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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

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A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

Michael Schade / Twitter

At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.