Challenges in Modeling Disturbance Regimes and Their Impacts in Arctic and Boreal Ecosystems

Presentation given by David McGuire and co-authors at the 2013 American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting.

Abstract: Disturbances in arctic and boreal terrestrial ecosystems influence services provided by these ecosystems to society. In particular, changes in disturbance regimes in northern latitudes have uncertain consequences for the climate system. A major challenge for the scientific community is to develop the capability to predict how the frequency, severity and resultant impacts of disturbance regimes will change in response to future changes in climate projected for northern high latitudes. Here we compare what is known about drivers and impacts of wildfire, phytophagous insect pests, and thermokarst disturbance to illustrate the complexities in predicting future changes in disturbance regimes and their impacts in arctic and boreal regions. Much of the research on predicting fire has relied on the use of drivers related to fire weather. However, changes in vegetation, such as increases in broadleaf species, associated with intensified fire regimes have the potential to influence future fire regimes through negative feedbacks associated with reduced flammability. Phytophagous insect outbreaks have affected substantial portions of the boreal region in the past, but frequently the range of the tree host is larger than the range of the insect. There is evidence that a number of insect species are expanding their range in response to climate change. Major challenges to predicting outbreaks of phytophagous insects include modeling the effects of climate change on insect growth and maturation, winter mortality, plant host health, the synchrony of insect life stages and plant host phenology, and changes in the ranges of insect pests. Moreover, Earth System Models often simplify the representation of vegetation characteristics, e.g. the use of plant functional types, providing insufficient detail to link to insect population models. Thermokarst disturbance occurs when the thawing of ice-rich permafrost results in substantial ground subsidence. In the boreal forest, thermokarst can lead to loss of forest cover through transitions of forested peatland plateaus to thermokarst lakes and to collapse scar fens and bogs. Major challenges to predicting thermokarst disturbance include (1) quantifying the area of land susceptible to thermokarst disturbance and quantifying how thermokarst is initiated and expands in response to a changing climate. Besides the challenges involved in modeling changes in different types of disturbance regimes, an important additional challenge is to understand interactions among changes in disturbance regimes, for example, the degree to which fire disturbance may be affected because of trees killed by insect outbreaks. Our comparison of what is known about the drivers and impacts of these disturbance regimes indicates that the accurate prediction of fire regimes in arctic and boreal regions is nearest a maturity stage for incorporation into Earth System Models. Rapid progress is needed in modeling changes in other disturbance types and their impacts to facilitate their incorporation into Earth System Models.