Spatial and temporal dynamics of disturbance interactions along an ecological gradient
AuthorO'Connor, Christopher Daniel
AdvisorFalk, Donald A.
MetadataShow full item record
PublisherThe University of Arizona.
RightsCopyright © is held by the author. Digital access to this material is made possible by the University Libraries, University of Arizona. Further transmission, reproduction or presentation (such as public display or performance) of protected items is prohibited except with permission of the author.
AbstractInteractions among site conditions, disturbance events, and climate determine the patterns of forest species recruitment and mortality across landscapes. Forests of the American Southwest have undergone significant changes over a century of altered disturbance regimes, human land uses, and changing environmental conditions. This study reconstructs the interactions between fire, spruce beetle outbreaks, climate, and anthropogenic factors and their influence on the species composition, spatial extent, and structure of four upper elevation forest types. We found that fire-climate associations changed following fire exclusion and recent high-severity fires occurred during less severe conditions than in several larger, lower severity fires in the historical record. Contemporary fires are burning with higher severity than similarly-sized historical fires, suggesting a shift toward higher-severity fire as a result of changes to forest structure and fuels over much of the upper elevation forest. In high elevation forests, the area occupied by Engelmann spruce and corkbark fir doubled in size over the four decades following fire exclusion. The increase in spruce beetle outbreak size and severity in the 20th century appears to be linked to significant expansion of host extent, accelerated growth of spruce in mixed-conifer forest, and incidence of anomalously warm summer temperatures followed by up to a decade of low precipitation. Trends toward warming, drying conditions are expected to increase the risk of future high-severity outbreaks, especially in locations of recent spruce population expansion. Forest conversion from disturbance-adapted to competition-adapted species following fire exclusion was a function of site productivity. Species assemblages in the lowest and highest productivity sites were the most stable over the century following fire exclusion. Frequent low severity fires maintained the stocking of forests in moderate productivity sites below their biological potential, conferring a degree of resistance to drought, insect outbreaks, and high-severity fire prior to fire exclusion. Current forests located on moderate productivity sites are now the most vulnerable to drought and future disturbance. Aggressive action to restore historical species composition, stocking and fire component of these forests may return resilience to this system in the face of projected changes to fire and climate dynamics.
Degree ProgramGraduate College