The University of Arizona

Mesoscale disturbance and ecological response to decadal climatic variability in the American Southwest

TitleMesoscale disturbance and ecological response to decadal climatic variability in the American Southwest
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication1998
AuthorsSwetnam TW, Betancourt JL
JournalJournal of Climate
Date Published12/1998

Ecological responses to climatic variability in the Southwest include regionally synchronized fires, insect outbreaks, and purses in tree demography (births and deaths). Multicentury, tree-ring reconstructions of drought, disturbance history, and tree demography reveal climatic effects across scales, from annual to decadal, and from local (<10(2) km(2)) to mesoscale (10(4)-10(6) km(2)). Climate-disturbance relations are more variable and complex than previously assumed. During the past three centuries, mesoscale outbreaks of the western spruce budworm (Chorisroneura occidentalis) were associated with wet, not dry episodes, contrary to conventional wisdom. Regional fires occur during extreme droughts but, in some ecosystems, antecedent wet conditions play a secondary role by regulating accumulation of fuels. Interdecadal changes in fire-climate associations parallel other evidence for shifts in the frequency or amplitude of the Southern Oscillation (SO) during the past three centuries. High interannual, fire-climate correlations (r = 0.7 to 0.9) during specific decades (i.e., circa 1740-80 and 1830-60) reflect periods of high amplitude in the SO and rapid switching from extreme wet to dry years in the Southwest, thereby entraining fire occurrence across the region. Weak correlations from 1780 to 1830 correspond with a decrease in SO frequency or amplitude inferred from independent tree-ring width, ice core, and coral isotope reconstructions.

Episodic dry and wet episodes have altered age structures and species composition of woodland and conifer forests. The scarcity of old, living conifers established before circa 1600 suggests that the extreme drought of 1575-95 had pervasive effects on tree populations. The most extreme drought of the past 100 years occurred in the mid-twentieth century (1942-57). This drought resulted in broadscale plant dieoffs in shrublands, woodlands, and forests and accelerated shrub invasion of grasslands. Drought conditions were broken by the post-1976 shift to the negative SO phase and wetter cool seasons in the Southwest. The post-1976 period shows up as an unprecedented surge in tree-ring growth within millennia-length chronologies. This unusual episode may have produced a pulse in tree recruitment and improved rangeland conditions (e.g., higher grass production), though additional study is needed to disentangle the interacting roles of land use and climate. The 1950s draught and the post-1976 wet period and their aftermaths offer natural experiments to study long-term ecosystem response to interdecadal climate variability.