Quantcast

Disastrous Wildfires Sweeping Through Alaska Could Permanently Alter Forest Composition

Climate
Alaskan boreal forest. Scott Rupp, University of Alaska Fairbanks

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.

Berkeley Lab

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

A glacier is seen in the Kenai Mountains on Sept. 6, near Primrose, Alaska. Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey have been studying the glaciers in the area since 1966 and their studies show that the warming climate has resulted in sustained glacial mass loss as melting outpaced the accumulation of new snow and ice. Joe Raedle / Getty Images

By Mark Mancini

On Aug. 18, Iceland held a funeral for the first glacier lost to climate change. The deceased party was Okjökull, a historic body of ice that covered 14.6 square miles (38 square kilometers) in the Icelandic Highlands at the turn of the 20th century. But its glory days are long gone. In 2014, having dwindled to less than 1/15 its former size, Okjökull lost its status as an official glacier.

Read More Show Less
Members of Chicago Democratic Socialists of America table at the Logan Square Farmers Market on Aug. 18. Alex Schwartz

By Alex Schwartz

Among the many vendors at the Logan Square Farmers Market on Aug. 18 sat three young people peddling neither organic vegetables, gourmet cheese nor handmade crafts. Instead, they offered liberation from capitalism.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
StephanieFrey / iStock / Getty Images

By Lauren Panoff, MPH, RD

Muffins are a popular, sweet treat.

Read More Show Less
Hackney primary school students went to the Town Hall on May 24 in London after school to protest about the climate emergency. Jenny Matthews / In Pictures / Getty Images

By Caroline Hickman

Eco-anxiety is likely to affect more and more people as the climate destabilizes. Already, studies have found that 45 percent of children suffer lasting depression after surviving extreme weather and natural disasters. Some of that emotional turmoil must stem from confusion — why aren't adults doing more to stop climate change?

Read More Show Less
Myrtle warbler. Gillfoto / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Bird watching in the U.S. may be a lot harder than it once was, since bird populations are dropping off in droves, according to a new study.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announces the co-founding of The Climate Pledge at the National Press Club on Sept. 19 in Washington, DC. Paul Morigi / Getty Images for Amazon

The day before over 1,500 Amazon.com employees planned a walkout to participate in today's global climate strike, CEO Jeff Bezos unveiled a sweeping plan for the retail and media giant to be carbon neutral by 2040, 10 years ahead of the Paris agreement schedule.

Read More Show Less

By Winona LaDuke

For the past seven years, the Anishinaabe people have been facing the largest tar sands pipeline project in North America. We still are. In these dying moments of the fossil fuel industry, Water Protectors stand, prepared for yet another battle for the water, wild rice and future of all. We face Enbridge, the largest pipeline company in North America, and the third largest corporation in Canada. We face it unafraid and eyes wide open, for indeed we see the future.

Read More Show Less
The climate crisis often intensifies systems of oppression. Rieko Honma / Stone / Getty Images Plus

By Mara Dolan

We see the effects of the climate crisis all around us in hurricanes, droughts, wildfires, and rising sea levels, but our proximity to these things, and how deeply our lives are changed by them, are not the same for everyone. Frontline groups have been leading the fight for environmental and climate justice for centuries and understand the critical connections between the climate crisis and racial justice, economic justice, migrant justice, and gender justice. Our personal experiences with climate change are shaped by our experiences with race, gender, and class, as the climate crisis often intensifies these systems of oppression.

Read More Show Less