Dynamic ecosystem assembly and escaping the “fire-trap” in the tropics: Insights from FATES_15.0.0
Abstract. Fire is a fundamental part of the Earth system, with impacts on vegetation structure, biomass and community composition, the latter mediated in part via key fire-tolerance traits, such as bark thickness. Due to anthropogenic climate change and land use pressure, fire regimes are changing across the world, and fire risk has already increased across much of the tropics. Projecting the impacts of these changes at global scales requires that we capture the selective force of fire on vegetation distribution through vegetation functional traits and size structure. We have adapted the fire-behavior and effects module, SPITFIRE, for use with the Functionally Assembled Terrestrial Ecosystem Simulator (FATES), a size-structured vegetation demographic model. We test how climate, fire regime and fire-tolerance plant traits interact to determine the biogeography of tropical forests and grasslands. We assign different fire-tolerance strategies based on crown, leaf and bark characteristics, which are key observed fire-tolerance traits across woody plants. For these simulations, three types of vegetation compete for resources: a fire-vulnerable tree with thin bark, a vulnerable deep crown and fire-intolerant foliage; a fire-tolerant tree with thick bark, a thin crown and fire-tolerant foliage; and a fire-promoting C4 grass. We explore the model sensitivity to a critical parameter governing fuel moisture, and show that drier fuels promote increased burning, an expansion of area for grass and fire-tolerant trees and a reduction of area for fire-vulnerable trees. This conversion to lower biomass or grass areas with increased fuel drying results in increased fire burned area and its effects, which could fee back to local climate variables. Simulated size-based fire mortality for trees less than 20 cm in diameter and those with fire-vulnerable traits is higher than that for larger and/or fire-tolerant trees, in agreement with observations. Fire-disturbed forests demonstrate reasonable productivity and capture observed patterns of aboveground biomass in areas dominated by natural vegetation for the recent historical period, but have a large bias in less disturbed areas. Though the model predicts a greater extent of burned fraction than observed in areas with grass dominance, the resulting biogeography of fire-tolerant, thick-bark trees and fire-vulnerable, thin-bark trees corresponds to observations across the tropics. In areas with more than 2500 mm of precipitation, simulated fire frequency and burned area are low, with fire intensities below 150 kW m-1, consistent with observed understory fire behavior across the Amazon. Areas drier than this demonstrate fire intensities consistent with those measured in savannas and grasslands, with high values up to 4000 kW m-1. The results support a positive grass-fire feedback across the region, and suggest that forests which have existed without frequent burning may be vulnerable at higher fire intensities, which is of greater concern under intensifying climate and land use pressures. The ability of FATES to capture the connection between fire disturbance and plant fire-tolerance strategies in determining biogeography provides a useful tool for assessing the vulnerability and resilience of these critical carbon storage areas under changing conditions across the tropics.
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