Mapping of areas best suited to restore ecosystems after a mega-fire

There is a growing consensus on the need to conserve forests and encourage the c
There is a growing consensus on the need to conserve forests and encourage the creation of resilient ecological zones as a response to the climate crisis/ Pixabay (Stocksnap)

A study led by the Autonomous University of Madrid (UAM) has created a method to predict the optimal conditions of different tree species in areas affected by fires in Spain. Using ecological niche models (ENM), the researchers were able to generate valuable information for the management and restoration of areas affected by mega-fires.

In 2022, wildfires devastated nearly 310,000 hectares of land in Spain, an area five times the size of the city of Madrid. This figure triples the amount of land burned in 2021 and, given the ongoing climate crisis, the risk of wildfires is expected to increase in the coming years.

Faced with such a situation, management and decision-makers face an urgent challenge. There is a growing consensus on the need to conserve forests and encourage the creation of resilient ecological zones as part of the solution.

In the last three decades, scientific advances have enabled the development of ecological niche models. These provide maps that identify areas that are potentially habitable for particular species by statistically correlating the known locations of a species with various variables, including climate and soil type, among others.

Rubén G. Mateo, botanist and academic at UAM, worked on the calibration of these models at different scales to provide useful information for the management of areas devastated by mega-fires.

"Ecological niche models (ENMs) aim to recreate the relationships between species and their environments, making it possible to identify unexplored areas where they might be present. Although these models are used in various fields of research, such as conservation plans and studies on exotic species, among others, until now they had not been tested in the restoration of areas impacted by mega-fires," explains the researcher.

Prediction of forest stand suitability combining tree species NEMs for the current scenario at local scale (a), regional scale (b) and for the future scenario at regional scale (c).

Together with his team, and in collaboration with researchers from the Polytechnic University of Madrid (UPM) and the Institute of Forestry Sciences (ICIFOR-INIA, CSIC), Mateo has managed to obtain precise maps that indicate the present and future suitability of certain areas for tree species affected by fires that occurred almost two decades ago, in 2005. For this, they have taken into account both the current state of regeneration and the projections of a 4.5 ºC increase in the global average temperature at the end of this century.

The climate crisis presents an increasingly variable and dynamic scenario. Variations in rainfall and hail patterns; concentration of precipitation in fewer but more intense events; or longer and more frequent droughts, increase the vulnerability of our forests to mega-fires. This requires equally dynamic solutions.

"We propose that post-fire restoration plans take into account the effects of climate change on forest regeneration. The use of NEMs can be an effective support tool for forest managers, providing greater dynamism to restoration plans," concludes Rubén Mateo.

The findings of this research will be included in the doctoral thesis of Cristina Carrillo (ICIFOR, UPM), who is also investigating the effects of burned wood management on the vulnerability of forests to future mega-fires.

Bibliographic reference:

Carrillo-García, C., Girola-Iglesias, L., Guijarro, M., Hernando, C., Madrigal, J., G. Mateo, R. 2022. Ecological niche models applied to post-megafire vegetation restoration in the context of climate change Science of The Total Environment doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2022.158858

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