One of the most dynamic California ecosystems is chaparral. Dominated by evergreen, sclerophyllous shrubs and small trees, chaparral is the most extensive vegetation type in the state (Figure 1). The nearly impenetrable tangle of stiff branches of this unusual vegetation inhibits exploration, and as a consequence the public know little about its natural history and unique characteristics. This under-valued ecosystem is recognized instead by the threat of its extensive, high-intensity canopy-burning wildfires that characterize the dry summer and fall seasons of the state. Because urban areas frequently share borders or intermix with chaparral, societal interests often conflict with conservation of this ecosystem, and understanding its history and dynamics are a key to appreciating its importance.
In this chapter we emphasize the principal structure and dynamics of this important ecosystem. The long summer rainless period has strong impacts on all organisms and, importantly, the droughts influence the fire regime that characterizes chaparral. An ecosystem currently characterized by a specific drought and wildfire regime can expect significant impacts from climate change. Because of its dominance at lower elevations, chaparral also is frequently found at or near the boundaries of urban developments and metropolitan centers. Attempts to suppress fire also affect chaparral dynamics in the long absence of fire. The conflicts between the impacts of chaparral wildfire and human life and structures has been an aspect of California’s history since the beginning, but as development encroaches ever more into chaparral regions, the conflicts have increased. Consequently, understanding this vegetation is important not only because of its significance in understanding ecological evolution and the ecological services provided by chaparral, but also because of its direct impacts on human settlements.
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