The mission of the Climate-Fire Dynamics Group is to facilitate collaboration among scientists interested in interactions among climate, fire, and terrestrial landscape processes. The Climate-Fire Dynamics Group is a self-directed team within the Rocky Mountain Research Station, and welcomes participation from scientists, professionals, and others both within and external to the Research Station.
Why study climate-fire dynamics?
Fire is widely recognized as an important ecological process, especially in fire-prone and fire-adapted forests of the western United States. Many plants and animal species in North America have survived and thrived for thousands of years in the presence of fire and have benefitted from some of the changes that fire brings to landscapes, such as increased biodiversity and landscape heterogeneity. Ecological properties influenced by fire include vegetation species composition, distribution, and successional stage; carbon stores and carbon fluxes; nutrient cycling; and hydrologic dynamics. As demonstrated in work by Fire Lab scientists and others, climate is an important driver of wildfires, through effects on fuel moistures and amount and distribution of vegetation and fuels present on the landscape. Regional climate patterns have been shown to synchronize fires across the inland Northwest – years with widespread fires were characterized by warm spring-summers and warm-dry summers. Projected climate changes for the 21st century include increased temperatures and changes in precipitation, both of which are likely to influence the timing, size, intensity, and severity of wildfires. Research on climate-fire dynamics helps us to understand the ways in which climate changes will drive future patterns in wildfire occurrence, size, and behavior; and predict the influence of climate-fire interactions on future ecological patterns and processes. With this understanding we may be able to develop strategies that allow land managers to anticipate and respond to predicted ecosystem changes.
Climate drivers of wildfires – evidence from fire scars
Climate variables are prime drivers of historical patterns in wildfire, and influence fire season length, fire intensity (heat released by a fire), fire severity (the degree to which a site has been altered or disrupted by fire), fire size, and the amount of vegetation (“fuel”) present across landscapes. Hotter, drier climatic conditions in forested ecosystems tend to result in larger, more frequent wildfires because fuels are drier for longer periods of the year and across larger extents, stream runoff and precipitation are reduced, and increased growing seasons for plants result in larger fuel accumulations. A recent study from dry forests of the northern Rocky Mountain region of the U.S. (Idaho and western Montana) showed that warm springtime temperatures and warm and dry summers were associated with widespread forest fire activity across the region during the period 1650-1900 A.D. These same climate conditions were identified as important drivers for 20th century regionally-synchronous fire years. Based on these results and climate projections for warmer springs and continued warm, dry summers, forests of the U.S. northern Rockies are likely to experience large and synchronous wildfires in the future.
What can past processes tell us about future conditions?
Superimposed on the background of historical variability are novel trends of climate change. These are and will continue to alter fire behavior and fire regimes, resulting in unpredictable fire seasons, escalating costs, and unknown ecosystem trajectories. These unpredictable ecosystem responses present fundamental challenges to ecosystem management. Through the study of tree-ring records of past fires scientists at the Fire Lab are developing systematic and regional databases of fire‐climate relationships, and evaluating the historical range of variability in climate and fire dynamics across broad regions. These historical data will be used to validate dynamic ecosystem models; such models are inform our understanding of past, current, and potential future climate-vegetation-wildfire dynamics such as succession, pest and pathogen interactions, and carbon fluxes; and allow us to quantify important metrics such as landscape resilience and recovery trajectories following disturbance events.
Climate science synthesis and delivery
Scientists at the Fire Lab are involved in a number of different projects to synthesize and delivery information on climate changes and climate change impacts to land managers, planners, and other audiences outside of the research community. These projects include: development of bioregional Talking Points synthesis documents in collaboration with the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; design of the Wildland Climate Change Information System (WCCIS), a web-accessed, georeferenced database synthesizing current climate change science; and integration of climate change concepts into FireWorks, a successful and widely-used educational program for students in grades 1-10.
Understanding the Science of Climate Change; Talking Points: Impacts to Western Mountains and Forests
Modeling climate change effects on ecosystems
Simulation modeling provides one of the best vehicles to investigate the dynamic interactions between climate, fire, vegetation, and associated ecosystem processes across landscapes and regions. The Fire Lab leads the development and implementation of the FireBGCv2 modeling platform, a tool for exploring interacting effects of climate change and disturbance (e.g. wildfires, pests, and pathogens) on forest composition, structure, carbon dynamics, and ecosystem processes and services. Current funded research projects include: effects of climate changes and wildfires on wildlife habitat suitability; assessing and adaptively managing wildfire risk in the wildland-urban interface for future climate and landuse changes; strategic role of large herbivore grazing on succession, fuels, and fire dynamics in a changing climate; fire and fish dynamics in changing climates; and exploration of critical climate-driven thresholds in landscape processes. Key results from the research include significant, differential effects of varying future climate change scenarios on landscape patterns, processes, and species composition; projected substantial decreases in grizzly bear and Canada lynx habitat suitability in Glacier National Park as a consequence of changing climate and land cover; identification of restoration factors for high elevation five-needle pines under changing climates; and evaluation of the differing effects of potential future climate conditions on fire regimes in the western U.S.
Poster (jpg format): Estimating critical climate-driven thresholds in landscape dynamics using spatial simulations modeling: climate change tipping points in fire management
Climate-Fire Dynamics Group Charter
Readings, Reports, and Other Information
Climate-Fire Dynamics Projects
Click on the links below to see current climate-fire and climate change-related research projects and science applications at the Fire Lab:
FireBGCv2 Simulation Modeling Platform
Central Oregon Fire History
Utah Fire History
Fire Effects Information System (FEIS)
Climate drivers of fire in the Northern Rockies: Past, Present and Future
For more information on the Climate-Fire Dynamics Group contact Rachel Loehman.