In a study published in this week’s issue of Nature, Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) senior scientist Gauis Shaver and his colleagues, including lead author Michelle Mack of the University of Florida, describe the dramatic impacts of a massive Arctic wildfire on carbon releases to the atmosphere. The 2007 blaze on the North Slope of the Alaska’s Brooks Mountain Range released 20 times more carbon to the atmosphere than what is annually lost from undisturbed tundra.
As wildfires increase in frequency and size along Alaska’s North Slope, the team contends the disturbances may release large amounts of the greenhouse gas CO2 to the atmosphere and accelerate the transformation of the frozen, treeless tundra of today into a different kind of ecosystem less capable of storing carbon. Together, the impacts could have profound implications on atmospheric carbon and climate.
Arctic tundra landscapes store huge amounts of carbon in cool, wet soils that are insulated by a layer of permanently frozen ground, or permafrost. Fire has been almost nonexistent in Alaska’s North Slope for thousands of years and the effect of fires on the carbon balance of tundra ecosystems is largely unknown. However, with warming temperatures over the past half-century, the climate in the region is in transition, spurring more thunderstorms, lightning, and wildfires.
In 2007 the Anaktuvuk River fire ravaged a 40-by-10 mile swath of tundra about 24 miles north of Toolik Field Station, where Shaver is the principal investigator of the NSF’s Arctic Long-Term Ecological Research project. The blaze was the largest ever recorded in the region.
While the Anaktuvuk River fire scorched only upper soil layers that are about 50 years old, it caused the release of more than two million metric tons of CO2 to the atmosphere. This amount is similar in magnitude to the annual carbon sink for the entire Arctic tundra biome averaged over the last quarter of the twentieth century. According to Shaver and his colleagues, an Arctic regularly disturbed by fire could mean massive releases of CO2 into the atmosphere, a decrease in carbon stocks on land, and a rapid impact on climate.
Shaver has been studying the Arctic tundra since the mid-1970s, and he knows how to look for gradual shifts in a landscape that is changing, but very slowly. Large disturbances such as fire—which leave the land open to rapid re-growth—have been rare. As the tundra rebounds from the Anaktuvuk River fire, Shaver and his colleagues are watching closely to see if the fire will nudge a major transformation of the North Slope groundcover that is already slowly underway.
More shrubs are expected to appear in the Arctic landscape as the climate warms, a trend that may be accelerated by the advent of fires. “Satellites tell us there has clearly been a greening of the Arctic over the past 30 years,” Shaver says. Many observations point to a warmer landscape that will be dominated by shrubs, rather than the grasses and mosses of today. Some scientists forecast that large parts of the Arctic tundra will eventually become forest. “A key question is whether the conditions on these burn sites are more favorable for the establishment of new seeds, new species,” Shaver says.
Moreover, the burn, because it is darker, absorbs more solar radiation than undisturbed land. “You have much higher rates of permafrost thawing, and depth of thaw, on the burn,” Shaver says. All of these immediate consequences of the Anaktuvuk River fire reinforce the effects of a warming climate on the Arctic tundra. And the scientists don’t yet know if the land can recover the carbon and energy balance of its pre-burn state, or if they are looking at a “new normal,” Shaver says.
This research was supported by the NSF Division of Environmental Biology, the Division of Biological Infrastructure, and Office of Polar Programs, the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, and the Bureau of Land Management Alaska Fire Service and Arctic Field Office.
The Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) is dedicated to scientific discovery and improving the human condition through research and education in biology, biomedicine, and environmental science. Founded in 1888 in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, the MBL is an independent, nonprofit corporation.
Diana Kenney | EurekAlert!
Smart Data Transformation – Surfing the Big Wave
02.12.2016 | Fraunhofer-Institut für Angewandte Informationstechnik FIT
Climate change could outpace EPA Lake Champlain protections
18.11.2016 | University of Vermont
In recent years, lasers with ultrashort pulses (USP) down to the femtosecond range have become established on an industrial scale. They could advance some applications with the much-lauded “cold ablation” – if that meant they would then achieve more throughput. A new generation of process engineering that will address this issue in particular will be discussed at the “4th UKP Workshop – Ultrafast Laser Technology” in April 2017.
Even back in the 1990s, scientists were comparing materials processing with nanosecond, picosecond and femtosesecond pulses. The result was surprising:...
Have you ever wondered how you see the world? Vision is about photons of light, which are packets of energy, interacting with the atoms or molecules in what...
A multi-institutional research collaboration has created a novel approach for fabricating three-dimensional micro-optics through the shape-defined formation of porous silicon (PSi), with broad impacts in integrated optoelectronics, imaging, and photovoltaics.
Working with colleagues at Stanford and The Dow Chemical Company, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign fabricated 3-D birefringent...
In experiments with magnetic atoms conducted at extremely low temperatures, scientists have demonstrated a unique phase of matter: The atoms form a new type of quantum liquid or quantum droplet state. These so called quantum droplets may preserve their form in absence of external confinement because of quantum effects. The joint team of experimental physicists from Innsbruck and theoretical physicists from Hannover report on their findings in the journal Physical Review X.
“Our Quantum droplets are in the gas phase but they still drop like a rock,” explains experimental physicist Francesca Ferlaino when talking about the...
The Max Planck Institute for Physics (MPP) is opening up a new research field. A workshop from November 21 - 22, 2016 will mark the start of activities for an innovative axion experiment. Axions are still only purely hypothetical particles. Their detection could solve two fundamental problems in particle physics: What dark matter consists of and why it has not yet been possible to directly observe a CP violation for the strong interaction.
The “MADMAX” project is the MPP’s commitment to axion research. Axions are so far only a theoretical prediction and are difficult to detect: on the one hand,...
16.11.2016 | Event News
01.11.2016 | Event News
14.10.2016 | Event News
06.12.2016 | Materials Sciences
06.12.2016 | Medical Engineering
06.12.2016 | Power and Electrical Engineering