Fireweed in burned area of the Yukon Flats - Photo by University of Illinois at Urbana-ChampaignThe vast forested areas of Alaska covered by spruce, aspen, poplar and birch trees, overlying permafrost soils are known as a boreal forest. The boreal forests that spread across the circumpolar north represent one of the largest ecosystems found in the world. An environment rich in wildlife; the boreal forest is influenced by severe winters, cold soils and recurring forest fires. A study out of the University of Illinois has documented a remarkable increase in the severity and frequency of fires occurring in the Alaskan boreal forest.

Research conducted in the Yukon Flats region of Alaska, an area of about 11,000 square miles near the confluence of the Yukon, Porcupine and Chandalar Rivers, shows that wildland fires there are happening at a rate higher than any time in the last 10,000 years. A concern with this shift is transition of the forest to more fire resistant deciduous trees.

University of Illinois doctoral student Ryan Kelly says of the research, “We reconstructed the fire history by picking charcoal fragments out of sediments preserved over thousands of years and from what we can tell, the fire frequency at present is higher than it has been at any time in the past 10,000 years.” A paper titled Recent burning of boreal forests exceeds fire regime limits of the past 10,000 years appears in the July 2013 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The boreal forest stores vast amounts of carbon and cover more than ten percent of the earth’s surface, some 6.41 million square miles. Fires are occurring in areas every 50 years where they occurred only every 100 years in the past. The transition being observed in the Yukon Flats reflects what is likely happening to the boreal forest located in other countries.

The North is seeing the effects of climate change at rate much higher than that observed in the lower states. Alaska is watching an increase in forest and tundra fires. Unseasonably warm summers fuel suspicions of what is yet to come.

Copyright © 2013 by Alan Sorum

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