Climate & Fire & Adaptation

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Using information from global climate models to inform policymaking

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Description: Climate change is a risk management challenge for society because of the uncertain consequences for natural and human systems across decades to centuries. Climate-related science activities within the USGS emphasize research on adaptation to climate change. This research helps inform adaptive management processes and planning activities within other DOI bureaus and by DOI stakeholders.

Global climate models are sophisticated numerical representations of the Earth’s climate system. Research groups from around the world regularly participate in a coordinated effort to produce a suite of climate models. This global effort provides a test bed to assess model performance and analyze projections of future change under various prescribed climate scenarios. These climate scenarios describe a plausible future outcome associated with a specific set of societal actions. Examining a range of projected climate outcomes based on multiple scenarios is a recommended best practice because it allows decision makers to better consider both short- and long-term risks and opportunities.

Presenter: Adam Terando, Research Ecologist, Southeast Climate Adaptation Science Center

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Ecological drought: An introduction

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Introducing ecological drought as a scientific concept distinct from other definitions of drought, this webinar explores recent research on the topic, including transformational drought impacts and ecological tipping points.

Presenters: Dr. Shelley Crausbay, Senior Scientist, Conservation Science Partners; Dr. Amanda Cravens, Research Social Scientist, USGS

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High-severity wildfire potential – associating meteorology, climate, resource demand and wildfire activity with preparedness levels

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National and regional preparedness level (PL) designations support decisions about wildfire risk management. Such decisions occur across the fire season and influence pre-positioning of resources in areas of greatest fire potential, recall of personnel from off-duty status, requests for back-up resources from other areas, responses to requests to share resources with other regions during fire events, and decisions about fuel treatment and risk reduction, such as prescribed burning. In this paper, we assess the association between PLs assigned at national and regional (Northwest) scales and a set of predictors including meteorological and climate variables, wildfire activity and the mobilisation and allocation levels of fire suppression resources. To better understand the implicit weighting applied to these factors in setting PLs, we discern the qualitative and quantitative factors associated with PL designations by statistical analysis of the historical record of PLs across a range of conditions. Our analysis constitutes an important step towards efforts to forecast PLs and to support the future projection and anticipation of firefighting resource demand, thereby aiding wildfire risk management, planning and preparedness.

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A climatic dipole drives short- and long-term patterns of postfire forest recovery in the western US

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Here, we identify a north–south dipole in annual climatic moisture deficit anomalies across the Interior West of the US and characterize its influence on forest recovery from fire. We use annually resolved establishment models from dendrochronological records to correlate this climatic dipole with short-term postfire juvenile recruitment. We also examine longer-term recovery trajectories using Forest Inventory and Analysis data from 989 burned plots. We show that annual postfire ponderosa pine recruitment probabilities in the northern Rocky Mountains (NR) and the southwestern US (SW) track the strength of the dipole, while declining overall due to increasing aridity. This indicates that divergent recovery trajectories may be triggered concurrently across large spatial scales: favorable conditions in the SW can correspond to drought in the NR that inhibits ponderosa pine establishment, and vice versa. The imprint of this climatic dipole is manifest for years postfire, as evidenced by dampened long-term likelihoods of juvenile ponderosa pine presence in areas that experienced postfire drought. These findings underscore the importance of climatic variability at multiple spatiotemporal scales in driving cross-regional patterns of forest recovery and have implications for understanding ecosystem transformations and species range dynamics under global change.

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Human land uses reduce climate connectivity across North America

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Climate connectivity, the ability of a landscape to promote or hinder the movement of organisms in response to a changing climate, is contingent on multiple factors including the distance organisms need to move to track suitable climate over time (i.e. climate velocity) and the resistance they experience along such routes. An additional consideration which has received less attention is that human land uses increase resistance to movement or alter movement routes and thus influence climate connectivity. Here we evaluate the influence of human land uses on climate connectivity across North America by comparing two climate connectivity scenarios, one considering climate change in isolation and the other considering climate change and human land uses. In doing so, we introduce a novel metric of climate connectivity, ‘human exposure’, that quantifies the cumulative exposure to human activities that organisms may encounter as they shift their ranges in response to climate change. We also delineate potential movement routes and evaluate whether the protected area network supports movement corridors better than non-protected lands. We found that when incorporating human land uses, climate connectivity decreased; climate velocity increased on average by 0.3 km/year and cumulative climatic resistance increased for ~83% of the continent. Moreover, ~96% of movement routes in North America must contend with human land uses to some degree. In the scenario that evaluated climate change in isolation, we found that protected areas do not support climate corridors at a higher rate than non-protected lands across North America. However, variability is evident, as many ecoregions contain protected areas that exhibit both more and less representation of climate corridors compared to non-protected lands. Overall, our study indicates that previous evaluations of climate connectivity underestimate climate change exposure because they do not account for human impacts.

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Managing for resilience during climate change

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Making lands resilient to climate change has become a legal mandate for US Forest Service land planners (2012 USFS Planning Rule). However, interpreting and applying the directive is challenging because the term “resilience” is rather vague. It is diluted by a variety of definitions in the literature, as well as executed differently in diverse ecosystems by a variety of specialists.

To better grasp how USFS staff interpreted and applied the directive, twenty-six Southwestern Region USFS planners and mangers were interviewed for 30-60 minutes each. The semi-structured interviews were then coded to identify themes and trends. Overall, inductive content analysis of the coded interview data showed that the interviewees had three main areas of concern over the difficulty in reporting and implementing the resilience directive: 1) definitions and scale, 2) flexibility and specificity, and 3) the resilience to climate change paradox.

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Compounded heat and fire risk for future U.S. populations

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Climate change is increasing the risk of extreme events, resulting in social and economic challenges. I examined recent past (1971–2000), current and near future (2010-2039), and future (2040-2069) fire and heat hazard combined with population growth by different regions and residential densities (i.e., exurban low and high densities, suburban, and urban low and high densities). Regional values for extreme fire weather days varied greatly. Temperature and number of extreme fire weather days increased over time for all residential density categories, with the greatest increases in the exurban low-density category. The urban high-density category was about 0.8 to 1 °C cooler than the urban low-density category. The areas of the urban and suburban density categories increased relative to the exurban low-density category. Holding climate change constant at 1970-2000 resulted in a temperature increase of 0.4 to 0.8 °C by 2060, indicating future population increases in warmer areas. Overall, U.S. residents will experience greater exposure to fire hazard and heat over time due to climate change, and compound risk emerges because fire weather and heat are coupled and have effects across sectors. Movement to urban centers will help offset exposure to fire but not heat, because urban areas are heat islands; however, urban high-density areas had lower base temperatures, likely due to city locations along coastlines. This analysis provides a timely look at potential trends in fire and heat risk by residential density classes due to the expansion and migration of US populations.

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Climate Adaptation Integration Tool (CAIT)

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A new USGS report supported by the Northwest CASC presents a novel decision making framework to help resource managers use climate science and local knowledge to identify adaptation strategies appropriate for their specific situations. This Climate Adaptation Integration Tool (CAIT) consists of four steps:

  1. Define a focal resource and assess its vulnerability to climate change.
  2. Answer Critical Questions about the future climactic suitability, value, and current condition of these resources.
  3. Select appropriate management approaches based on the answers to these questions.
  4. Select adaptation strategies and actions most likely to address the management approaches identified.

Within the tool, managers can find resources to make decisions at each step, such as information on finding and choosing appropriate downscaled climate models and decision-making matrices to help link decisions across steps.

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Rapid and surprising dieback of Utah juniper in the southwestern USA due to acute drought stress

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We observed that juniper canopy dieback was most severe (>60% canopy dieback) at hot, dry, low elevation sites, and was associated with drought-induced hydraulic damage. There was no evidence that biotic agents could be the primary drivers of this dieback, implicating the acute effects of drought as the main causal agent. The speed and scale of this drought-induced juniper dieback seems to be historically unprecedented in the region and foreshadows an uncertain future for piñon-juniper woodlands as the region continues to get warmer and drier.

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Southwest FireCLIME: Collaborative tools and science developed through JFSP

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Southwest FireCLIME is a multi-year research partnership between scientists and resource managers to synthesize current knowledge of regional climate-fire-ecosystem dynamics. Our project has addressed this goal through science synthesis, an annotated bibliography, modeling, a vulnerability assessment, and Fire-Climate adaptation tools.

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