We are working to understand the effects of fire and climate on tropical savannas.

The challenge

Fire and climate play important parts in ecological processes within the tropical savannas.

Computer simulation models are well suited to studying tree populations and the long-term effects of fire and climate variability on these trees.

Because trees grow slowly, field trials are generally not carried out for enough time to capture ecological processes occurring over decades and centuries.

Likewise, the random nature of fire frequency, the slow and gradual effects fire has on tropical savannas, and the expense and difficulty in developing large scale fire experiments, make simulation models a valuable research tool in fire ecology.

Our response

Using a computer model to identify the effects of fire and climate on savanna tree dynamics.

The Flames model is being used by researchers in northern Australian and international savanna landscapes to better understand how management practices and the climate affect trees.

The Flames model is being used to better understand how management practices and the climate affect trees.

It’s also being used to explore the effect of increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) as a result of increases in greenhouse gases, on trees and grasses of the tropical savannas.

The complex nature of ecological systems simulated by this model sometimes reveals unexpected outcomes that scientists would otherwise be unaware of.

The results

Flames model sheds light on more than just flames

In practical terms, the Flames model allows scientists to:

  • predict the outcomes of fire management regimes on the size and structure of tree populations at a landscape scale
  • simulate drought effects which occur as a result of unreliable and variable annual rainfall
  • provide valuable information about carbon stock accounting across vast areas of northern Australia
  • simulate the likely changes in tree populations due to predicted rainfall changes under climate change scenarios.

The Flames model follows the fate of individual trees in a savanna landscape over time and considers how environmental factors such as fire, grazing and rainfall variability influence both individual and populations of trees.

To do this, the model requires inputs of how rainfall and the soil interact to store water for plant production and how fire intensity changes with season, time of the day, ignition style and climatic influences (for example temperature and wind speed).

The model also takes into account grasses that compete with trees for water, provide fuel for fires and are used as fodder for grazing.

Flames can provide information about carbon stocks by tracking the amount of carbon stored in the trees and grasses in the tropical savannas and account for changes in the carbon stored due to fire.

Current field research involving the counting and weighing of coarse woody debris and grasses on the ground is providing additional relationships for the Flames model.

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