NCEAS Product 25020

Batllori, Enric; Ackerly, David D.; Moritz, Max A. 2015. A minimal model of fire-vegetation feedbacks and disturbance stochasticity generates alternative stable states in grassland-shrubland-woodlands systems. Environmental Research Letters. Vol: 10. Pages 034018. (Abstract) (Online version)

Abstract

Altered disturbance regimes in the context of global change are likely to have profound consequences for ecosystems. Interactions between fire and vegetation are of particular interest, as fire is a major driver of vegetation change, and vegetation properties (e.g., amount, flammability) alter fire regimes. Mediterranean-type ecosystems (MTEs) constitute a paradigmatic example of temperate fire-prone vegetation. Although these ecosystems may be heavily impacted by global change, disturbance regime shifts and the implications of fire-vegetation feedbacks in the dynamics of such biomes are still poorly characterized. We developed a minimal modeling framework incorporating key aspects of fire ecology and successional processes to evaluate the relative influence of extrinsic and intrinsic factors on disturbance and vegetation dynamics in systems composed of grassland, shrubland, and woodland mosaics, which characterize many MTEs. In this theoretical investigation, we performed extensive simulations representing different background rates of vegetation succession and disturbance regime (fire frequency and severity) processes that reflect a broad range of MTE environmental conditions. Varying fire-vegetation feedbacks can lead to different critical points in underlying processes of disturbance and sudden shifts in the vegetation state of grassland–shrubland–woodland systems, despite gradual changes in ecosystem drivers as defined by the environment. Vegetation flammability and disturbance stochasticity effectively modify system behavior, determining its heterogeneity and the existence of alternative stable states in MTEs. Small variations in system flammability and fire recurrence induced by climate or vegetation changes may trigger sudden shifts in the state of such ecosystems. The existence of threshold dynamics, alternative stable states, and contrasting system responses to environmental change has broad implications for MTE management.