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Firescience.Gov News
Issue 49  
 March 22, 2013

Climate,Fire and Carbon:Tipping Points in Greater Yellowstone

Climate, Fire, and Carbon:
Tipping points and
landscape vulnerability in the
Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem
 

Photo:Charred lodgepole and regrowth, 1977 by J. Schmidt nps.gov

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Photo above: Charred lodgepole and regrowth in Yellowstone National Park,1977,
by J. Schmidt (source)


REGION: Northern Rockies


THE QUESTIONS:

  • How great a change in climate and fire regimes would be required to shift each of the dominant vegetation communities in the GYE from a net carbon sink to a net carbon source?
  • Do current projections indicate that changes of this magnitude are likely to occur in the next century, and if so, where in the GYE do they occur?
  • What are the integrated effects of climate change, vegetation , and fire on spatial patterns of carbon flux across the GYE landscape as a whole?
(Using the CENTURY model parameterized with empirical data
collected from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem)

 

RESULTS:

  • Fire incidence and size are very sensitive to small (0.5 – 1 °C) increases over average temperatures of the late 20th century.
  • Modeled climate scenarios predict that large severe forest fires are likely to become far more frequent over the next century than experienced during the previous 100 years or recorded in the longer historical record. 
  • Fire intervals of 90 years or longer are needed for recovery of carbon stocks under future climate scenarios.

Map of Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem

  • More frequent fires mean that mature and old-growth forests will be increasingly replaced by young forests or even by non-forest vegetation during this century. It is also possible that fire frequency could preclude tree regeneration in some areas,.
  • Fire control likely will become increasingly difficult and expensive, especially in high-elevation conifer forests where fuel conditions commonly are conducive to extreme fire behavior under very dry weather conditions. 
  • Continued or enhanced programs of proactive mitigation (e.g., mechanical thinning, prescribed burning, land-use regulations) will be needed to reduce fire hazards to buildings and infrastructure.

 

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