Blog‎ > ‎

Climate Change and Fire Management in the mid-Atlantic Region

posted Jul 31, 2014, 10:01 AM by Robert Scheller   [ updated Jul 31, 2014, 10:01 AM ]
A new publication from the lab summarizes what is known about climate change and fire management in the mid-Atlantic region, particularly New Jersey, of the US.

Clark, K.L., N. Skowronski, H. Renninger, R.M. Scheller. 2014. Climate Change and Fire Management in the mid-Atlantic Region. Forest Ecology and Management 327: 306-315.

In this review, we summarize the potential impacts of climate change on wildfire activity in the mid-
Atlantic region, and then consider how the beneficial uses of prescribed fire could conflict with mitigation
needs for climate change, focusing on patters of carbon (C) sequestration by forests in the region. We use
a synthesis of field studies, eddy flux tower measurements, and simulation studies to evaluate how the
use of prescribed fire affects short- and long-term forest C dynamics. Climate change may create weather
conditions more conducive to wildfire activity, but successional changes in forest composition, altered
gap dynamics, reduced understory and forest floor fuels, and fire suppression will likely continue to limit
wildfire occurrence and severity throughout the region. Prescribed burning is the only major viable
option that land managers have for reducing hazardous fuels in a cost-effective manner, or ensuring
the regeneration and maintenance of fire-dependent species. Field measurements and model simulations
indicate that consumption of fine fuels on the forest floor and understory vegetation during most prescribed
burns is equivalent to <1–3 years of sequestered C, and depends on pre-burn fuel loading and
burn intensity. Overstory tree mortality is typically low, and stands have somewhat reduced daytime
C uptake during the next growing season following burns, but may also have reduced rates of ecosystem
respiration. On an annual basis, net ecosystem productivity is negative the first year when consumption
losses are included, but then positive in following years, and stands can reach C neutrality within
<2–3 years. Field data and model simulations suggest that increases in prescribed burning in fire-prone
areas would have little appreciable effect on long-term forest C dynamics in some fire-prone forest types.
Large-scale conversion to young pine plantations for fiber and biofuels will potentially increase the risk of
wildfires, as had occurred previously in the late-19th and early-20th centuries in the region.