Accounting for spatial autocorrelation improves the estimation of climate, physical environment and vegetation’s effects on boreal forest’s burn rates
Jeanne Portier, Sylvie Gauthier, André Robitaille, Yves Bergeron.
Wildfires play a crucial role in maintaining ecological and societal functions of North American boreal forests. Because of their contagious way of spreading, using statistical methods dealing with spatial autocorrelation has become a major challenge in fire studies analyzing how environmental factors affect their spatial variability.
We aimed to demonstrate the performance of a spatially explicit method accounting for spatial autocorrelation in burn rates modelling, and to use this method to determine the relative contribution of climate, physical environment and vegetation to the spatial variability of burn rates between 1972 and 2015.
Using a 482,000 km² territory located in the coniferous boreal forest of eastern Canada, we built and compared burn rates models with and without accounting for spatial autocorrelation. The relative contribution of climate, physical environment and vegetation to the burn rates variability was identified with variance partitioning.
Accounting for spatial autocorrelation improved the models' performance by a factor of 1.5. Our method allowed the unadulterated extraction of the contribution of climate, physical environment and vegetation to the spatial variability of burn rates. This contribution was similar for the three groups of factors. The spatial autocorrelation extent was linked to the fire size distribution.
Accounting for spatial autocorrelation can highly improve models and avoids biased results and misinterpretation. Considering climate, physical environment and vegetation altogether is essential, especially when attempting to predict future area burned. In addition to the direct effect of climate, changes in vegetation could have important impacts on future burn rates.