Climate Adaptation Science is Comprehensive, Landscape-level Research
Climate change is a major 21st-century challenge for science and society. In the American West, changing climate is increasing the threats of drought and fire. Such threats require both new science-based information and effective teams of scientists, managers, policy-makers and other citizens who can use that information to solve problems. Project research will advance understanding of changing hydroclimate (drought and flood), fire regimes (frequency, area burned, and severity), land cover (range shifts and invasions), social and economic effects, and potential adaptations (see examples below).
CAS Cohort 1 Collaborates on Wildfire Trends Study
Public radio editor Jennifer Pemberton interviewed CAS Cohort 1 students about their research on wildfire trends in the Intermountain West. Pemberton tells the story of their research and collaborative process, and highlights the cohort’s analyses of fire frequency, fire managers’ perspectives, and the economic impacts of wildfires on small towns.
Dramatic increases in wildfire over the last few decades have garnered considerable media attention, and numerous headlines have claimed that the amount of wildfire in the western U.S. in recent years is unprecedented. However, in a recent Earth’s Futurepublication, Drs. Brendan Murphy, Larissa Yocom, and Patrick Belmont at the Quinney College of Natural Resources at Utah State University compiled long-term fire datasets that demonstrate the amount of wildfire occurring in the western U.S. remains far below the acreage burning prior to settlement. Specifically, these records show that historically 4 to 12 percent of the entire western U.S. would burn each year. Why does that matter? With the drying of western forests due to climate change, as well as the buildup of excess vegetation in some forests after decades of fire suppression, the authors argue that we need to view wildfire as an inevitable part of the future in the western U.S.
With this perspective, we must then reassess our liabilities and plan development accordingly. While the authors acknowledge the well-documented risk wildfires pose to homes and structures, particularly those built in the wildland-urban interface, they highlight the less appreciated and underestimated risk that uncontrollable, high severity wildfires pose for water security. Further, they suggest that just focusing on the amount of area burning may not be enough to understand and address the issues. Low severity wildfire benefits forest health and poses less risk to water infrastructure, so the authors argue we actually need more areas burning under these conditions. This will require reducing restrictions on prescribed burns and ‘managed’ wildfires. Other forests naturally burn at high severity, and the authors argue that the best approach in these areas is to limit or eliminate development. The authors believe we can and must adopt more widespread and effective management strategies for our forest and water resources, but the critical first step will be realigning public perspectives about the past and future of wildfire.
Water- and Drought-scapes
Adapting the built-and-natural environments of arid and semi-arid ecosystems.
Water availability has significantly influenced development in the Western US. A legacy of cultural preferences, antiquated policies, and aging water infrastructure are confronted by population growth and prolonged and frequent drought. How would an extreme drought or anomalously short snow season impact terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, water infrastructure and distribution, the agricultural and tourism-based economy? How can we ensure reliable water for humans and the environment? And what are the most vulnerable parts of the coupled human-environment system?
Integrating forest, fire, fish, and society for adaptation in the Interior West.
Many landscapes in the Intermountain West are characterized by disturbance (i.e., discrete events such as wildfire, flash floods, or mass deaths from pests or pathogens that can disrupt the structure of an ecosystem, community, or population and change resource availability or the physical environment. Climate extremes may cause interacting cascades of disturbance, and disturbed landscapes may have elevated vulnerability to changing climate extremes. For example, drought-related plant mortality may be a mega-disturbance that resets succession and releases resources for new generations of plants, but plant establishment and landforms both are vulnerable to post-disturbance conditions that can substantially reform the physical template of a landscape and may alter the long-term trajectory of an ecosystem.