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Drought and Wildfires: A dual challenge for ecosystem recovery
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Drought and Wildfires: A dual challenge for ecosystem recovery
by Clarence Oxford
Los Angeles CA (SPX) Mar 28, 2024

A recent NASA study, utilizing satellite data, sheds light on the compounded impact of drought and wildfires on the regenerative capabilities of western ecosystems, providing valuable insights for conservation strategies.

The escalating frequency and severity of wildfires in the West, fueled by climate change-induced droughts and historical fire suppression policies, have heightened the urgency to understand their combined effects on regional ecosystems. This challenge was addressed by researchers analyzing over 1,500 wildfires between 2014 and 2020, alongside drought data from 1984 onwards. Their findings indicate that drought conditions severely hamper the recovery of grasslands and shrublands in states like Nevada and Utah, even after less severe fires.

Shahryar Ahmad, the study's lead researcher from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, emphasized the vulnerability of the West's grasslands to prolonged recovery periods post-fire, exacerbated by antecedent droughts. The study, published in Nature Ecology and Environment in February 2024, highlights the resilience of forests over grasslands and shrublands due to their deeper-rooted vegetation accessing subterranean water reserves.

The implications of these findings are far-reaching. Inadequate recovery time between droughts and fires can lead to lasting alterations in plant composition, escalating risks of soil erosion, landslides, and disrupted water runoff patterns. These changes could potentially impact agriculture, tourism, and community livelihoods.

To assess ecosystem recovery, researchers tracked changes in evapotranspiration (ET) - the process of water movement to the atmosphere from the Earth's surfaces - utilizing OpenET, a tool that leverages Landsat and other satellite data. This methodology enabled the team to discern whether ecosystems fully recovered or if their rehabilitation was hindered post-fire.

"This study underscores the significant influence of drought on the fire resilience of western vegetation," stated Erin Urquhart, NASA's water resources program manager. The call for collaborative efforts among land managers, policymakers, and communities is critical to adapt to these environmental challenges, ensuring the sustainable management of water and natural resources.

Furthermore, the study reveals the compounded struggles of forests, grasslands, and shrublands in rebounding from concurrent severe droughts and fires. This dual threat could induce lasting shifts in plant communities and regional water dynamics, emphasizing the importance of understanding these interactions for effective water resource management and future water security.

The analysis of nearly 800 fires from 2016 to 2018 revealed that post-fire changes in water dynamics, including increased ground recharge and runoff, diverted approximately 528 billion gallons of water in the first year following a fire, equating to significant shifts in water availability for ecosystems and agriculture amidst a warming climate.

Related Links
Fire Information for Resource Management System
Forest and Wild Fires - News, Science and Technology

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