Fire-regime variability and ecosystem resilience over four millennia in a Rocky Mountain subalpine watershed

Kyra D. Clark-Wolf, Philip E. Higuera, Kendra K. McLauchlan, Bryan N. Shuman, Meredith C. Parish

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Wildfires strongly influence forest ecosystem processes, including carbon and nutrient cycling, and vegetation dynamics. As fire activity increases under changing climate conditions, the ecological and biogeochemical resilience of many forest ecosystems remains unknown. To investigate the resilience of forest ecosystems to changing climate and wildfire activity over decades to millennia, we developed a 4800-year high-resolution lake-sediment record from Silver Lake, Montana, USA (47.360° N, 115.566° W). Charcoal particles, pollen grains, element concentrations and stable isotopes of C and N serve as proxies of past changes in fire, vegetation and ecosystem processes such as nitrogen cycling and soil erosion, within a small subalpine forest watershed. A published lake-level history from Silver Lake provides a local record of palaeohydrology. A trend towards increased effective moisture over the late Holocene coincided with a distinct shift in the pollen assemblage c. 1900 yr BP, resulting from increased subalpine conifer abundance. Fire activity, inferred from peaks in macroscopic charcoal, decreased significantly after 1900 yr BP, from one fire event every 126 yr (83–184 yr, 95% CI) from 4800 to 1900 yr BP, to one event every 223 yr (175–280 yr) from 1900 yr BP to present. Across the record, individual fire events were followed by two distinct decadal-scale biogeochemical responses, reflecting differences in ecosystem impacts of fires on watershed processes. These distinct biogeochemical responses were interpreted as reflecting fire severity, highlighting (i) erosion, likely from large or high-severity fires, and (ii) nutrient transfers and enhanced within-lake productivity, likely from lower severity or patchier fires. Biogeochemical and vegetation proxies returned to pre-fire values within decades regardless of the nature of fire effects. Synthesis. Palaeorecords of fire and ecosystem responses provide a novel view revealing past variability in fire effects, analogous to spatial variability in fire severity observed within contemporary wildfires. Overall, the palaeorecord highlights ecosystem resilience to fire across long-term variability in climate and fire activity. Higher fire frequencies in past millennia relative to the 20th and 21st century suggest that northern Rocky Mountain subalpine ecosystems could remain resilient to future increases in fire activity, provided continued ecosystem recovery within decades.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2643-2661
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Ecology
Issue number12
StatePublished - 2023


  • climate change
  • ecological resilience
  • fire regime
  • fire severity
  • lake-sediment record
  • palaeoecology
  • stable isotopes
  • subalpine forest


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