Fire and Climate Suitability for Woody Vegetation Communities in the South Central United States

Science Center Objects

Climate and fire are global drivers of plant species distributions in the south central United States. Long-term management of vegetation communities can benefit from information on projected spatial changes in climate and fire frequencies.

Future fire-climate suitability South Central United States

Above: Future fire-climate suitability for three important vegetation types in New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma, USA.  Colored areas indicate where fire-climate suitability scores met or exceeded threshold conditions for a given community in each period.

Mean Fire Probability in New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma

Mean Fire Probability in NM, TX, OK

The Issue: In the south central US, climate is a key factor in the historical high wildfire frequencies in east Texas and Oklahoma as well as the spatially variable historical wildfire frequency in west Texas and New Mexico. Long-term management of vegetation communities can benefit from information on projected spatial changes in climate and fire frequencies.  For example, future rearrangement of conditions under which certain communities have been dominant may expand or contract relative to historic patterns. Environmental suitability models can indicate where on the landscape future conditions favoring communities dominated by long-lived tree species might occur.

Mean Fire Probability Legend

Addressing the Issue:  The primary objective of our work was to develop simple models to spatially relate fire probability and climate conditions to historic distributions of important woody communities in Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico USA, and project where on the landscape these conditions might occur in the future. The modeled communities included an oak type dominated by post oak and blackjack oak (Quercus stellata and Q. marilandica), a mesquite type dominated by honey mesquite and velvet mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa and P. velutina), and a pinyon-juniper type dominated by pinyon pine and Utah juniper (Pinus edulis and Juniperus osteosperma).  Collaborators from the University of Missouri used downscaled climate projections in their Physical Chemistry Fire Frequency Model to calculate and map future fire probabilities for 2020 – 2069 and 2070 – 2099.

Results: We developed fire-climate suitability models for each community using projected future climate and fire probabilities as inputs in the modeling freeware MAXENT. We mapped future fire-climate suitability and locations of threshold conditions for each vegetation community. The inclusion of fire probabilities adds an important driver of vegetation distribution to environmental envelope modeling for woody communities. Results showed potential future de-coupling and spatial re-arrangement of environmental conditions under which these communities have historically persisted and been managed. In particular, maps that show consensus among all models regarding continued environmental suitability through the twenty-first century can inform long-term planning for maintenance or restoration of these communities, indicating locations in which they might be maintained, restored, or established.

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