Fire. Warming. Fire. Warming…. SHRUBS!

Everyone enjoys a little walk around the Australian Alps. It’s pretty amazing up there. Sphagnum bogs, snowgums, grasslands and heathy veg are scattered across the rolling hills. But it’s the top of these hills that climate change is going to hit the hardest. 

And don’t forget fire! Fire frequency and intensity are both going to increase under a warming climate. Again, alpine ecosystems are predicted to be hit pretty hard. So how are the plants going to cope? How are the alpine plant communities going to change?

That’s what James and his mates were interested in determining by focussing on the most flammable component of these communities – the shrubs. They conducted a field experiment where the growth and survival of shrub seedlings were monitored in response to combinations of warming and burning.

What they found was that these species loved it. Fire significantly increased establishment of the shrubs, and a warmer climate doubled their growth rate. This all means that with every fire we get more shrubs, and as it warms, those shrubs are going to be growing taller faster.

The take home message is that increased fire = increased shrubs = increased fire = increased shrubs = increased fire and so on and so forth. A feedback loop that is only being strengthened by a warming climate.

For the actual science of this story, you should definitely read the paper and contact the authors if you have any questions.

Camac JS, Williams RJ, Wahren C-H, Hoffmann AA, Vesk PA (2017) Climatic warming strengthens a positive feedback between alpine shrubs and fire. Global Change Biology DOI:10.1111/gcb.13614.

K!E#28 by Luke S. O’Loughlin

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