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!
New study: How does Europe become a leading player for software and IT services?
03.04.2017 | Fraunhofer-Institut für System- und Innovationsforschung (ISI)
Reusable carbon nanotubes could be the water filter of the future, says RIT study
30.03.2017 | Rochester Institute of Technology
More and more automobile companies are focusing on body parts made of carbon fiber reinforced plastics (CFRP). However, manufacturing and repair costs must be further reduced in order to make CFRP more economical in use. Together with the Volkswagen AG and five other partners in the project HolQueSt 3D, the Laser Zentrum Hannover e.V. (LZH) has developed laser processes for the automatic trimming, drilling and repair of three-dimensional components.
Automated manufacturing processes are the basis for ultimately establishing the series production of CFRP components. In the project HolQueSt 3D, the LZH has...
Reflecting the structure of composites found in nature and the ancient world, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have synthesized thin carbon nanotube (CNT) textiles that exhibit both high electrical conductivity and a level of toughness that is about fifty times higher than copper films, currently used in electronics.
"The structural robustness of thin metal films has significant importance for the reliable operation of smart skin and flexible electronics including...
The nearby, giant radio galaxy M87 hosts a supermassive black hole (BH) and is well-known for its bright jet dominating the spectrum over ten orders of magnitude in frequency. Due to its proximity, jet prominence, and the large black hole mass, M87 is the best laboratory for investigating the formation, acceleration, and collimation of relativistic jets. A research team led by Silke Britzen from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, has found strong indication for turbulent processes connecting the accretion disk and the jet of that galaxy providing insights into the longstanding problem of the origin of astrophysical jets.
Supermassive black holes form some of the most enigmatic phenomena in astrophysics. Their enormous energy output is supposed to be generated by the...
The probability to find a certain number of photons inside a laser pulse usually corresponds to a classical distribution of independent events, the so-called...
Microprocessors based on atomically thin materials hold the promise of the evolution of traditional processors as well as new applications in the field of flexible electronics. Now, a TU Wien research team led by Thomas Müller has made a breakthrough in this field as part of an ongoing research project.
Two-dimensional materials, or 2D materials for short, are extremely versatile, although – or often more precisely because – they are made up of just one or a...
20.04.2017 | Event News
18.04.2017 | Event News
03.04.2017 | Event News
26.04.2017 | Materials Sciences
26.04.2017 | Agricultural and Forestry Science
26.04.2017 | Physics and Astronomy