A group of five researchers studying climate change in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem (GYE) have concluded that higher temperatures will lead to more frequent fires, changing the fire return interval from 100-300 years to less than 30 years. This would prevent the current suite of conifer species from regenerating and result in them being replaced with nonforest vegetation. This is expected to occur by mid-century.
From the abstract:
Our findings suggest a shift to novel fire–climate–vegetation relationships in Greater Yellowstone by midcentury because fire frequency and extent would be inconsistent with persistence of the current suite of conifer species.
Holy crap! By the time you or your children are applying for Medicare, there may be very few trees left in Yellowstone National Park.
Here are their findings:
Continued warming could completely transform GYE ﬁre regimes by the mid-21st century, with profound consequences for many species and for ecosystem services including aesthetics, hydrology, and carbon storage. The conditions associated with extreme ﬁre seasons are expected to become much more frequent, with ﬁre occurrence and area burned exceeding that observed in the historical record or reconstructed from paleoproxy records for the past 10,000 y. Even in years without extreme ﬁre events, average annual area burned is projected to increase, and years with no large ﬁres—common until recently—are projected to become increasingly rare. The timing and spatial location of such changes varied somewhat among the three GCMs used in this study, but the models converged by the latter part of the century. The magnitude of predicted increases in ﬁre occurrence and area burned suggests that there is a real likelihood of Yellowstone’s forests being converted to nonforest vegetation during the mid-21st century because reduced ﬁre intervals would likely preclude postﬁre tree regeneration. A change in dominant vegetation would also cause the GYE to shift from a climate- to a fuellimited ﬁre regime (24). We suggest that the climate–ﬁre system is a tipping element that may qualitatively change the ﬂora, fauna, and ecosystem processes in this landscape and could be indicative of similar changes in other subalpine or boreal forests.
The paper can be found at PNAS.org and was written by Anthony L. Westerling, Monica G. Turner, Erica A. H. Smithwick, William H. Romme, and Michael G. Ryan. The title is Continued warming could transform Greater Yellowstone ﬁre regimes by mid-21st century.
In August, 2009 we wrote an article that criticized the U.S. Government for funding research, but publishing the results in privately owned publications which charge substantial fees for access to the government-bought research findings. We are very pleased to report that the paper described above is published as an “open access article” so that, as far as we know, anyone with an internet connection can read it.
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