Biological and Environmental Research - Earth and Environmental System Sciences
Earth and Environmental System Modeling

Coexistence of Trees and Grass: Importance of climate and fire within the tropics

Thursday, December 14, 2017 - 14:40
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Tropical forests are characterized by transition zones where dominance shifts between trees and grasses with some areas exhibiting bistability of the two. The cause of this transition and bistability has been linked to the interacting effects of climate, vegetation structure and fire behavior. Utilizing the Functionally Assembled Terrestrial Ecosystem Simulator (FATES), a demographic vegetation model, and the CESM ESM, we explore the coexistence of trees and grass across the tropics with an active fire regime. FATES has been updated to use a fire module based on Spitfire. FATES-Spitfire tracks fire ignition, spread and impact based on fuel state and combustion. Fire occurs within the model with variable intensity that kills trees according to the combined effects of cambial damage and crown scorch due to flame height and fire intensity. As a size-structured model, FATES allows for variable mortality based on the size of tree cohorts, where larger trees experience lower morality compared to small trees. Results for simulation scenarios where vegetation is represented by all trees, all grass, or a combination of competing trees and grass are compared to assess changes in biomass, fire regime and tree-grass coexistence. Within the forest-grass transition area there is a critical time during which grass fuels fire spread and prevents the establishment of trees. If trees are able to escape mortality a tree-grass bistable area is successful. The ability to simulate the bistability and transition of trees and grass throughout the tropics is critical to representing vegetation dynamics in response to changing climate and CO2.

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