Relative effects of climate change and wildfires on stream temperatures: a simulation modeling approach in a Rocky Mountain watershed

Abstract

Freshwater ecosystems are warming globally from the direct effects of climate change on air temperature and hydrology and the indirect effects on near-stream vegetation. In fire-prone landscapes, vegetative change may be especially rapid and cause significant local stream temperature increases but the importance of these increases relative to broader changes associated with air temperature and hydrology are not well understood. We linked a spatially explicit landscape fire and vegetation model (FireBGCv2) to an empirical regression equation that predicted daily stream temperatures to explore how climate change and its impacts on fire might affect stream thermal conditions across a partially forested, mountainous landscape in the western U.S. We used the model to understand the roles that wildfire and management actions such as fuel reduction and fire suppression could play in mitigating stream thermal responses to climate change. Results indicate that air temperature increases associated with future climates could account for a much larger proportion of stream temperature increases (as much as 90 % at a basin scale) than wildfire. Similarly, land management scenarios that limited wildfire prevalence had negligible effects on future stream temperature increases. These patterns emerged at broader spatial scales because wildfires typically affected only a subset of a stream’s network. However, at finer spatial and temporal scales stream temperatures were sensitive to wildfire. Although wildfires will continue to cause local, short-term effects on stream temperatures, managers of aquatic systems may need to find other solutions to cope with the larger impact from climate change on future stream warming that involves adapting to the increases while developing broad strategies for riparian vegetation restoration.

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Acknowledgments

This research was funded by the Joint Fire Sciences Program under JFSP-09-1002-9. We thank Violet Holley, Christie Lowney, Aaron Sparks, Signe Leirfallom, Robin Silverstein, and Pamela Siknink (USFS) for field assistance, Olga Helmy (University of Montana), Chris Clancy and Leslie Nyce (Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks), and Mike Jakober (USFS) for stream temperature data. We thank Mary Manning (USFS) for her contributions to study design and riparian vegetation sampling, and Ruth Wooding and Melissa Wegner (USFS) for their local knowledge and assistance.

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Correspondence to Lisa Holsinger.

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Holsinger, L., Keane, R.E., Isaak, D.J. et al. Relative effects of climate change and wildfires on stream temperatures: a simulation modeling approach in a Rocky Mountain watershed. Climatic Change 124, 191–206 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-014-1092-5

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Keywords

  • Fire Regime
  • Stream Temperature
  • Fire Severity
  • Fire Management
  • Fuel Treatment