Climatic thresholds shape northern high-latitude fire regimes and imply vulnerability to future climate change

Adam M. Young, Philip E. Higuera, Paul A. Duffy, Feng Sheng Hu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

143 Scopus citations


Boreal forests and arctic tundra cover 33% of global land area and store an estimated 50% of total soil carbon. Because wildfire is a key driver of terrestrial carbon cycling, increasing fire activity in these ecosystems would likely have global implications. To anticipate potential spatiotemporal variability in fire-regime shifts, we modeled the spatially explicit 30-yr probability of fire occurrence as a function of climate and landscape features (i.e. vegetation and topography) across Alaska. Boosted regression tree (BRT) models captured the spatial distribution of fire across boreal forest and tundra ecoregions (AUC from 0.63–0.78 and Pearson correlations between predicted and observed data from 0.54–0.71), highlighting summer temperature and annual moisture availability as the most influential controls of historical fire regimes. Modeled fire–climate relationships revealed distinct thresholds to fire occurrence, with a nonlinear increase in the probability of fire above an average July temperature of 13.4°C and below an annual moisture availability (i.e. P-PET) of approximately 150 mm. To anticipate potential fire-regime responses to 21st-century climate change, we informed our BRTs with Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 5 climate projections under the RCP 6.0 scenario. Based on these projected climatic changes alone (i.e. not accounting for potential changes in vegetation), our results suggest an increasing probability of wildfire in Alaskan boreal forest and tundra ecosystems, but of varying magnitude across space and throughout the 21st century. Regions with historically low flammability, including tundra and the forest–tundra boundary, are particularly vulnerable to climatically induced changes in fire activity, with up to a fourfold increase in the 30-yr probability of fire occurrence by 2100. Our results underscore the climatic potential for novel fire regimes to develop in these ecosystems, relative to the past 6000–35 000 yr, and spatial variability in the vulnerability of wildfire regimes and associated ecological processes to 21st-century climate change.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)606-617
Number of pages12
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2017


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