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Trends in tree cover change over three decades related to interannual climate variability and wildfire in California

Environmental Research Letters
By: , and 



The U.S. State of California has experienced frequent drought events, hotter temperatures and other disruptions to the climate system whose effects on ecosystems have been widely reported in recent decades. Studies primarily confined to specific vegetation communities or species, individual drought incidents, or analysis over a relatively short intervals, has limited our understanding of the broad-scale effects on tree cover and the spatiotemporal variability of effects across broader regions. We focused analysis on multi-annual land cover and land surface change to assess patterns and trends in tree cover loss in tree-dominated Californian ecoregions from 1986 to 2019. The top three years of total tree cover loss for the state were 2018 (1901 km2), 2015 (1556 km2), and 2008 (1549 km2). Overall, annual tree cover loss had upward trends. Tree cover loss rapidly surged later in the study period and was apparently driven by climate stress and wildfires. Underlying geographic variability was apparent in both non-fire and fire-related tree cover loss that sharply increased during hotter multi-year droughts. The increasingly hotter and drier climate conditions were associated with significant increases in fire-induced mortality. Our findings indicate that a possible effect of future hotter and drier climate would lead to further tree cover loss, thereby endangering California's ecosystem goods and services. Geographic variability in tree cover trends indicates that ecoregion-specific mitigation and adaptation strategies would be useful to conserve the region's forest resources. Such strategies may benefit from consideration of historical disturbances, ecoregion's sensitivity to disturbance types, as well as potential ecoregion-specific climate-vegetation-fire feedbacks.

Study Area

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Trends in tree cover change over three decades related to interannual climate variability and wildfire in California
Series title Environmental Research Letters
DOI 10.1088/1748-9326/acad15
Volume 18
Year Published 2023
Language English
Publisher IOP Publishing
Contributing office(s) Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center
Description 024007, 15 p.
Country United States
State California
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