School of Agriculture, Food and Ecosystem Sciences - Theses

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    Predicting future fire regimes and the implications for biodiversity in temperate forest ecosystems
    McColl-Gausden, Sarah Catherine ( 2022)
    Fire regimes are changing around the world. Fire seasons are lengthening, high severity fires are occurring more often and in unexpected places. Relationships among fire, climate, and vegetation are varied, dynamic, and under-examined in many ecosystems. While some studies have explored links between fire, climate, and vegetation such as species distributions or future fire weather under changing climate, relatively few have considered the dynamic interactions among all three simultaneously. In this thesis, I develop and apply modelling approaches to predict future fire regimes in south-eastern Australia and explore the implications for fire-responsive functional plant types. In the first quantitative chapter of my thesis (Chapter 2), I develop a new fuel model for south-eastern Australia. I use edaphic, climatic, and fire variables to build a predictive fuel model that is independent of vegetation classes and their future distributions. In Chapter 3, I use my fuel model in a landscape fire regime simulator, alongside multiple predictions of future climate, to examine the immaturity risk to an obligate seeder tree species (Eucalyptus delegatensis). My simulations indicate that this species will be under increased immaturity risk under future fire regimes, particularly for those stands located on the periphery of the current distribution, closer to roads or surrounded by a drier landscape at lower elevations. In Chapter 4, I expand the application of the above simulation approach to examine the relative importance of future fuel and future climate to changing fire regimes in six case study areas across temperate south-eastern Australia. My results indicate that the direct influence of climate on fire weather will be the principal driver of changes in future fire regimes (most commonly involving increased extent, decreased intervals, and an earlier start to the fire season). The indirect influence of climate on vegetation and therefore fuel was also important, acting synergistically or antagonistically with weather depending on the area and the fire regime attribute. Finally, in my fifth chapter, I consider future climate and fire impacts on plant persistence by combining the landscape fire regime simulator with spatially explicit population viability analyses. Obligate seeder species were at risk of population extinction or reduction in more simulation scenarios than facultative resprouters. However, my approach highlighted that the resilience of facultative resprouters might also be tested by climate related changes in demographic processes and fire regimes. Overall, my research has provided new methods and scientific insights into the changing nature of fire regimes in temperate south-eastern Australia. Some negative impacts on biodiversity from a changing fire regime, particularly on more vulnerable plant functional types like obligate seeders, appear inevitable. Further understanding of the complex interactions among fire, climate, and vegetation will enable improved integration of risks to people, property, and biodiversity into land and fire management planning.