Canadian Forest Service Publications

Turning Down the Heat: Vegetation Feedbacks Limit Fire Regime Responses to Global Warming

Year: 2019

Issued by: Pacific Forestry Centre

Catalog ID: 41049

Language: English

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Climate change is projected to dramatically increase boreal wildfire activity, with broad ecological and socioeconomic consequences. As global temperatures rise, periods with elevated fire weather are expected to increase in frequency and duration, which would be expected to increase the number and size of fires. Statistical forecasts or simulations of future fire activity often account for direct climatic effects only, neglecting other controls of importance, such as biotic feedbacks. This could result in overestimating the effects of climate change on fire activity, if the future distribution of vegetation or fuels were to change. We incorporated sensitivity to climate or fire weather and vegetation in a fire simulation model and represented explicitly two key biotic feedbacks linked to succession and regeneration processes. We used this model to forecast annual fire activity from 2011 to 2099 over a large region of boreal forest in Qu├ębec, Canada, dominated by balsam fir (Abies balsamea (L.) Mill) and yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis Britt.) or paper birch (Betula papyrifera Marsh.), with and without the biotic feedbacks. Our simulations show that vegetation changes triggered by fire disturbance altered future fire activity and may even be as important a driver as climate change itself. Indeed, over the course of the century, vegetation changes were projected to offset much of the increase in fire activity that would be expected due to global warming as such. It follows that if biotic feedbacks are not included in statistical or simulation-based forecasts, the resultant projections of future fire activity could be biased upward to a very considerable degree. For the case of end-of-century mean annual burn rate, we estimated this positive bias to be as high as 400%. Accounting for biotic feedbacks in simulation models is therefore necessary for accurate projection of future wildfire activity and associated vegetation changes. Purely statistical forecasts based on current vegetation cannot be relied upon, in the presence of biotic feedbacks. Our results further suggest that vegetation management could reduce fire risk in some systems by altering the abundance and distribution of the most highly flammable fuels and thus mitigate the impact of climate change on fire activity.