Projected Climate-Fire Interactions Drive Forest to Shrubland Transition on an Arizona Sky Island

Christopher D. O’Connor, Donald A. Falk, Gregg M. Garfin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


Climate stressors on the forests of the American Southwest are shifting species distributions across spatial scales, lengthening potential fire seasons, and increasing the incidence of drought and insect-related die-off. A legacy of fire exclusion in forests once adapted to frequent surface fires is exacerbating these changes. Reducing stand densities and surface fuel loads has been proposed as a means of moderating fire behavior while reducing competition for water, but it is not established whether thinning treatments and restoration of surface fire regimes will be enough to offset the multiple manifestations of a changing climate. We examined the potential for prescribed fuel treatments and restoration of historical fire frequencies to mitigate the effects of climate on forest species distributions, composition, total biomass, and fire severity. We used an ecosystem process model to simulate the effects of projected climate, fire, and active management interactions along an ecological gradient of shrublands, woodlands, and forests on a mountain range in Arizona in the United States. We used historical climate conditions as a baseline to compare results from projected climate for the period 2005–2055 with and without fire and with no fuel treatments, a single-entry fuel treatment, and a second fuel treatment after 20 years. Simulated desert grassland and shrub communities remained compositionally stable and maintained or expanded their extents while woodland and forest communities lost basal area and total biomass and receded to the coolest and wettest aspects and drainages even without fire. Initial fuel treatments reduced the extent and relative mortality of high-severity patches for the first two decades, and secondary treatments at simulation year 20 extended these effects for the remaining 30 years of simulation. Immediate and future fuel treatments showed potential to mitigate the severity of fire effects under projected conditions and slow the transition from forest to shrubland in some vegetation types, however, a reduction in basal area and spatial extent of some forest species occurred regardless of management actions. Results are being used to inform local land managers and partners of potential landscape changes resulting from climate alone and from climate–fire interactions and to coordinate active management of fuels across ownerships.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number137
JournalFrontiers in Environmental Science
StatePublished - Aug 21 2020


  • FireBGCv2
  • climate change
  • ecosystem process modeling
  • fire severity
  • type conversion

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Science(all)


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