Rocky Mountain forests may be falling prey to wildfires and droughts, a team of researchers has determined. A lack of precipitation in the region has radically altered the way the woodland grows back following a wildfire.
Forests attempting to recover from fires may be hampered by warm, dry weather reducing the growth of new vegetation. Researchers also determined that the recovery of forests is also slowed by the loss of seeds, as well as increased distances between charred areas.
This new study could give environmentalists and forestry officials a glimpse of how woodlands may behave in the future, given continuing climate change. This is the first major study to ever examine how drought affects the regrowth of charred forests, and how the process may be altered by changes to the Earth's environment.
"Fires that are followed by warm, dry conditions offer us a window 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," said Brian Harvey of the University of Colorado Boulder.
Lodgepole pines are one of the species in the Rocky Mountains that have adapted well to frequent fires in the region. This variety of tree drops thousands of seeds when a fire ravages forests in the area. Such events may become more common as global climate change becomes more pronounced. In addition, seeds dropped to the forest floor may not survive to form new trees if there is not enough water to allow them to sprout.
Vast fires blazed through the Yellowstone National Park in 1988 and 2000. The second fire, followed by a dry summer, produced just one-tenth as much tree growth as was seen 12 years previously. Researchers studying how weather affected tree growth examined 184 locations where 11 major fires had been seen in recent years. This data was then correlated with drought records for the regions, in order to determine of a correlation existed. Investigators determined that the recovery of various species of trees were affected to differing degrees by droughts.
Future research will examine how climate change around the globe may affect the recovery of the world's forests.
Examination of how forests recovering from wildfires respond to drought conditions was detailed in the journal Global Ecology and Biogeography.