Vegetation mediated the impacts of postglacial climate change on fire regimes in the south-central Brooks Range, Alaska

Philip E. Higuera, Linda B. Brubaker, Patricia M. Anderson, Feng Sheng Hu, Thomas A. Brown

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We examined direct and indirect impacts of millennial-scale climate change on fire regimes in the south-central Brooks Range, Alaska, USA, using four lake sediment records and existing paleoclimate interpretations. New techniques were introduced to identify charcoal peaks semi-objectively and to detect statistical differences between fire regimes. Peaks in charcoal accumulation rates provided estimates of fire return intervals (FRIs), which were compared among vegetation zones identified by fossil pollen and stomata. Climatic warming between ca. 15 000-9000 yr BP (calendar years before Common Era [CE] 1950) coincided with shifts in vegetation from herb tundra to shrub tundra to deciduous woodlands, all novel species assemblages relative to modern vegetation. Two sites cover this period and show decreased FRIs with the transition from herb to Betula-dommated shrub tundra ca. 13 300-14 300 yr BP (FRImean = 144 yr; 95% CI = 120-169 yr), when climate warmed but remained cooler than present. Although warming would have favored shorter FRIs in the shrub tundra, the shift to more continuous, flammable fuels relative to herb tundra was probably a more important cause of increased burning. Similarly, a vegetation shift to Populus-dominated deciduous woodlands overrode the influence of warmer- and drier-than-present summers, resulting in lower fire activity from ca. 10300-8250 yr BP (FRImean = 251 yr; 95% CI = 156-347 yr). Three sites record the mid-to-late Holocene, when climatic cooling and moistening allowed Picea glauca forest-tundra and P. mariana boreal forests to establish ca. 8000 and 5500 yr BP, respectively. FRIs in forest-tundra were either similar to or shorter than those in the deciduous woodlands (FRImean range - 131-238 yr). The addition of P. mariana ca. 5500 yr BP increased landscape flammability, overrode the effects of climatic cooling and moistening and resulted in lower FRIs (FRImean= 145 yr; 95% CI - 130-163). Overall, shifts in fire regimes were strongly linked to changes in vegetation, which were responding to millennial-scale climate change. We conclude that shifts in vegetation can amplify or override the direct influence of climate change on fire regimes, when vegetation shifts significantly modify landscape flammability. Our findings emphasize the importance of biophysical feedbacks between climate, fire, and vegetation in determining the response of ecosystems to past, and by inference, future climate change.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)201-219
Number of pages19
JournalEcological Monographs
Issue number2
StatePublished - May 2009


  • Alaska (USA)
  • Arctic
  • Boreal forest
  • Charcoal analysis
  • Climate change
  • Deciduous woodland
  • Fire history
  • Landscape flammability
  • Pollen analysis
  • Shrub tundra
  • Tundra


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