Letters to Nature

Nature 432, 87-90 (4 November 2004) | doi:10.1038/nature03058; Received 17 February 2004; Accepted 15 September 2004

Fire-induced erosion and millennial-scale climate change in northern ponderosa pine forests

Jennifer L. Pierce1, Grant A. Meyer1 & A. J. Timothy Jull2

  1. Department of Earth and Planetary Science, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, New Mexico 87131, USA
  2. NSF-Arizona AMS Facility, The University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona 85721, USA

Correspondence to: Jennifer L. Pierce1 Email: jpierce@unm.edu

Western US ponderosa pine forests have recently suffered extensive stand-replacing fires followed by hillslope erosion and sedimentation1, 2, 3, 4. These fires are usually attributed to increased stand density as a result of fire suppression, grazing and other land use, and are often considered uncharacteristic or unprecedented1, 2, 3. Tree-ring records from the past 500 years indicate that before Euro-American settlement, frequent, low-severity fires maintained open stands1, 2, 3. However, the pre-settlement period between about ad 1500 and ad 1900 was also generally colder than present5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, raising the possibility that rapid twentieth-century warming promoted recent catastrophic fires. Here we date fire-related sediment deposits in alluvial fans in central Idaho to reconstruct Holocene fire history in xeric ponderosa pine forests and examine links to climate. We find that colder periods experienced frequent low-severity fires, probably fuelled by increased understory growth. Warmer periods experienced severe droughts, stand-replacing fires and large debris-flow events that comprise a large component of long-term erosion11 and coincide with similar events in sub-alpine forests of Yellowstone National Park12. Our results suggest that given the powerful influence of climate, restoration of processes typical of pre-settlement times may be difficult in a warmer future that promotes severe fires.

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