, suggesting potential for regeneration failure and forest loss. Tree regeneration composition was consistent with shifts away from Jeffrey pine (Pinus jeffreyi) and toward drought-tolerant pinyon pine (P. monophylla) and mountain mahogany (Cercocarpus ledifolius). Tree regeneration was strongly associated with trees that survived fire indicating tree cover is crucial to buffer establishment against climatic stress. Based on projected future water balance, the likelihood of tree regeneration at these sites does not decline substantially by the end of the century. Consequently, these forests appear to be resilient to climate change under a low-severity fire regime, but large patches of high-severity fire are likely to shift vegetation away from forest. Our results highlight the importance of facilitation and future water balance in maintaining semi-arid forest margins that burn at low severity while high-severity fire threatens to convert forest to steppe or invasive grasslands.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere03258
JournalEcosphere
Volume11
Issue number9
DOIs
StatePublished - Sep 1 2020

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology

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