NASA researching how climate change is adding to more regular forest fires

On July 7th, 2019 the skies around Anchorage Alaska were thick with smoke. Across the Cook Inlet, the Swan Lake Fire had spread over nearly 79,000 acres and was still growing. This was just one of over 400 fires that burned in Alaska so far in 2019.

Climate change and forest fires

In the Arctic, fires can help rejuvenate ecosystems and make way for new growth. However, Arctic and boreal regions are warming at a faster rate than anywhere else on Earth, and hotter and drier summers are leading to accelerated fire cycles and more intense burns.

Elizabeth Hoy: Fires in boreal forests are different than in other areas of the world, such as those in the western United States. One of the main differences is they have these really thick organic soils layers and these soil layers burn.

And so you’re not just getting fires in the trees or in the canopy, you’re getting fires below the tree itself, like in that soil layer and that is really when you get a lot of these carbon emissions.

Researching climate change

Wildfires release large amounts of particulate matter which is transported across and beyond the region following wind patterns. This means that a fire burning in the Arctic can impact people living thousands of miles away.

Elizabeth Hoy: Because there are these thick stores of organic material in the soil, when they burn, they are releasing huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, which is then causing more warming. And that warming isn’t just going to happen in the Arctic, we’re going to see climate change happen throughout all of the world.

forest fires

More regular forest fires

NASA is studying how a changing climate is contributing to more frequent and powerful Arctic fires, and what that means for ecosystems and our health.

Elizabeth Hoy: ABoVE is the Arctic - Boreal Vulnerability Experiment. And it is a large-scale field campaign that NASA has designed to study many aspects of the ecosystem of the Arctic and boreal regions in Alaska and western Canada.

In addition to field observations, NASA satellites give researchers the ability to track large-scale changes to the Arctic over a period of time. And it’s not uncommon for these Earth-observing satellites to be the first to detect wildfire, especially in the remote Arctic regions.

Elizabeth Hoy: NASA does a really good job of putting all these different pieces together. That’s the benefit of having a large agency like NASA do this type of study. On the ground and in the air, NASA is working to better understand the consequences of Arctic fires in one of the most rapidly changing regions on Earth.