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Sun Jun 23, 2019, 10:40 AM

Alaska Tundra Fires Proliferating, Growing Larger As State Warms


Although tundra fires have burned sporadically in Alaska in the past, their frequency is increasing as temperatures rise, near-surface permafrost thaws and other forces make the low-lying plants more flammable, scientists say. A 2012 study led by University of Notre Dame wildfire expert Adrian Rocha found that Arctic Alaska tundra fires had increased in size over two decades. A 2015 study co-authored by Rocha predicted that Alaska tundra wildfire acreage will double by the end of the century.

One of the most significant Alaska tundra fires was in 2007, when about 400 square miles (1,035 sq km) burned for months on the North Slope, the northernmost region of Alaska and a place where fires are rarer than in the Bering Strait region. That fire, named for the Anaktuvuk River, was linked to extraordinary Arctic heat and what was, at the time, record-low sea ice.

By thawing permafrost and releasing loads of sequestered carbon, tundra fires can have long-lasting effects. The 2007 Anaktuvuk River fire released more than 2.1 million metric tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere, University of Alaska Fairbanks scientists calculated, an amount they said was equal to the atmospheric carbon the entire Arctic used to absorb annually.

Eric Miller, an ecologist with the Alaska Fire Science Consortium, said northern tundra fires are known for triggering cascading effects. “When you burn the tundra, you get that direct release of carbon into the atmosphere,” he said. Permafrost thaw caused by fires primes the tundra for future burns by melting the ice that moistens soils, he said. “That stuff drains out, and you get future potential for fire after that,” he said.



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