Characterizing The Shifting Role Of Wildfire In Dryland Ecosystem And Watershed Processes

fire scare just above Reno, Nevada along the Steamboat ditch trail.

Climate change and human actions, such as fire suppression, have altered fuel characteristics and fire regimes in dryland systems like the Great Basin. Wildfire activity has also increased in response to non-native plant invasions and climate-driven shifts in plant cover.

As the climate continues to change, it grows increasingly urgent to develop tools for forecasting future wildfire activity in these systems, and to anticipate how changes in fire activity will affect their ecological function, including processes such as nutrient cycling and streamflow.

Simulation models are useful for investigating interactions among climate, fire, soils, and water—and how land management shapes those interactions. Models allow us to ask “what if” questions by simulating a range of future scenarios. This enables us to estimate how quickly ecosystems will recover from fire, and how likely future fires will be. However, current models use relatively simple algorithms to represent fire effects and may not include some mechanisms that are essential to understanding how post-fire processes will affect the transfer of simple substances between living systems and the environment.

This project will perform field and laboratory studies to evaluate how soil microbial activity, and ecosystem Carbon and Nitrogen dynamics vary with vegetation cover, burn severity, and time since fire in the Great Basin. Where possible, the results from these studies will be used to improve modeling algorithms for the effects of fire on below-ground processes. Finally, investigators will develop modeling scenarios to examine the sensitivity of Great Basin ecosystems and watersheds to environmental change and management. This will improve our understanding of how ecosystems and watersheds in these dryland environments respond to wildfire in a warmer, drier future.