Climate Change: Alaska Wildfire Season May be the Worst in the State to Date

First Posted: Jul 28, 2015 09:34 AM EDT

This could be the worst wildfire season in Alaska to date. Scientists have found that as the wildfire season in Alaska continues, boreal forests within the state are actually becoming more flammable.

In this case, the researchers looked at a 2,000-square-kilometer zone in the Yukon flats of interior Alaska. This region has actually seen a dramatic increase in both the frequency and severity of fires in recent decades. In fact, wildfire activity in the area is higher than at any other time in the past 10,000 years.

"The evolution of climate is a complicated response to many interacting processes," said William Wiseman, Arctic Natural Sciences program director, in a news release. "This study develops a theory, using historical data, concerning how boreal forests respond to climate-induced changes in fire regime through a negative feedback process that stabilizes the regional system. Although it presents initial evidence that the present day boreal forests are responding to fire in a related fashion, only time will tell whether this is indeed true."

In this case, the researchers reconstructed fire history in the area by picking charcoal fragments out of sediments preserved over thousands of years. From these samples, the researchers found that the fire frequency has, indeed, increased. In addition, the scientists found that the composition of tree species has changed over time. It's shifted from forests dominated by coniferous trees to woodlands populated by relatively fire-resistant deciduous trees during the Medieval Climate Anomaly, which occurred about 1,000 to 500 years ago. Interestingly, this same shift is occurring today. So much boreal forest has been burned that it's being replaced by deciduous trees.

"Ryan's study area is already covered by deciduous forest because so much spruce has burned recently-it's already different than the vast majority of boreal forests," said Feng Sheng Hu, one of the researchers. "The climate today appears to be warmer than in the past 10,000 years in that region, and we know that the climate is continuing to warm up."

This year, Alaska has seen an exceptional number of wildfires. Already, a large number of homes and buildings have been damaged and while wildfires are a common occurrence in the state, this year's fires began earlier than normal and have escalated quickly.

The findings are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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