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Direct and indirect effects of climate change on projected future fire regimes in the western United States.

Abstract

We asked two research questions: (1) What are the relative effects of climate change and climate-driven vegetation shifts on different components of future fire regimes? (2) How does incorporating climate-driven vegetation change into future fire regime projections alter the results compared to projections based only on direct climate effects? We used the western United States (US) as study area to answer these questions. Future (2071-2100) fire regimes were projected using statistical models to predict spatial patterns of occurrence, size and spread for large fires (>400 ha) and a simulation experiment was conducted to compare the direct climatic effects and the indirect effects of climate-driven vegetation change on fire regimes. Results showed that vegetation change amplified climate-driven increases in fire frequency and size and had a larger overall effect on future total burned area in the western US than direct climate effects. Vegetation shifts, which were highly sensitive to precipitation pattern changes, were also a strong determinant of the future spatial pattern of burn rates and had different effects on fire in currently forested and grass/shrub areas. Our results showed that climate-driven vegetation change can exert strong localized effects on fire occurrence and size, which in turn drive regional changes in fire regimes. The effects of vegetation change for projections of the geographic patterns of future fire regimes may be at least as important as the direct effects of climate change, emphasizing that accounting for changing vegetation patterns in models of future climate-fire relationships is necessary to provide accurate projections at continental to global scales.

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