A recent study reveals that ongoing droughts are making it extremely difficult for forests to recover from natural events like wildfires.
Throughout the U.S. and many other parts of the world, drought has been causing serious disturbances to natural systems and cycles. According to a study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, researchers have found that climate change and accompanying droughts are making it extremely difficult for the forests in the Rocky Mountains of the U.S. to recover from wildfires.
The study, published in the journal Global Ecology and Biogeography, found that warm, dry conditions help set the stage for massive wildfires that eat up dead wood and decaying materials. Typically, seasonal rains would usher in the end of the wildfire phase of the forest cycle, but climate change is allowing these fires to continue burning longer and over a wider area than ever before.
Prolonged forest fires also damage vulnerable seedlings that rise out of the ashes, inhibiting the next generation of forest growth to a significant degree.
According to Brian Harvey, the study’s lead author and postdoctoral Smith Fellow at the University of Colorado Boulder, the observed trends in forest fires in the Rockies offer a startling view into the future.
“From all the best available data and modeling, and expectations about future climate, these are the kinds of fires and post-fire climates that we’re going to see more of in the future,” he said.”
Fires are a natural part of a forest’s life cycle, returning dead and decaying materials to the soil and enriching it with nutrients, while simultaneously creating space for new trees and shrubs to grow. As droughts prolong the fire season, however, the forests are not recovering as quickly as they should. This creates a net loss in forest cover, which could create shockwaves throughout the entire ecosystem.
“Fires that are followed by drought – which we are very likely going to see more of with climate change – really do set a new context in which these forests are not recovering as quickly,” Harvey said.
A press release from the University of Wisconsin, Madison describing the details of the study can be found here.