Montana State University

Montana, Colorado and Idaho universities partner on study of fire and climate change

September 1, 2010 -- Melynda Harrison, MSU News Service


Faculty at Montana State University, the University of Colorado, the University of Idaho and collaborators at the USDA Forest Service received a grant to study fire and climate change in sensitive forests like this one in western Montana. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham)   High-Res Available

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Faculty at Montana State University, the University of Colorado, the University of Idaho and collaborators at the USDA Forest Service received a $3.85 million grant to study fire and climate change in sensitive forests in the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand.

The National Science Foundation is funding the project, which starts today, through their Partnerships in International Research and Education (PIRE) program.

"Our goal is to better understand fire as a global process, one that is driven by changes in climate and human activities around the world," said Cathy Whitlock, an earth sciences professor at MSU and lead principal investigator on the grant. "Fire is the same everywhere -- it threatens human health and livelihoods as well as vital ecosystem processes and services. It makes sense to look at fire in a variety of settings, because the more we can understand and predict fire occurrence and its effects, the better we can adapt and plan for it."

The proposed research studies conducted in the U.S. and abroad, will help inform fire management decisions and educate the next generation of fire scientists and managers worldwide.

"We will be looking at how climate change and humans have altered fire activity in areas with different climates, fuels and human activities, as points of comparison," said Whitlock. "One thing is clear - the frequency and severity of fires have increased around the world and this is considered to be one of the signs of global climate change."

Faculty bring different strengths to the project. At Montana State University, Whitlock and Dave McWethy will be looking at long records of fire, climate and vegetation change preserved in lake sediments and Bruce Maxwell will study the role of recent fires and droughts on non-native plant invasions. University of Colorado geographer Thomas Veblen, and his group, will examine tree-ring records of past fire frequency and severity as well as forest regeneration after fire. Philip Higuera at the University of Idaho will be improving computer models that help reconstruct fire regimes and study fire-insect interactions. Robert Keane from the USDA Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station will use models to study fire effects and behavior across different types of vegetation and climate conditions. The U.S. team is collaborating with researchers from University of Tasmania, Australian National University, University of Auckland and Landcare Research NZ.

The five-year project, entitled "WildFIRE PIRE: Wildfire feedbacks and consequences of altered fire regimes in the face of climate and land-use change in Tasmania, New Zealand, and the western U.S.," has educational, outreach and research components.

Undergraduates recruited nationally, but especially from groups underrepresented in the sciences, including Native Americans, will participate in six-week overseas field and laboratory internships as part of the research team. They will collect sediment samples from deep beneath lakes, extract cores from trees and analyze how native vegetation responds to fire and interacts with invasive species.

The interns will spend an additional six weeks working with non-governmental organizations in Australia or New Zealand where they will learn about climate change and fire from management and conservation perspectives.

"For the early-career scientists and graduate students involved in this project, WildFIRE PIRE will be one of their first big international projects and a chance to see fire science from a variety of perspectives," Whitlock said.

The WildFIRE PIRE team will work with Dennis Aig and students from the MSU Masters of Science and Natural History Filmmaking program to produce documentaries about the project and the scientific process.

WildFIRE PIRE researchers will collect records of past fire and land-use change, examine recent fire consequences on plant communities and use computer models to study how fire activity changes as a function of fuel, climate and introduced species.

They will be comparing these new data with information from their other research projects in the Pacific Northwest, the Colorado Front Range, Yellowstone National Park, Alaska, Pacific Islands and southern South America to better understand interhemispheric climate linkages, such as the effects of the El Nio Southern Oscillation. Findings from the past will be used to develop and test hypotheses through modeling.

"By testing the ability of models to explain fire in the past, we will gain confidence in their use to predict the future, including the consequences of climate and land-use change in coming decades," Whitlock said.

Cathy Whitlock at 406-994-6910 or whitlock@montana.edu