Century-scale climate forcing of fire regimes in the American Southwest

Henri D. Grissino-Mayer, Thomas W. Swetnam

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

204 Scopus citations


Interannual time-scale associations between fire occurrence and drought indices, the Southern Oscillation, and other synoptic patterns demonstrate that large-scale, long-term atmospheric features are precursors to regional fire activity. However, our knowledge of fire-climate relations over longer (century) timescales is fragmentary because of the rarity of comparable climate and fire time-series with sufficient resolution, length and regional extent. In this study, we develop reconstructions of wildfire occurrence from tree-ring data collected from northwestern New Mexico to compare with a millennium-length dendroclimatic reconstruction of precipitation. Reconstructions of both wildfires and climate show simultaneous changes since AD 1700 that indicate climate forcing of wildfire regimes on interannual to century timescales. Following a centuries-long dry period with high fire frequency (c. AD 1400-1790), annual precipitation increased, fire frequency decreased, and the season of fire shifted from predominantly midsummer to late spring. We hypothesize that these shifts in fire regimes reflect long-term changes in rainfall patterns associated with changes in synoptic-scale atmospheric circulation patterns and the Southern Oscillation. Our evidence supports century-scale climate forcing of fire regimes in the American Southwest, providing a useful analogue of future wildfire regimes expected under changing global climate conditions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)213-220
Number of pages8
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2000


  • Climatic change
  • Dendrochronology
  • El Malpais National Monument
  • Fire history
  • Southwestern USA
  • Tree-rings

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Archaeology
  • Ecology
  • Earth-Surface Processes
  • Palaeontology


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