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PLoS One. 2010 Aug 30;5(8):e12480. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0012480.

Fire, fuel composition and resilience threshold in subalpine ecosystem.

Author information

1
Paleoenvironments and Chronoecology, Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, Montpellier, France. olivier.blarquez@univ-montp2.fr

Abstract

BACKGROUND:

Forecasting the effects of global changes on high altitude ecosystems requires an understanding of the long-term relationships between biota and forcing factors to identify resilience thresholds. Fire is a crucial forcing factor: both fuel build-up from land-abandonment in European mountains, and more droughts linked to global warming are likely to increase fire risks.

METHODS:

To assess the vegetation response to fire on a millennium time-scale, we analyzed evidence of stand-to-local vegetation dynamics derived from sedimentary plant macroremains from two subalpine lakes. Paleobotanical reconstructions at high temporal resolution, together with a fire frequency reconstruction inferred from sedimentary charcoal, were analyzed by Superposed Epoch Analysis to model plant behavior before, during and after fire events.

PRINCIPAL FINDINGS:

We show that fuel build-up from arolla pine (Pinus cembra) always precedes fires, which is immediately followed by a rapid increase of birch (Betula sp.), then by ericaceous species after 25-75 years, and by herbs after 50-100 years. European larch (Larix decidua), which is the natural co-dominant species of subalpine forests with Pinus cembra, is not sensitive to fire, while the abundance of Pinus cembra is altered within a 150-year period after fires. A long-term trend in vegetation dynamics is apparent, wherein species that abound later in succession are the functional drivers, loading the environment with fuel for fires. This system can only be functional if fires are mainly driven by external factors (e.g. climate), with the mean interval between fires being longer than the minimum time required to reach the late successional stage, here 150 years.

CONCLUSION:

Current global warming conditions which increase drought occurrences, combined with the abandonment of land in European mountain areas, creates ideal ecological conditions for the ignition and the spread of fire. A fire return interval of less than 150 years would threaten the dominant species and might override the resilience of subalpine forests.

PMID:
20814580
PMCID:
PMC2930012
DOI:
10.1371/journal.pone.0012480
[Indexed for MEDLINE]
Free PMC Article

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