Climate change effects on vegetation distribution, carbon, and fire in California

Lenihan, J. M., Drapek R., Bachelet D., and Neilson, R. P.
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The objective of this study was to dynamically simulate the response of vegetation distribution, carbon, and fire to the historical climate and to two contrasting scenarios of climate change in California. The results of the simulations for the historical climate compared favorably to independent estimates and observations, but validation of the results was complicated by the lack of land use effects in the model. The response to increasing temperatures under both scenarios was characterized by a shift in dominance from needle-leaved to broad-leaved life-forms and by increases in vegetation productivity, especially in the relatively cool and mesic regions of the state. The simulated response to changes in precipitation were complex, involving not only the effect of changes in soil moisture on vegetation productivity, but also changes in tree–grass competition mediated by fire. Summer months were warmer and persistently dry under both scenarios, so the trends in simulated fire area under both scenarios were primarily a response to changes in vegetation biomass. Total ecosystem carbon increased under both climate scenarios, but the proportions allocated to the wood and grass carbon pools differed. The results of the simulations underscore the potentially large impact of climate change on California ecosystems, and the need for further use and development of dynamic vegetation models using various ensembles of climate change scenarios.


Lenihan, J. M., R. Drapek, D. Bachelet, and R. P. Neilson. 2003. Climate change effects on vegetation distribution, carbon, and fire in California. Ecological Applications 13:1667-1681. doi: 10.1890/025295.