April 22, 2009

Plants could cut climate change wildfires

Many scientists say climate change might increase wildfires around the world, but a new U.S. study suggests plant growth changes could resolve the problem.

Ecological researcher Philip Higuera of Montana State University and his colleagues say although changing temperatures and moisture levels can increases wildfire frequency, they also change the distribution and abundance of plants. And, since vegetation plays a major role in determining the flammability of an ecosystem, vegetation can potentially dampen or amplify the impact climate change has on fire frequencies.

Climate is only one control of fire regimes, and if you only considered climate when predicting fire under climate change scenarios, you would have a good chance of being wrong, he says. You wouldn't be wrong if vegetation didn't change, but the greater the probability that vegetation will change, the more important it becomes when predicting future fire regimes.

Higuera said his research shows predicting wildfire frequency shouldn't rely only on the impact of climate change.

Climate affects vegetation, vegetation affects fire and both fire and vegetation respond to climate change, he said. Most importantly, our work emphasizes the need to consider the multiple drivers of fire regimes when anticipating their response to climate change.

The study will be reported in the May issue of the journal Ecological Monographs.