Near-future forest vulnerability to drought and fire varies across the western United States

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Buotte, P. C. et al.
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Recent prolonged droughts and catastrophic wildfires in the western United States have raised concerns about the potential for forest mortality to impact forest structure, forest ecosystem services, and the economic vitality of communities in the coming decades. We used the Community Land Model (CLM) to determine forest vulnerability to mortality from drought and fire by the year 2049. We modified CLM to represent 13 major forest types in the western United States and ran simulations at a 4-km grid resolution, driven with climate projections from two general circulation models under one emissions scenario (RCP 8.5). We developed metrics of vulnerability to short-term extreme and prolonged drought based on annual allocation to stem growth and net primary productivity. We calculated fire vulnerability based on changes in simulated future area burned relative to historical area burned. Simulated historical drought vulnerability was medium to high in areas with observations of recent drought-related mortality. Comparisons of observed and simulated historical area burned indicate simulated future fire vulnerability could be underestimated by 3% in the Sierra Nevada and overestimated by 3% in the Rocky Mountains. Projections show that water-limited forests in the Rocky Mountains, Southwest, and Great Basin regions will be the most vulnerable to future drought-related mortality, and vulnerability to future fire will be highest in the Sierra Nevada and portions of the Rocky Mountains. High carbon-density forests in the Pacific coast and western Cascades regions are projected to be the least vulnerable to either drought or fire. Importantly, differences in climate projections lead to only 1% of the domain with conflicting low and high vulnerability to fire and no area with conflicting drought vulnerability. Our drought vulnerability metrics could be incorporated as probabilistic mortality rates in earth system models, enabling more robust estimates of the feedbacks between the land and atmosphere over the 21st century.


Buotte, P. C. et al. Near-future forest vulnerability to drought and fire varies across the western United States. Global Change Biology 25, 290–303 (2019).