Predicting Wildfire Impact on Alaskan Boreal Forests

Climate change increases the frequency and intensity of wildfire activity in boreal forests. The changes and their effects pose a risk to training lands managed by the Department of Defense (DoD) across the globe.  In the arctic, SERDP and ESTCP are studying the dynamics of cold region ecosystems to ensure resilience against shifting climate conditions, now and in the future.

One arctic study recently published in Science Magazine provides an example of such research. Dr. Michelle Mack, a professor at Northern Arizona University, is studying carbon balance and forest regeneration in Alaskan boreal forests after wildfire ( Project Overview). Her project team set out to determine if the ecosystem state changes resulting from interactions between fire, soils, permafrost, and vegetation immediately following disturbance remain robust predictors of carbon balance over a long period.  

To accomplish their research, they revisited 90 wildfire sites analyzed in a previous SERDP project. The team collected data that mapped ecosystem state changes for 15 to 20 years following wildfire events. They then compared these data with the data previously gathered less than 10 years after similar disturbances. Their goal was to determine accuracy of the prediction scheme over time.

RC Blog Michelle Mack 1

The data analysis indicated that forest-regeneration patterns change in important ways after wildfire disturbance. The forest shift from mostly Black spruce to a combination of conifers and deciduous broadleaf tree species. Given that Black spruce trees grow at a slower rate than deciduous broadleaf trees, the change to primarily fast-growth vegetation increased carbon storage over time. Analysis indicated that deciduous-dominated sites store five times as much more soil carbon than black spruce-dominated sites. The soil carbon storage of deciduous trees consequently holds the potential to balance the carbon combusted during disturbance.

Dr. Mack’s project suggests that land managers can use early post-burn data to understand and make decisions regarding future ecosystem state change. To learn more about SERDP and ESTCP work to improve wildfire management with research, modeling and decision support tools, browse Resource Conservation and Resiliency initiatives and projects.

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