Wildland fire activity has increased in many parts of the world in recent decades. Ecological disturbance by fire can accelerate ecosystem degradation processes such as erosion due to combustion of vegetation that otherwise provides protective cover to the soil surface. This study employed a novel ecological indicator based on remote sensing of vegetation greenness dynamics (phenology) to estimate variability in the window of time between fire and the reemergence of green vegetation. The indicator was applied as a proxy for short-term, post-fire disturbance windows in rangelands; where a disturbance window is defined as the time required for an ecological or geomorphic process that is altered to return to pre-disturbance levels. We examined variability in the indicator determined for time series of MODIS and AVHRR NDVI remote sensing data for a database of ∼100 historical wildland fires, with associated post-fire reseeding treatments, that burned 1990–2003 in cold desert shrub steppe of the Great Basin and Columbia Plateau of the western USA. The indicator-based estimates of disturbance window length were examined relative to the day of the year that fires burned and seeding treatments to consider effects of contemporary variability in fire regime and management activities in this environment. A key finding was that contemporary changes of increased length of the annual fire season could have indirect effects on ecosystem degradation, as early season fires appeared to result in longer time that soils remained relatively bare of the protective cover of vegetation after fires. Also important was that reemergence of vegetation did not occur more quickly after fire in sites treated with post-fire seeding, which is a strategy commonly employed to accelerate post-fire vegetation recovery and stabilize soil. Future work with the indicator could examine other ecological factors that are dynamic in space and time following disturbance – such as nutrient cycling, carbon storage, microbial community composition, or soil hydrology – as a function of disturbance windows, possibly using simulation modeling and historical wildfire information.
Additional publication details
Phenology-based, remote sensing of post-burn disturbance windows in rangelands