Dubinin, M; Luschekina, A; Radeloff, VC (2011). Climate, Livestock, and Vegetation: What Drives Fire Increase in the Arid Ecosystems of Southern Russia?. ECOSYSTEMS, 14(4), 547-562.
Fire is an important natural disturbance process in arid grasslands but current fire regimes are largely the result of both human and natural processes and their interactions. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 spurred substantial socioeconomic changes and was ultimately followed by a rapid increase in burned area in southern Russia. What is unclear is whether this increase in burned area was caused by decreasing livestock numbers, vegetation changes, climate change, or interactions of these factors. Our research goal was to identify the driving forces behind the increase in burned area in the arid grasslands of southern Russia. Our study area encompassed 19,000 km(2) in the Republic of Kalmykia in southern Russia. We analyzed annual burned area from 1986 to 2006 as a function of livestock population, NDVI, precipitation, temperature, and broad-scale oscillation indices using best subset regressions and structural equation modeling. Our results supported the hypothesis that vegetation recovered within 5-6 years after the livestock declined in the beginning of the 1990s, to a point at which large fires could be sustained. Climate was an important explanatory factor for burning, but mainly after 1996 when lower livestock numbers allowed fuels to accumulate. Ultimately, our results highlight the complexity of coupled human-natural systems, and provide an example of how abrupt socioeconomic change may affect fire regimes.