Tundra Fires and Thawing Permafrost: The Link to Greenhouse Gas Release

First Posted: Nov 11, 2015 12:01 PM EST

Wildfires on the Arctic tundra may be contributing to widespread permafrost thaw. Scientists have taken a closer look at tundra fires and have found that they may contribute to thaw as much as blazes in forested areas.

"Once you burn off that protective layer, what we observed is the effect isn't immediate but takes a few years to really get going," said Chris Arp, one of the researchers, in a news release.

The connection between wildfires and permafrost loss is better documented in boreal forests, where burns are relatively common. Tundra fires are less common, so their effects have not been studied as extensively. Using a laser mapping technique called lidar, researchers were able to document thawing during flyovers.

The researchers found that thermokarst, which is irregular topography such as slumping hillsides and surface depressions, was common in the fire zone. As permafrost melts in this zone, it can release significant amounts of carbon and greenhouse gases, such as methane and carbon dioxide.

The findings reveal a bit more about permafrost and show that tundra wildfires can have a significant impact on hydrology, vegetation, and the release of greenhouse gases in the Arctic.

The findings are published in the journal Scientific Reports.

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