Disastrous Wildfires Sweeping Through Alaska Could Permanently Alter Forest Composition
From the Amazon to the last frontier of Alaska, fire season is raging on both sides of the equator and bringing with the flames long-term effects that could permanently alter the diverse ecosystems of both regions.
As of Tuesday, the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center reports that more than 200 individual wildfires are burning across the state and threatening more than a thousand structures and forcing hundreds of Alaskans from their homes, reports CNN. In response, Governor Michael Dunleavy issued a disaster declaration for two regions due to three fires — the McKinley, Deshka Landing and Swan Lake wildfires, according to The Hill. In all, TIME reports around 2.5 million acres burned across the state with at least 84 homes and businesses destroyed, according to ABC News.
Now, a new study from the Berkeley Lab finds that future summers characterized by similar record high temperatures and extreme wildfires fueled by climate change could cause the irreparable changes within the forest, pushing cold-preferring iconic evergreen conifer trees out as broadleaf deciduous trees move in.
"Expansion of the deciduous broadleaf forests in a warmer climate may result in several ecological and climatic feedbacks that affect the carbon cycle of northern ecosystems," said study author and Berkeley Lab postdoctoral fellow Zelalem Mekonnen.
Berkeley Lab scientists Zelalem Mekonnen (left) and William Riley co-authored a study on how wildfires will affect forests in Alaska.
Marilyn Chung / Berkeley Lab
Publishing their work in Nature Plants, a team of researchers from universities across North America used predictive modeling of climate conditions and systems to determine how a warming climate will affect forest systems in higher latitudes. They found that by the end of the century, evergreen conifer trees like the black spruce will drop by up to 25 percent while herbaceous plants like moss and lichen will decline up to 66 percent. Deciduous trees like aspens will almost double in population, dominating the transformed landscape.
The effects of climate change are disproportionately felt in climates of northern latitudes due to a phenomenon known as Arctic amplification, a process that NASA Earth Observatory describes as causing temperatures to rise in the Arctic at faster rates than the global average due to the loss of sea ice giving way to darker ocean waters that absorb more heat. In Alaska, these changes will have impacts that reverberate through the ecosystem. Deciduous trees lose their leaves every year, which means more organic matter may accumulate on the forest floor and create transpiration, a factor that contributes to climate change. Furthermore, large-leafed trees have greater surface reflection and create large canopy covers that may decrease prime habitat for important moss that sustains many wildlife populations.
Then again, deciduous trees are less flammable than evergreens. However, what these changes mean for wildfires is less certain. Models of four different scenarios found that wildfires could increase up to 150 percent — but how they will impact an ecosystem remains unknown. What is for certain is that the forest will remain a net sink for carbon, absorbing more carbon than it emits — but just how much is where the work remains.
"Will it be more or less of a sink? Our next study will quantify the carbon and surface energy budgets," said Riley.
Deciduous broadleaf trees increase, and evergreen conifer trees decrease in interior Alaska between now and 2100 because of warming and wildfire in the boreal forest.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.