Date: 04 Oct 2006

Vulnerability of land systems to fire: Interactions among humans, climate, the atmosphere, and ecosystems

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Abstract

Fires are critical elements in the Earth System, linking climate, humans, and vegetation. With 200–500 Mha burnt annually, fire disturbs a greater area over a wider variety of biomes than any other natural disturbance. Fire ignition, propagation, and impacts depend on the interactions among climate, vegetation structure, and land use on local to regional scales. Therefore, fires and their effects on terrestrial ecosystems are highly sensitive to global change. Fires can cause dramatic changes in the structure and functioning of ecosystems. They have significant impacts on the atmosphere and biogeochemical cycles. By contributing significantly to greenhouse gas (e.g., with the release of 1.7–4.1 Pg of carbon per year) and aerosol emissions, and modifying surface properties, they affect not only vegetation but also climate. Fires also modify the provision of a variety of ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration, soil fertility, grazing value, biodiversity, and tourism, and can hence trigger land use change. Fires must therefore be included in global and regional assessments of vulnerability to global change. Fundamental understanding of vulnerability of land systems to fire is required to advise management and policy. Assessing regional vulnerabilities resulting from biophysical and human consequences of changed fire regimes under global change scenarios requires an integrated approach. Here we present a generic conceptual framework for such integrated, multidisciplinary studies. The framework is structured around three interacting (partially nested) subsystems whose contribute to vulnerability. The first subsystem describes the controls on fire regimes (exposure). A first feedback subsystem links fire regimes to atmospheric and climate dynamics within the Earth System (sensitivity), while the second feedback subsystem links changes in fire regimes to changes in the provision of ecological services and to their consequences for human systems (adaptability). We then briefly illustrate how the framework can be applied to two regional cases with contrasting ecological and human context: boreal forests of northern America and African savannahs.