Mixed-conifer understory response to climate change, nitrogen, and fire

Authors

  • MATTHEW HURTEAU,

    1. Graduate Group in Ecology, University of California, Davis, CA 95616, USA,
    2. USFS Sierra Nevada Research Center, 2121 2nd Avenue, Suite A-101, Davis, CA 95616, USA
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    • 1Correspondence: Present address: Matthew Hurteau, National Institute for Climatic Change Research, Western Region, Northern Arizona University, Box 6077, Flagstaff, AZ 86011, USA, tel. +1 928 523 0497, e-mail: Matthew.Hurteau@nau.edu

  • MALCOLM NORTH

    1. USFS Sierra Nevada Research Center, 2121 2nd Avenue, Suite A-101, Davis, CA 95616, USA
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Abstract

California's Sierra Nevada mountains are predicted to experience greater variation in annual precipitation according to climate change models, while nitrogen deposition from pollution continues to increase. These changes may significantly affect understory communities and fuels in forests where managers are attempting to restore historic conditions after a century of altered fire regimes. The objective of this research was to experimentally test the effects of increasing and decreasing snowpack depth, increasing nitrogen, and applying prescribed fire to mixed-conifer forest understories at two sites in the central and southern Sierra Nevada. Understory response to treatments significantly differed between sites with herb biomass increasing in shrub-dominated communities when snowpack was reduced. Fire was a more important factor in post-treatment species richness and cover than either snowpack addition or reduction. Nitrogen additions unexpectedly increased herbaceous species richness. These varied findings indicate that modeling future climatic influences on biodiversity may be more difficult than additive prediction based on increasing the ecosystem's two limiting growth resources. Increasing snowpack and nitrogen resulted in increased shrub biomass production at both sites and increased herb production at the southern site. This additional understory biomass has the potential to increase fuel connectivity in patchy Sierran mixed-conifer forests, increasing fire severity and size.

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