El Niño-Southern Oscillation effect on a fire regime in northeastern Mexico has changed over time

Larissa L. Yocom, Peter Z. Fulé, Peter M. Brown, Julián Cerano, José Villanueva-Diaz, Donald A. Falk, Eladio Cornejo-Oviedo

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

62 Scopus citations


The El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is a climate-forcing mechanism that has been shown to affect precipitation and the occurrence of wildfires in many parts of the world. In the southern United States and northern Mexico, warm events (El Niño) are associated with moist winter conditions and fewer fires, while cool events (La Niña) tend to favor dry winters and more fires. We tested this relationship in a region of northeastern Mexico by characterizing the historical fire regime and climatic influences. Fire regimes were reconstructed from fire-scar samples collected from 100 trees in three high-elevation sites on Peña Nevada in southern Nuevo León. The sites were ∼25 ha each, and the site centers were ∼1 km apart. The earliest recorded fire occurred in 1521 and the time period we used for analysis was 1645-1929. The sites were characterized by frequent surface fires before the 1920s. In the three sites, mean fire intervals ranged from 8.6 to 9.6 years (all fires) and 11.9 to 18.6 years (fires that scarred ≥25% of recording trees). The per-tree mean fire return interval was 17 years, and all three sites burned in the same year seven times between 1774 and 1929. After 1929, fires were nearly eliminated in all sites, likely due to human causes. We found a temporal change in the association between ENSO events and fires; before the 1830s La Niña events were significantly associated with fire years, while after the 1830s this association was not significant. In 1998, when the most severe El Niño event of the past century occurred, the three sites experienced severe, stand-replacing fires that killed many trees that had survived multiple surface fires in the past. Prior to the 1830s, fires tended to occur during dry La Niña years, but since then both La Niña and El Niño have been associated with dry years in this region, especially during the last three decades. This result suggests that ENSO effects have changed over time in this location and that phases of ENSO are not consistent indicators of precipitation, fire occurrence, or fire behavior in this area of northeastern Mexico.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1660-1671
Number of pages12
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 2010


  • El niño southern oscillation
  • Fire history
  • Fire scars
  • Mexico
  • Peña nevada
  • Pinus hartwegii
  • Southern nuevo león

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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