Links between Plant Invasion, Anthropogenic Nitrogen Enrichment, and Wildfires: A Systematic Review
Abstract:Wildfires can become positive feedbacks in climate change scenarios, because wildfires release large amounts of carbon sequestered in plants and soil to the atmosphere, and because their frequency increases with increasing temperatures. Invasive plants represent an important biotic link between anthropogenic activity and wildfire, as many of these species benefit from human disturbance while increasing fire frequency and severity. A robust body of literature addresses the response of invasive species to nitrogen enrichment, and a separate body of research assesses the feedbacks between invasive plant species and wildfire. We have undertaken a systematic review of these fields in order to evaluate the hypothesis that anthropogenic nitrogen loading contributes to increasing wildfires by promoting the growth and spread of fire-adapted invasive plant species.
We identified invasive plant species using the Fire Effects Information System (FEIS), a Forest Service database that evaluates fire ecology of species identified as being of concern by land managers. We used information contained in the FEIS as well as more recent studies to characterize species on a continuum from fire-adapted to fire-intolerant based on traits related to interactions of fire with survival, reproduction, and spread. Of the 107 invasive plant species with fire ecology reports in the FEIS, we have initially classified 18 as fire-adapted, possessing traits that intensify fire regimes. Additionally, 33 species are fire-tolerant, benefiting from fire primarily because it creates a high-resource, low-competition environment. In continuing work, we are evaluating the responses of the invasive plant species to increased anthropogenic nitrogen with a focus on traits such as germination, productivity, and survival, as these traits contribute to wildfire frequency and severity. The views expressed in this abstract are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views or policies of the U.S. EPA.