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Predicting Ecosystem Resilience to Fire from Tree Ring Analysis in Black Spruce Forests

Predicting Ecosystem Resilience to Fire from Tree Ring Analysis in Black Spruce Forests

Climate change has increased the occurrence, severity, and impact of disturbances on forested ecosystems worldwide, resulting in a need to identify factors that contribute to an ecosystem’s resilience or capacity to recover from disturbance. Forest resilience to disturbance may decline with climate change if mature trees are able to persist under stressful environmental conditions that do not permit successful recruitment and survival after a disturbance. In this study, we used the change in proportional representation of black spruce pre- to post-fire as a surrogate for resilience. We explored links between patterns of resilience and tree ring signals of drought stress across topographic moisture gradients within the boreal forest. We sampled 72 recently (2004) burned stands of black spruce in interior Alaska (USA); the relative dominance of black spruce after fire ranged from almost no change (high resilience) to a 90% decrease (low resilience). Variance partitioning analysis indicated that resilience was related to site environmental characteristics and climate–growth responses, with no unique contribution of pre-fire stand composition. The largest shifts in post-fire species composition occurred in sites that experienced the compounding effects of pre-fire drought stress and shallow post-fire organic layer thickness. These sites were generally located at warmer and drier landscape positions, suggesting they are less resilient to disturbance than sites in cool and moist locations. Climate–growth responses can provide an estimate of stand environmental stress to climate change and as such are a valuable tool for predicting landscape variations in forest ecosystem resilience.

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