Review

Fire and biodiversity in the Anthropocene

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Science  20 Nov 2020:
Vol. 370, Issue 6519, eabb0355
DOI: 10.1126/science.abb0355

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Fire's growing impacts on ecosystems

Fire has played a prominent role in the evolution of biodiversity and is a natural factor shaping many ecological communities. However, the incidence of fire has been exacerbated by human activity, and this is now affecting ecosystems and habitats that have never been fire prone or fire adapted. Kelly et al. review how such changes are already threatening species with extinction and transforming terrestrial ecosystems and discuss the trends causing changes in fire regimes. They also consider actions that could be taken by conservationists and policy-makers to help sustain biodiversity in a time of changing fire activity.

Science, this issue p. eabb0355

Structured Abstract

BACKGROUND

Fire has shaped the diversity of life on Earth for millions of years. Variation in fire regimes continues to be a source of biodiversity across the globe, and many plants, animals, and ecosystems depend on particular temporal and spatial patterns of fire. Although people have been using fire to modify environments for millennia, the combined effects of human activities are now changing patterns of fire at a global scale—to the detriment of human society, biodiversity, and ecosystems. These changes pose a global challenge for understanding how to sustain biodiversity in a new era of fire. We synthesize how changes in fire activity are threatening species with extinction across the globe, highlight forward-looking methods for predicting the combined effects of human drivers and fire on biodiversity, and foreshadow emerging actions and strategies that could revolutionize how society manages fire for biodiversity in the Anthropocene.

ADVANCES

Our synthesis shows that interactions with anthropogenic drivers such as global climate change, land use, and biotic invasions are transforming fire activity and its impacts on biodiversity. More than 4400 terrestrial and freshwater species from a wide range of taxa and habitats face threats associated with modified fire regimes. Many species are threatened by an increase in fire frequency or intensity, but exclusion of fire in ecosystems that need it can also be harmful. The prominent role of human activity in shaping global ecosystems is the hallmark of the Anthropocene and sets the context in which models and actions must be developed. Advances in predictive modeling deliver new opportunities to couple fire and biodiversity data and to link them with forecasts of multiple drivers including drought, invasive plants, and urban growth. Making these connections also provides an opportunity for new actions that could revolutionize how society manages fire. Emerging actions include reintroduction of mammals that reduce fuels, green fire breaks comprising low-flammability plants, strategically letting wildfires burn under the right conditions, managed evolution of populations aided by new genomics tools, and deployment of rapid response teams to protect biodiversity assets. Indigenous fire stewardship and reinstatement of cultural burning in a modern context will enhance biodiversity and human well-being in many regions of the world. At the same time, international efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are crucial to reduce the risk of extreme fire events that contribute to declines in biodiversity.

OUTLOOK

Conservation of Earth’s biological diversity will be achieved only by recognition of and response to the critical role of fire in shaping ecosystems. Global changes in fire regimes will continue to amplify interactions between anthropogenic drivers and create difficult trade-offs between environmental and social objectives. Scientific input will be crucial for navigating major decisions about novel and changing ecosystems. Strategic collection of data on fire, biodiversity, and socioeconomic variables will be essential for developing models to capture the feedbacks, tipping points, and regime shifts characteristic of the Anthropocene. New partnerships are also needed to meet the challenges ahead. At the local and regional scale, getting more of the “right” type of fire in landscapes that need it requires new alliances and networks to build and apply knowledge. At the national and global scale, biodiversity conservation will benefit from greater integration of fire into national biodiversity strategies and action plans and in the implementation of international agreements and initiatives such as the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. Placing the increasingly important role of people at the forefront of efforts to understand and adapt to changes in fire regimes is central to these endeavors.

Interactions between fire and anthropogenic drivers such as global climate change, land use, and invasive species are reshaping ecosystems worldwide.

A hotter and drier climate causes more extreme fire weather in southeastern Australia and significant loss of biota. Human-caused ignitions at the interface of urban areas and forests increase the risk of large, severe fires in the western United States, with growing human and ecological costs. In South Africa, fynbos shrublands depend on recurrent fire, yet invasive woody species can promote high-intensity fires that harm native plants and seedbanks. Changes in climate, land use, and species redistributions are underpinned by socioeconomic drivers. In many parts of the world, cessation of traditional fire practices has been linked with detrimental outcomes for biodiversity. In the fire-dependent savannas (cerrado) of Brazil, deliberate use of fire by Indigenous and local peoples, such as the Xavante, can have positive effects on biodiversity.

PHOTO CREDITS: J. CARMODY / AUSTRALIAN BROADCASTING CORPORATION (TOP LEFT), AAP PHOTOS (TOP RIGHT), A. DE LANGE (BOTTOM LEFT), J. R. WELCH (BOTTOM RIGHT)

Abstract

Fire has been a source of global biodiversity for millions of years. However, interactions with anthropogenic drivers such as climate change, land use, and invasive species are changing the nature of fire activity and its impacts. We review how such changes are threatening species with extinction and transforming terrestrial ecosystems. Conservation of Earth’s biological diversity will be achieved only by recognizing and responding to the critical role of fire. In the Anthropocene, this requires that conservation planning explicitly includes the combined effects of human activities and fire regimes. Improved forecasts for biodiversity must also integrate the connections among people, fire, and ecosystems. Such integration provides an opportunity for new actions that could revolutionize how society sustains biodiversity in a time of changing fire activity.

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