In many cases, the authors discovered, changes in climate were less important than changes in vegetation in determining wildfire frequency. Despite a transition from a cool, dry climate to a warm, dry climate about 10,500 years ago, for example, the researchers found a sharp decline in the frequency of fires. Their sediment cores from that time period revealed a vegetation change from flammable shrubs to fire-resistant deciduous trees, a trend which Higuera thinks was enough to offset the direct effects of climate on fire frequencies.
"In this case, a warmer climate was likely more favorable for fire occurrence, but the development of deciduous trees on the landscape offset this direct climatic effect. Consequently, we see very little fire," Higuera says.
Similarly, during the development of the modern spruce-dominated forest about 5000 years ago, temperatures cooled and moisture levels increased, which considered alone would create unfavorable conditions for frequent fires. Despite this change, the authors observed an increase in fire frequency, a pattern they attribute to the high flammability of the dense coniferous forests.
Higuera thinks this research has implications for predictions of modern-day changes in fire regimes based on climate change. These findings, Higuera says, emphasize that predicting future wildfire frequency shouldn't hinge on the direct impacts of climate change alone.
"Climate affects vegetation, vegetation affects fire, and both fire and vegetation respond to climate change," he says. "Most importantly, our work emphasizes the need to consider the multiple drivers of fire regimes when anticipating their response to climate change."
|Contact: Philip Higuera|
Ecological Society of America