Importance of Natural Resources

Fires in the West may be changing the future of forests


>>Monica Turner: We’ve studied fire for a
long time in Yellowstone. We’ve documented the incredible recovery of
the forests of the 1988 fires, but what’s happening now is the baselines are shifting
and basically, if you think about a game, the rules of the game are changing. (So just maybe cross over this meadow and head into the right there?) (Yeah) I’m an ecologist because I worked in Yellowstone when I was 19 years old as a ranger at Old
Faithful, so I saw it before the 1988 Yellowstone fires, and I have studied the fire since that
time. There is also a part of me that’s a little
fearful for what might happen in the future because the changes that are forecast are
so different from what we had initially anticipated even when we started considering the effects
of climate change.>>Brian Harvey: If our national parks are
changing in ways that are going to profoundly impact the visitor experience perhaps wildlife
habitat, it’s important to be able to understand how that may be changing right in front of
our eyes.>>Tyler Hoecker: The fact that forests have
regenerated after fire for thousands of years and now they may not be is important and is
something that as a society we need to try to understand and then to think about if we’re
okay with that.>>News Report: Behind me here you can see
the column of smoke from the North Fork fire now that’s the fire that’s the threatening
Park headquarters also another fire up on…>>Brian: Those fires in 1988 really shepherded
in a new era of fire activity in the West. It was after a fairly quiet period of fire
activity in western US forests. There was more extensive fire activity than
I think most people had ever expected to see in one year at that time.>>Monica: One of the most important things
that when we think about how the forest will change in the future is their ability to recover
and so we call that resilience and fundamental to that is the ability for a new forest to
establish following disturbances so that’s one of the main reasons that we focus so much
on the window of time right after the fire because if you don’t get to the forest to
establish then you lose your chance for the forest to grow up.>>Brian: When you think about a place like
Yellowstone the insights that we’re learning about how a forest ecosystem comes back after
fire – it’s not just about going there and seeing the trees and seeing the wildlife,
it’s also about the forests in Yellowstone or anywhere else where we can apply the insights
that we’re gaining from Yellowstone have big implications for carbon storage on our planet,
for climate regulation on our planet, for water delivery and provisioning to municipalities
all throughout the West. Forests are a very key ecosystem that sort
of holds together a lot of ecological services that we as a society benefit from even if
you’re not living immediately in that area and or visiting that area.>>Monica: One of the things that really got
my attention was the forecast that by the end of this century the weather conditions
that we had in the summer of 1988 would become just the average conditions, and those were
the most hottest and driest the most extreme that we had seen and those are the kinds of
conditions that give you the really big fires, and so as you translate that into what it
means for the future of fire in Yellowstone, instead of having fires come back every 100
or 300 years, we would have the weather conditions pretty much all the time that would be associated
with big fires. When the fires came through we were interested
in measuring what we call the severity of the fire but what was the effect on the ecosystem
and we were testing a hypothesis that the severity could be quite high because you have
all of the needles of the tree and all of the downed wood very close to each other. (Wind and fire howling) We would also be measuring the little baby
tree seedlings. It’s kind of a hide-and-seek game because
you’re looking for teeny-tiny tree seedlings in an area of blackened soil.>>Brian: Most of the things that we would
do for measuring burn severity on the trees, are a little bit impossible to do when the
trees are so severely burned that they’re not here anymore.>>Monica: The other thing that we’re doing
with these kinds of data that we’re collecting in the field is incorporating them in computer
simulation models that look at what the forest of the future might look like
>>Kristin Braziunas: In my modeling work what I do is I try to take a tree and represent
the way that tree responds to differences in light availability or temperature or moisture. What I’m learning from what the model is giving
me is essentially how important it is for that initial burst of seedlings after a fire. How important that is in terms of either how
sparse or how numerous they are in really setting the trajectory for decades to centuries
for what that forest will look like.>>Winslow Hansen: The more field data you
have the better the more satellite data you have the better because that allows you to
really constrain the initial conditions to make sure that the point that you’re starting
from with your simulations is as realistic as possible. That it actually represents what’s on the
ground. This was the first opportunity to go out in
the field and measure some of these really unique combinations a very frequent fire very
large fire and so that helps us know that we’re getting it right with the modeling under
current conditions which then gives us greater confidence about our projections for the future. This period of regeneration after fire is
actually a really critical window where forests are vulnerable to transitioning to really
different states than what they were before the fire.>>Tyler: It seems like fire is happening more
frequently at a higher severity burning a larger extent of the landscape, and so if
that trajectory continues, what’s that going to mean for forests? Is that going to mean that much of the forested
landscape in Yellowstone is going to transition to a grassland or to an aspen parkland or
to a sagebrush steppe environment or is the system even more resilient than we even thought
it was and it’s gonna stay forested at least for another century or more?>>Monica: When I think about Yellowstone
and its potential for change – what I’ve always been struck by for all of the years
I’ve been studying it is its potential to recover and its potential to be resilient
to changes in ways that surprised us. I’m hopeful to see Yellowstone maintain its
flora and its fauna and all of the beauty that is there. I’m optimistic that it will still do that,
but I don’t have any illusion that it will still always be the same. It will change.


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