Crowding, climate, and the case for social distancing among trees
In an emerging era of megadisturbance, bolstering forest resilience to wildfire, insects, and drought has become a central objective in many western forests. Climate has received considerable attention as a driver of these disturbances, but few studies have examined the complexities of climate–vegetation–disturbance interactions. Current strategies for creating resilient forests often rely on retrospective approaches, seeking to impart resilience by restoring historical conditions to contemporary landscapes, but historical conditions are becoming increasingly unattainable amidst modern bioclimatic conditions. What becomes an appropriate benchmark for resilience when we have novel forests, rapidly changing climate, and unprecedented disturbance regimes? We combined two longitudinal datasets—each representing some of the most comprehensive spatially explicit, annual tree mortality data in existence—in a post-hoc factorial design to examine the nonlinear relationships between fire, climate, forest spatial structure, and bark beetles. We found that while prefire drought elevated mortality risk, advantageous local neighborhoods could offset these effects. Surprisingly, mortality risk (Pm) was higher in crowded local neighborhoods that burned in wet years (Pm = 42%) compared with sparse neighborhoods that burned during drought (Pm = 30%). Risk of beetle attack was also increased by drought, but lower conspecific crowding impeded the otherwise positive interaction between fire and beetle attack. Antecedent fire increased drought-related mortality over short timespans (<7 years) but reduced mortality over longer intervals. These results clarify interacting disturbance dynamics and provide a mechanistic underpinning for forest restoration strategies. Importantly, they demonstrate the potential for managed fire and silvicultural strategies to offset climate effects and bolster resilience to fire, beetles, and drought.