Canadian Forest Service Publications
Canadian boreal forest ecosystem structure and function in a changing climate: impact on fire regimes. 1997. Weber, M.G.; Flannigan, M.D. Environmental Reviews 5(3/4): 145-166.
Issued by: Northern Forestry Centre
Catalog ID: 18860
Boreal forest fire regime, which encompasses fire intensity, frequency, seasonality, size, type (crown versus surface), and severity (depth of burn), is an organizing factor of boreal forest landscapes and highly dependant on climate. This review combines what is known about boreal forest dynamics from paleological studies, with the information derived from state-of-the-art climate and vegetation modeling, to present possible scenarios of the impact of anticipated climate change on boreal forest ecosystem structure and function, particularly in relation to fire regimes. Anticipated climatic/atmospheric impact on plant physiological, communal, ecosystem, and finally landscape-level interactions with fire are reviewed. All indications from the modeling sector point towards unprecedented increased regional or seasonal temperatures, with projected changes most pronounced at high latitudes and there greatest in winter. Anticipated climate change scenarios are expected to alter dramatically the boreal forest ecosystems and fire regimes with which they are currently in equilibrium. Changed fire regimes could be represented by increased annual area burned because of an extended fire season, increased fire frequency, and severity. Simulation studies show the potential for greatly reduced boreal forest area and increased fragmentation due to climate change. Fire regime as an ecosystem process is highly sensitive to climate change because fire behaviour responds immediately to fuel moisture, which is affected by precipitation, relative humidity, air temperature, and wind speed. This interaction between climate change and fire regime has the potential to overshadow the importance of the direct effects of global warming on species distribution, migration, substitution, and extinction. Such a scenario suggests that rate and magnitude of fire-regime-induced changes to the boreal forest landscape could greatly exceed anything expected due to atmospheric warming alone. Socioeconomic implications of altered fire regimes in a changing climate are discussed in terms of adaptive fire management strategies, age class distribution, and such global stewardship issues as biodiversity, carbon cycling, and sequestration.