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


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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Figure 1: The SFP and northern Yellowstone National Park (YNP) field areas.
Figure 2: Summed calibrated probability distributions for radiocarbon ages on fire-related sedimentation events in the SFP Idaho area (this study) and in Yellowstone National Park12 (YNP, grey-filled curves).
Figure 3: Variations in the thickness of fire-related deposits over time.


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Research funding was provided by the NSF, the University of New Mexico (UNM) and the UNM Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. We thank L. Huckell for assistance with macrofossil identification; K. Pierce, B. Huckell and L. McFadden for comments on the manuscript; and S. Wood, T. Lite, L. Rockwell, S. Caldwell, C. North, K. Grover-Wier, K. Pierce and W. Andersen for discussions and field assistance.

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Correspondence to Jennifer L. Pierce.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Table 1

Summary of SFP Idaho site names, the number of dated samples per site, and the total number of dates used in analysis. (PDF 14 kb)

Supplementary Table 2

SFP Idaho site names, location information, macrofossil identification, and current site vegetation. (XLS 63 kb)

Supplementary Figure 1

Alluvial fan site JP5 provides an example of a ‘large event’ (as defined in the text), and other characteristics of fire-related deposits. (PDF 56 kb)

Supplementary Figure 2

Idaho SFP study area identified carbonized macrofossils from charcoal samples within dated fire-related deposits, grouped by age (500 14C yr BP intervals) and by basin aspect. (PDF 25 kb)

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Pierce, J., Meyer, G. & Timothy Jull, A. Fire-induced erosion and millennial-scale climate change in northern ponderosa pine forests. Nature 432, 87–90 (2004).

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