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Vegetation-fire feedback reduces projected area burned under climate change.

  • Author(s): Hurteau, Matthew D
  • Liang, Shuang
  • Westerling, A LeRoy
  • Wiedinmyer, Christine
  • et al.
Abstract

Climate influences vegetation directly and through climate-mediated disturbance processes, such as wildfire. Temperature and area burned are positively associated, conditional on availability of vegetation to burn. Fire is a self-limiting process that is influenced by productivity. Yet, many fire projections assume sufficient vegetation to support fire, with substantial implications for carbon (C) dynamics and emissions. We simulated forest dynamics under projected climate and wildfire for the Sierra Nevada, accounting for climate effects on fuel flammability (static) and climate and prior fire effects on fuel availability and flammability (dynamic). We show that compared to climate effects on flammability alone, accounting for the interaction of prior fires and climate on fuel availability and flammability moderates the projected increase in area burned by 14.3%. This reduces predicted increases in area-weighted median cumulative emissions by 38.3 Tg carbon dioxide (CO2) and 0.6 Tg particulate matter (PM1), or 12.9% and 11.5%, respectively. Our results demonstrate that after correcting for potential over-estimates of the effects of climate-driven increases in area burned, California is likely to continue facing significant wildfire and air quality challenges with on-going climate change.

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