Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Increased burning in a warming climate reduces carbon uptake in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem despite productivity gains

November 20, 2020

1. The effects of changing climate and disturbance on mountain forest carbon stocks vary with tree species distributions and over elevational gradients. Warming can increase carbon uptake by stimulating productivity at high elevations but also enhance carbon release by increasing respiration and the frequency, intensity, and size of wildfires.

2. To understand the consequences of climate change for temperate mountain forests, we simulated interactions among climate, wildfire, tree species, and their combined effects on regional carbon stocks in forests of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, USA with the LANDIS‐II landscape change model. Simulations used historical climate and future potential climate represented by downscaled projections from five general circulation models (GCMs) that bracket the range of variability under the representative concentration pathway (RCP) 8.5 emissions scenario.

3. Total ecosystem carbon increased by 67% through 2100 in simulations with historical climate, and by 38 – 69% with GCM climate. Differences in carbon uptake among GCMs resulted primarily from variation in area burned, not productivity. Warming increased productivity by extending the growing season, especially near upper treeline, but did not offset biomass losses to fire. By 2100, simulated area burned increased by 27 – 215% under GCM climate, with the largest increases after 2050. With warming >3 °C in mean annual temperature, the increased frequency of large fires reduced live carbon stocks by 4 – 36% relative to the control, historical climate scenario. However, relative losses in total carbon were delayed under GCMs with large increases in summer precipitation and buffered by carbon retained in soils and the wood of fire‐killed trees. Increasing fire size limited seed dispersal, and reductions in soil moisture limited seedling establishment; both effects will likely constrain long‐term forest regeneration and carbon uptake.

4. Synthesis.Forests in the GYE can maintain a carbon sink through the mid‐century in a warming climate but continued warming may cause the loss of forest area, live aboveground biomass, and ultimately, ecosystem carbon. Future changes in carbon stocks in similar forests throughout western North America will depend on regional thresholds for extensive wildfire and forest regeneration and therefore, changes may occur earlier in drier regions.

Publication Year 2021
Title Increased burning in a warming climate reduces carbon uptake in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem despite productivity gains
DOI 10.1111/1365-2745.13559
Authors Paul D. Henne, Todd Hawbaker, Robert M. Scheller, Feng S Zhao, Hong S He, Wenru Xu, Zhiliang Zhu
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Journal of Ecology
Index ID 70216493
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Geosciences and Environmental Change Science Center