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Future fire-driven landscape changes along a southwestern US elevation gradient

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Over the twenty-first century, the combined effects of increased fire activity and climate change are expected to alter forest composition and structure in many ecosystems by changing postfire successional trajectories and recovery. Southwestern US mountain ecosystems contain a variety of vegetation communities organized along an elevation gradient that will respond uniquely to changes in climate and fire regime. Moreover, the twentieth-century fire exclusion has altered forest structure and fuel loads compared to their natural states (i.e., without fire suppression). Consequently, uncertainties persist about future vegetation shifts along the elevation gradient. In this study, we simulated future vegetation dynamics along an elevation gradient in the southwestern US comprising pinyon-juniper woodlands, ponderosa pine forests, and mixed-conifer forests for the period 2000–2099, to quantify the effects of future climate conditions and projected wildfires on species productivity and distribution. While we expected to find larger changes in aboveground biomass, species diversity and species-specific abundance at low elevation due to warmer and drier conditions, the largest changes occurred at high elevation in mixed-conifer forests and were caused by wildfire. The largest increase in high-severity and large fires were recorded in this vegetation type, leading to high mortality of the dominant species, Picea engelmannii and Abies lasiocarpa, which are not adapted to fire. The decline of these two species reduced biomass productivity at high elevation. In ponderosa pine forests and pinyon-juniper woodlands, fewer vegetation changes occurred due to higher abundance of well-adapted species to fire and the lower fuel loads mitigating projected fire activity, respectively. Thus, future research should prioritize understanding of the processes involved in future vegetation shifts in mixed-conifer forests in order to mitigate both loss of diversity specific to high-elevation forests and the decrease in biomass productivity, and thus carbon storage capacity, of these ecosystems due to wildfires.

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This work is supported by the Interagency Carbon Cycle Science program grant no. 2017-67004-26486/ project accession no. 1012226 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the Joint Fire Science Program under Project JFSP 16-1-05-8. We thank Scott L. Collins for his participation in the development of the project.

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Correspondence to Matthew D. Hurteau.

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Remy, C.C., Keyser, A.R., Krofcheck, D.J. et al. Future fire-driven landscape changes along a southwestern US elevation gradient. Climatic Change 166, 46 (2021).

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