Published: Sept. 1, 2010

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

The National Science Foundation is funding the project through its Partnerships in International Research and Education, or 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 United States 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.

CU-Boulder geography Professor 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 Forest Service's 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, the University of Auckland and Landcare Research in New Zealand. The five-year project, titled "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.

"This is an exciting opportunity for me to return to conducting research on the forests of New Zealand where I worked in the 1970s, and to develop tree-ring fire histories in Tasmania where currently no such records exist," Veblen said.

"We will build on our extensive research experience in the Rockies and in the Patagonian region of South America to develop multi-century fire history records in the southwest Pacific region for comparison with existing records from the U.S. West and Patagonia," said Veblen. "Such comparisons are essential for understanding how wildfire activity across a range of ecosystem types from temperate rainforests to semi- arid woodlands has been affected by past climate variability and is likely to respond to future climate change. "

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 nongovernmental 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 the new data with information from their other research projects in the Pacific Northwest, Colorado's Front Range, Yellowstone National Park, Alaska, several Pacific Islands and southern South America to better understand inter-hemisphere climate linkages, such as the effects of the El Niño 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.

Thomas Veblen

Thomas Veblen


Faculty at Montana State University, CU-Boulder, 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. Image courtesy Kelly Gorham, MSU