Tundra wildfires can trigger widespread permafrost melt

Big fires can shift tundra ecology

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Tundra wildfires reinforce a climate feedback loop by melting permafrost.

Staff Report

Wildfires in the Arctic tundra may trigger a classic climate feedback loop by melting large areas of permafrost. according to U.S. Geological Survey scientists who took a close at a 2007 blaze on Alaska’s North Slope.

The findings, published in the journal Scientific Reports, shows that permafrost thaw was detecting in about a third of the fire’s footprint, compared to less than 1 percent in undisturbed areas.

“Once you burn off that protective layer, what we observed is the effect isn’t immediate but takes a few years to really get going,” said Chris Arp, a study co-author and assistant professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Water and Environmental Research Center.

The connection between wildfires and permafrost loss is better documented in boreal forests, where burns are relatively common. Tundra fires are less common, so their effects have not been studied as extensively. Using a laser mapping technique called lidar, researchers were able to document thawing during flyovers both two and seven years after the fire occurred.

They found that thermokarst, irregular topography such as slumping hillsides and surface depressions, was common in the fire zone.

Arp said lidar was an invaluable resource. The data allowed researchers to measure changes in the land surface over time and predict how these changes will affect hydrology and vegetation within the Anaktuvuk River fire boundary, Arp said.

Understanding conditions that cause permafrost thaw is important because the frozen soils and peatlands store significant amounts of carbon. When permafrost thaws, the organic material in the soil decomposes and releases greenhouse gases, such as methane and carbon dioxide, which are considered factors in climate change.

Arp said the changes are also notable because permafrost is the foundation of Arctic lands and ecosystems, both in the wilds and areas where roads and pipelines are built. Dramatic changes in permafrost, like the conditions observed following the Anaktuvuk River fire, will create new plant communities, change wildlife habitat and affect downstream waters, he said.

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