The combined effects of an extreme heatwave and wildfire on tallgrass prairie vegetation

TitleThe combined effects of an extreme heatwave and wildfire on tallgrass prairie vegetation
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2019
AuthorsRatajczak, Z, Churchill, AC, Ladwig, LM, Taylor, JH, Collins, SL
JournalJournal of Vegetation Science
Pagination687 - 697
Accession NumberKNZ001943

Questions: Climate extremes are predicted to become more common in many ecosystems. Climate extremes can promote and interact with disturbances, but the combined effects of climate extremes and disturbances have not been quantified in many ecosystems. In this study, we ask whether the dual impact of a climate extreme and concomitant disturbance (wildfire) has a greater affect than a climate extreme alone.
Location: Tallgrass prairie in the Konza Prairie Biological Station, northeastern Kansas, USA.
Methods: We quantified the response of a tallgrass prairie plant community to a 2‐year climate extreme of low growing‐season precipitation and high temperatures. In the first year of the climate extreme, a subset of plots was burned by a growing‐season wildfire. This natural experiment allowed us to compare community responses to a climate extreme with and without wildfire.
Results: In plots exposed to the climate extreme but not wildfire, community structure, diversity, and composition showed minor to insignificant changes, such as a 20% reduction in grass cover and a slight increase in species diversity. Plots exposed to both the climate extreme and wildfire underwent larger changes, including an 80% reduction in grass cover, 50% increase in forb cover, and increased plant diversity. Two years after the climate extreme, structural shifts in burned plots showed little sign of recovery, indicating a potentially lasting shift in plant community structure.
Conclusions: Our results suggest that community responses to climate extremes need to account for climate‐related disturbances — in this case, high temperatures, drought and wildfire. This response diverged from our expectation that heat, drought, and an additional fire would favor grasses. Although growing‐season wildfires in tallgrass prairie have been rare in recent decades, they will likely become more common with climate change, potentially leading to changes in grassland structure.