In the northern Mediterranean Basin, agricultural land abandonment over the last century has resulted in increasing frequencies of very large, intense fires. In Catalonia (NE Spain) some fires have been locally associated with the expansion of the large, evergreen, resprouting tussock grass Ampelodesmos mauritanica. We tested the hypothesis of a positive feedback between the abundance of A. mauritanica and changing fire regimes.
We used permanent plots distributed across a natural gradient of density of A. mauritanica in the Garraf Natural Park near Barcelona. Total aboveground biomass nearly doubled from plots with low to high density through a combination of A. mauritanica replacing the biomass of other components of the community (predominantly native shrubs), and its absolute standing biomass increasing. The quantity of litter also increased. This increase in fuel load and changes in community functional composition resulted from the simultaneous decrease in shrub productivity and an increase in litter accumulation. Litter accumulation was the consequence of A. mauritanica litter decomposing 30% more slowly than that of shrubs. Under standardized conditions, A. mauritanica and its litter were considerably more flammable than any of the shrub species. This resulted in a more than 40-fold increase in calculated plot flammability from low-to-high-density plots.
Feedbacks, at the landscape scale, were then analysed using the landscape simulation platform LAMOS. Invasion success and contribution to community biomass of A. mauritanica increased with decreasing fire return intervals. Total area burnt in the landscape during each fire year was positively and exponentially related to the total biomass of A. mauritanica. Simulations showed that landscapes can abruptly switch from regimes of small localized to extensive fires as a result of the spread of A. mauritanica. Therefore, increases in fires under climate change represent threats not only through their direct impacts on ecosystems, but also by promoting invaders such as A. mauritanica, which have the potential to induce powerful feedforward processes and, thereby, fundamental changes to ecosystems.