Assessing the roles of fire frequency and precipitation in determining woody plant expansion in central U.S. grasslands

TitleAssessing the roles of fire frequency and precipitation in determining woody plant expansion in central U.S. grasslands
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2017
AuthorsBrunsell, NA, van Vleck, ES, Nosshi, M, Ratajczak, Z, Nippert, JB
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research - Biogeosciences
Volume122
Issue10
Pagination2683–2698
Accession NumberKNZ001820
Abstract

Woody plant expansion into grasslands and savannas is occurring and accelerating worldwide and often impacts ecosystem processes. Understanding and predicting the environmental and ecological impacts of encroachment has led to a variety of methodologies for assessing its onset, transition, and stability, generally relying on dynamical systems approaches. Here we continue this general line of investigation to facilitate the understanding of the roles of precipitation frequency and intensity and fire frequency on the conversion of grasslands to woody-dominated systems focusing on the central United States. A low-dimensional model with stochastic precipitation and fire disturbance is introduced to examine the complex interactions between precipitation and fire as mechanisms that may suppress or facilitate increases in woody cover. By using Lyapunov exponents, we are able to ascertain the relative control exerted on woody encroachment through these mechanisms. Our results indicate that precipitation frequency is a more important control on woody encroachment than the intensity of individual precipitation events. Fire, however, exerts a much more dominant impact on the limitation of encroachment over the range of precipitation variability considered here. These results indicate that fire management may be an effective strategy to slow the onset of woody species into grasslands. While climate change might predict a reduced potential for woody encroachment in the near future, these results indicate a reduction in woody fraction may be unlikely when considering anthropogenic fire suppression.

URLhttps://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/2017JG004046
DOI10.1002/2017JG004046