Are drought and wildfires turning Mediterranean cork oak forests into persistent shrublands?
In the Iberian Peninsula Mediterranean oak forests have been transformed into a mosaic landscape of four main patch-types: forests, savannas, shrublands and grasslands. We used aerial photographs over a period of 45 years (1958–2002) to quantify the persistence and rates of transitions between vegetation patch-types in southern Portugal, where cork oak is the dominant tree species. We used logistic regression to relate vegetation changes with topographical features and wildfire history. Over the 45 years, shrublands have been the most persistent patch-type (59%), and have been expanding; forests are also persistent (55%) but have been decreasing since 1985; savannas and grasslands were less persistent (33% and 15%, respectively). Shrublands persistence was significantly correlated with wildfire occurrence, particularly on southern exposures after 1995. In contrast, forest persistence decreased with wildfire occurrence, and forests were more likely to change into shrublands where wildfire had occurred after 1995.