Disturbance, geomorphic processes and recovery of wildfire slopes in North Tyrol


Oliver Sass, Institute of Geography, Leopold-Franzens-University Innsbruck, Austria. E-mail: oliver.sass@uibk.ac.at


Wildfires in the sub-alpine belt of the Austrian Limestone Alps sometimes cause severe vegetation and soil destruction with increased danger of secondary natural hazards such as avalanches and debris flows. Some of the affected areas remain degraded to rocky slopes even decades after the fire, raising the question as to whether the ecosystems will ever be able to recover. The mean fire interval, the duration of recovery and the role of geomorphic processes for vegetation regeneration are so far unknown. These questions were tackled in a broad research approach including investigation of historical archives to determine the frequency of historical wildfires, mapping vegetation regeneration on 20 slopes of different post-fire ages, and soil erosion measurements on two slopes. To date, > 450 historical wildfires have been located in the study area. The mean fire interval per square kilometre is c. 750 years, but can be as low as 200–500 years on south-facing slopes. Vegetation regeneration takes an extremely long time under unfavourable conditions; the typical window of disturbance is between 50 and 500 years, which is far longer than in any other wildfire study known to us. Soil erosion constantly increases in the years after the fires and the elevated intensity can be maintained for decades. A two-part vegetation regeneration model is proposed depending upon the degree of soil loss. In the case of moderate soil erosion, spreading grassland communities can slow down shrub re-colonization. In contrast, after severe soil destruction the slopes may remain degraded for a century or longer, before rather rapid regeneration occurs. The reasons are not fully understood but are probably governed by geomorphic process intensity. The interdependence of vegetation regeneration and geomorphic processes is a paradigm of ecology–geomorphology interaction, and is a unique example of a very long-lasting disturbance response caused by wildfire in a non-resilient ecosystem. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.