Forests are an incredibly important resource across the globe, yet they are threatened by climate change through stressors such as drought, insect outbreaks, and wildfire. Trailing edge forests - those areas expected to experience range contractions under a changing climate - are of particular concern because of the potential for abrupt conversion to non-forest. However, due to plant-climate disequilibrium, broad-scale forest die-off and range contraction in trailing edge forests are unlikely to occur over short timeframes (<~25-50 yr) without a disturbance catalyst (e.g., wildfire). This underscores that explicit attention to both climate and disturbance is necessary to understand how the distribution of forests will respond to climate change. As such, we first identify the expected location of trailing edge forests in the intermountain western United States by mid-21st century. We then identify those trailing edge forests that have a high probability of stand-replacing fire and consider such sites to have an elevated risk of fire-facilitated transition to non-forest. Results show that 18% of trailing edge forest and 6.6% of all forest are at elevated risk of fire-facilitated conversion to non-forest in the intermountain western United States by mid-21st century. This estimate, however, assumes that fire burns under average weather conditions. For a subset of the study area (the southwestern United States), we were able to incorporate expected fire severity under extreme weather conditions. For this spatial subset, we found that 61% of trailing edge forest and 30% of all forest are at elevated risk of fire-facilitated conversion to non-forest under extreme burning conditions. However, due to compounding error in our process that results in unknowable uncertainty, we urge caution in a strict interpretation of these estimates. Nevertheless, our findings suggest the potential for transformed landscapes in the intermountain western United States that will affect ecosystem services such as watershed integrity, wildlife habitat, wood production, and recreation.
Parks, Sean A.; Dobrowski, Solomon Z.; Shaw, John D.; Miller, Carol. 2019. Living on the edge: Trailing edge forests at risk of fire-facilitated conversion to non-forest. Ecosphere. 10(3): Article e02651.