A sensitive slope: Estimating landscape patterns of forest resilience in a changing climate


Changes in Earth’s environment are expected to stimulate changes in the composition and structure of ecosystems, but it is still unclear how the dynamics of these responses will play out over time. In long-lived forest systems, communities of established individuals may be resistant to respond to directional climate change, but may be highly sensitive to climate effects during the early life stages that follow disturbance. This study combined analyses of pre-fire and post-fire tree composition, environmental data, and tree ring analyses to examine landscape patterns of forest recovery after fire in the south-central Yukon, Canada, a climatically dry region of boreal forest where there is evidence of increasing drought stress. Pre-fire stand composition and age structures indicated that successional trajectories dominated by white spruce (Picea glauca) with little aspen (Populus tremuloides) comprised most of the study area during the last fire cycle. Although spruce seedling recruitment after the fire was highest at sites near unburned seed sources and where surface organic layers were shallow, spruce seedling densities were often insufficient to regenerate the pre-fire spruce forests. In particular, sites in the warmer topographic locations of the valley lowland and south-facing slopes typically had few spruce seedlings and instead were dominated by aspen. The opposite pattern was observed on north-facing slopes. Age reconstructions of pre-and post-fire stands indicate that future canopy composition is driven by initial post-fire recruitment and thus observed landscape differences in seedling recruitment are likely to be maintained through the next 100–200 years of succession. Observed results support the hypothesis that sites experiencing greater environmental stress show the lowest resilience to disturbance, or greatest compositional changes. Analyses of tree-ring responses to climate variables across the same landscape indicate that patterns of tree growth prior to a disturbance may be a useful predictor of landscape variations in forest resilience, allowing managers to better anticipate where future changes in forest composition are likely to occur. Read More: http://www.esajournals.org/doi/abs/10.1890/ES10-00102.1