Climate-fire-vegetation dynamics in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem: recent trends and future projections in a changing climate

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Montana State University - Bozeman, College of Letters & Science


Climate change threatens to change forested ecosystems and wildfire characteristics across the globe. For the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), under future warming temperatures, wildfire activity is expected to increase and the suitable habitat for many dominant tree species is expected to shrink. Previous studies predict large high severity fires to occur more frequently, potentially so frequent that forests are unable to grow old enough to produce seeds and self-regenerate. Studies of suitable climate spaces show that previously habitable areas may become too warm or dry to support common GYE trees. The first goal of this dissertation was to use vegetation images from satellites to detect recent changes in forest productivity in the GYE, and then determine the relative importance of recent climate and disturbance observations in explaining these changes. We found that areas with detected increases in plant growth, or 'greening' trends, were associated with forested areas regenerating after wildfire. Detected decreases in plant growth, or 'browning' trends, were associated with areas that had recently burned. Historically dry areas with recent increases in precipitation were associated with greening trends. Warming of 0-2 °C was associated with greening trends, while greater increases in temperature (>2 °C) were correlated with browning trends. The key take-away is although forests in the GYE are usually considered temperature limited, changes in precipitation may be more important than previously thought. The second goal of this dissertation was to adapt a global vegetation computer model for regional applications to simulate forests and wildfire dynamics, ultimately to run simulations under future climate conditions to predict how forest extent and composition may change. Life history characteristics and climate limitations were aquired for the dominant GYE plant types to dictate their establishment, growth, competition, and mortality in the new model. Before running future simulations, it is required to evaluate how well the model represents current conditions. Adding new equations that calculate the initiation, spread, and effects of crown fires was required to reproduce recent vegetation abundance, distribution of plant types, and fire activity in the GYE. Methods, expected results, and implications of running future simulations are described in Chapter 4.




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