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Snag dynamics and surface fuel loads in the Sierra Nevada: Predicting the impact of the 2012–2016 drought

November 9, 2023

Forest die-backs linked to extreme droughts are expected to increase as the climate dries and warms. An example is the 2012-2016 hotter drought in California that induced widespread tree mortality in the Sierra Nevada, California. The sudden increase in snags (i.e., standing dead trees) raised immediate concerns about their impact on wildfire hazard and longer-term questions about their impact on ecosystem structure and function. We quantified the likely progression of snag fall and fuel succession following the recent extensive mortality event in the southern Sierra Nevada mixed conifer forest. Our results used data from a long-term demography study to project trends in surface fuel loads at three study sites in Yosemite and Sequoia Kings Canyon National Parks. In the short term (2017-2021), fine woody debris and litter + duff significantly increased across all three sites (>145% and >55%, respectively); coarse woody debris increased significantly at one site (48.6%); and total fuel loads increased significantly at two of the three sites (38% and 69%). Snag longevity increased with size, with the relationship varying by species. Yellow pine was a notable outlier: size played a small role in influencing its fall rates. Overall, species-specific snag fall rates in the southern Sierra Nevada were 20% to 40% slower than previously reported. By 2040, projected median cumulative inputs of biomass from future snag fall range from 49.4 Mg ha-1 to 136.1 Mg ha-1across our three sites, which exceeds the amounts currently present (47.17-89.97 Mg ha-1) and is well above estimates of historical coarse woody debris amounts in the Sierra Nevada (17.7 Mg ha -1). These results provide a robust empirical basis to refine the snag fall algorithm in vegetation simulation models. Options to manage the impact of extreme number of snags and their large surface combustible biomass include salvage operations and prescribed burning, with both methods having operational, financial, and legal limitations that need to be considered.

Publication Year 2023
Title Snag dynamics and surface fuel loads in the Sierra Nevada: Predicting the impact of the 2012–2016 drought
DOI 10.1016/j.foreco.2023.121521
Authors Hudson Northrop, Jodi N. Axelson, Adrian Das, Nathan L. Stephenson, Emilio Vilanova, Scott L. Stephens, John J. Battles
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Forest Ecology and Management
Index ID 70250116
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Western Ecological Research Center