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Forest Pattern, Fire, and Climatic Change in the Sierra Nevada

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In the Sierra Nevada, distributions of forest tree species are largely controlled by the soil-moisture balance. Changes in temperature or precipitation as a result of increased greenhouse gas concentrations could lead to changes in species distributions. In addition, climatic change could increase the frequency and severity of wildfires. We used a forest gap model developed for Sierra Nevada forests to investigate the potential sensitivity of these forests to climatic change, including a changing fire regime. Fuel moisture influences the fire regime and couples fire to climate. Fires are also affected by fuel loads, which accumulate according to forest structure and composition. These model features were used to investigate the complex interactions between climate, fire, and forest dynamics. Eight hypothetical climate-change scenarios were simulated, including two general circulation model (GCM) predictions of a 2 × CO2 world. The response of forest structure,species composition, and the fire regime to these changes in the climate were examined at four sites across an elevation gradient. Impacts on woody biomass and species composition as a result of climatic change were site specific and depended on the environmental constraints of a site and the environmental tolerances of the tree species simulated. Climatic change altered the fire regime both directly and indirectly. Fire frequency responded directly to climate's influence on fuel moisture, whereas fire extent was affected by changes that occurred in either woody biomass or species composition. The influence of species composition on fuel-bed bulk density was particularly important. Future fires in the Sierra Nevada could be both more frequent and of greater spatial extent if GCM predictions prove true.

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Received 5 May 1998; accepted 4 November 1998.

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Miller, C., Urban, D. Forest Pattern, Fire, and Climatic Change in the Sierra Nevada. Ecosystems 2, 76–87 (1999).

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