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Bark harvesting and Cork oak vulnerability to fire

Cork oak (Quercus suber) is a strong fire-resistant tree species thank to is very thick and insulating corky bark [1-4]. In fact it is the only European tree with the capacity to resprout from epicormic buds in the canopy after an intense crown-fire [1]. However, the bark of the cork oak is periodically harvested for cork production (mainly for bottle tops but also for other uses, [2]) and thus bark harvesting increases the vulnerability of the tree to fire. In a recent paper we quantified the response of cork oak (tree mortality, stem mortality, and crown recovery) after fire [5]. The results showed that fire vulnerability was higher for trees with thin bark (young or recently debarked individuals) and decreased with increasing bark thickness until cork was 3–4 cm thick. This bark thickness corresponds to the moment when exploited trees are debarked again, meaning that exploited trees are vulnerable to fire during a long period. Exploited trees were also more likely to be top-killed than never-debarked trees, even for the same bark thickness. Additionally, vulnerability to fire increased with burn severity and with tree diameter, and was higher in trees burned in early summer or located in drier south-facing aspects. All these aspects need to be considered when managing cork oak woodlands specially nowadays that fire activity is increased [6]. Increasing the length of the cork harvesting cycle would increase the time during which the trees have a thicker bark and are better protected against fire injury. Since cork is the main economical income from these forests, stopping bark exploitation might be unrealistic in most cases. However, in fire-prone areas where conservation and tourism are the main objectives, stopping bark explotation would likely be the most effective option to increase ecosystem resilience to fire. The valorisation of many other services provided by cork oak forests [7] could create economic incentives to decrease the bark-exploitation dependency of these systems in the future.


Foto: Cork oak  resprouting from epicormic buds (By F. Catry)

References

[1] Pausas, J.G. 1997. Resprouting of Quercus suber in NE Spain after fire. J. Veg. Sci. 8: 703-706. [doi | pdf]

[2] Aronson, J., J. S. Pereira, and J. G. Pausas (eds). 2009. Cork Oak Woodlands on the Edge: Ecology, Adaptive Management, and Restoration. Island Press, Washington, DC. [web of the book]

[3] Pausas J.G. 2009. Convergent evolution. jgpausas.blogs.uv.es, 8/Nov/2009. [link]

[4] Pausas J.G. 2011. Bark thickness: a world record? jgpausas.blogs.uv.es, 3/Jan/201. [link]

[5] Catry F., Moreira F., Pausas J.G., Fernandes P.M., Rego F., Cardillo E. & Curt T. 2012. Cork Oak vulnerability to fire: the role of bark harvesting, tree characteristics and abiotic factors. PLoS ONE 7: e39810. [doi | pdf ]

[6] Pausas J.G. & Fernández-Muñoz S. 2012. Fire regime changes in the Western Mediterranean Basin: from fuel-limited to drought-driven fire regime. Climatic Change 110: 215-226. [doi | springer | pdf]

[7] Bugalho M.N., Caldeira M.C., Pereira J.S., Aronson J., & Pausas J.G. 2011. Mediterranean Cork oak savannas require human use to sustain biodiversity and ecosystem services. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 9: 278-286. [doi | pdf | blog]

 

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