Climate change, wildfire, and vegetation shifts in a high-inertia forest landscape: Western Washington, U.S.A.
Document Type: Journal
Author(s): Joshua S. Halofsky ; David R. Conklin ; Daniel C. Donato ; Jessica E. Halofsky ; John B. Kim
Publication Year: 2018

Cataloging Information

climate change; fire suppression effects; vegetation change; vegetation shift; western Washington
Record Maintained By:
Record Last Modified: December 27, 2018
FRAMES Record Number: 57025


Future vegetation shifts under changing climate are uncertain for forests with infrequent stand-replacing disturbance regimes. These high-inertia forests may have long persistence even with climate change because disturbance-free periods can span centuries, broad-scale regeneration opportunities are fewer relative to frequent-fire systems, and mature tree species are long-lived with relatively high tolerance for sub-optimal growing conditions. Here, we used a combination of empirical and process-based modeling approaches to examine vegetation projections across high-inertia forests of Washington State, USA, under different climate and wildfire futures. We ran our models without forest management (to assess inherent system behavior/potential) and also with wildfire suppression. Projections suggested relatively stable mid-elevation forests through the end of the century despite anticipated increases in wildfire. The largest changes were projected at the lowest and uppermost forest boundaries, with upward expansion of the driest low-elevation forests and contraction of cold, high-elevation subalpine parklands. While forests were overall relatively stable in simulations, increases in early-seral conditions and decreases in late-seral conditions occurred as wildfire became more frequent. With partial fire suppression, projected changes were dampened or delayed, suggesting a potential tool to forestall change in some (but not all) high-inertia forests, especially since extending fire-free periods does little to alter overall fire regimes in these systems. Model projections also illustrated the importance of fire regime context and projection limitations; the time horizon over which disturbances will eventually allow the system to shift are so long that the prevailing climatic conditions under which many of those shifts will occur are beyond what most climate models can predict with any certainty. This will present a fundamental challenge to setting expectations and managing for long-term change in these systems.

Online Link(s):
Halofsky, Joshua S.; Conklin, David R.; Donato, Daniel C.; Halofsky, Jessica E.; Kim, John B. 2018. Climate change, wildfire, and vegetation shifts in a high-inertia forest landscape: Western Washington, U.S.A. PLoS ONE 13(12):e0209490.