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Warm winters can help wildfire recovery, as long as there’s enough rain

Adam Wilson, who will join the UB geography faculty in the fall, talks about his research on fire resilience in South Africa


Published July 8, 2015

“The study represents a methodological advance in our ability to infer what’s going on ‘under the hood’ of ecosystems using data collected from space.”
Adam Wilson, incoming faculty member
Department of Geography

Using more than a decade’s worth of daily satellite images, researchers have determined ecosystems of South Africa’s Cape Floristic Region bounce back from wildfires much more quickly in warmer winter weather.

However, there is an important caveat for other areas with Mediterranean climates at high risk of fires, such as drought-stricken California: The rate of recovery also depends on sufficient summer rainfall.

The study was conducted by Adam Wilson, a Yale University researcher who will join UB this fall as an assistant professor of geography, along with colleagues at the University of Connecticut and University of California, Davis. The model the team developed could help predict which ecosystems are most vulnerable to climate change.

The research was published July 6 in the online Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“This area of South Africa is rich in biodiversity, and we noticed that some areas recover more quickly from fires than others,” Wilson says. “This model helps explain why that is.”

The NASA satellite captured images of the Cape Floristic Region on Africa’s southern tip with a resolution of 500 meters.

Over more than a decade, the images showed that western areas of the region recovered more slowly from fires than those in the east. The model developed by Wilson and his team revealed the two most important variables for rates of recovery were average temperature in winter and rainfall in the summer.

Wilson says these findings also should apply to the Mediterranean basin and places like California and Australia with similar climates.

In theory, such a model might help predict which ecosystems will be most and least resilient to climate-driven changes such as fire.

“The study represents a methodological advance in our ability to infer what’s going on ‘under the hood’ of ecosystems using data collected from space,” Wilson says.

Andrew M. Latimer of the University of California, Davis and John A. Silander of the University of Connecticut are co-authors.

Satellite images of wildfire recovery

A decade of satellite images show the recovery rate of South Africa’s Cape Floristic region from forest fires.