The face of a scientist: does that conjure an image of a certain gender, race, and age? Albert Einstein perhaps? Those stereotypes are changing: meet Dr. Yaping Chen–a rising star of science with a spectacular track record. The last 3 years she has come up with one mind-boggling revelation after another about how fire works in the Alaska tundra. After a MS degree in environmental engineering in China, Dr. Chen completed her PhD in the lab of the venerable Dr. Feng Sheng Hu at the University of Illinois. I first met her presenting a poster on the Nimrod Hill fire (Imuruk Lake, on the Seward Peninsula) at an American Geophysical Union meeting in 2019. The work was novel, ingenious, and suggestive of new ways to study fires with new computational and remote sensing tools. That was just the tip of the iceberg–or the thermokarst, if you will! Since then Dr. Chen has published numerous diverse research studies improving our understanding of dueling post-fire successional trajectories in tundra, improved burn severity mapping of legacy tundra fires, and fire regime effects on carbon balance. Her most recent paper outlines the role of tundra fire vs. climate warming in thawing permafrost in Alaska tundra statewide! If you’ve missed any of these important papers for your collection, links are included below. Now Dr. Chen is a post-doctoral researcher at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, continuing her work on unraveling impacts of climate change. Thank you, Dr. Chen for all you’ve revealed to us in Alaska!
In one handy paper that came out in 2021, Alaska fire analysts Robert “Zeke” Ziel and Chris Moore have compiled how-to’s, resources, fuel model-to-vegetation type crosswalks, and pro tips and secrets. The reference takes you all the way from introduction to the Canadian Forest Fire Danger Rating system to how to conduct an analysis of fire behavior in WFDSS (Wildfire Decision Support System used by fire agencies). Included are such perplexing topics as how to estimate live and dead fuel moisture, what are the available short-term and near-term fire models, what do do about winds, which National fuel models require “tweaking” in Alaska, and sources of vegetation map products and satellite imagery. Fire behavior analysts definitely want to review this before the fire season and make sure it’s handy in their kit if they plan to work in Alaska, and researchers will also find this an extremely useful state-of-the-art comprehensive review of how fire behavior analysis currently works in practice.
From the authors: “Alaska is faced with a unique fire management problem that has been handled in an interagency way for more than 30 years. The evolution of fire management has led to a different approach in interagency cooperation; weather data management; fire behavior and fire danger implementation; GIS management; and overall fire suppression strategies. This guide is intended to provide standardized inputs for initial analysis; these are not hard and fast rules to be strictly followed throughout an incident.”
At the November, 2021 Association of Fire Ecology Conference, Erin Belval from the USFS Rocky Mountain Research Station summarized results of surveys conducted with interagency hotshot crews, tallying their assessment of the effectiveness of several measures used to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 in 2020. For example, most respondents said they preferred virtual check-in and paperwork (although 25% had some problems with it). Fully 75% of respondents thought virtual briefings were as effective as in person and/or saved time. When asked: “Did you prefer the single large incident command post (ICP), or spike camps or multiple smaller operating bases?” crews showed a strong preference for spiking out on the line, with the resources of a full ICP supporting them. The presentation was titled Interagency Hotshot Crews views of new practices developed to address COVID-19 and you can view it on YouTube (one of several presentations available from a social and ecological resilience to wildfire session) HERE>>>>>: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hoGdcP9GTyU&t=4763s
A new study just published in Sustainability surveyed Fairbanks Northstar Borough and Kenai Peninsula Borough homeowners about their willingness to pay for types of fuelbreaks on their property, their neighbor’s property and how public land treatments nearby affected their choices. Molina et al. found that surveyed homeowners (n=358) had a greater willingness-to-pay for fire hazard reduction when a moderate number of neighbors (1-4 neighbors) engaged in property mitigation. They were less enthusiastic when nobody else was participating, or on the other hand–when they perceived too many neighbors were clearing fuels. Shaded fuel breaks–like thinning treatments–were preferred to clearcutting. Read the article (open access) here: https://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/13/21/11754/htm
Molina A, Little J, Drury S, Jandt R. Homeowner Preferences for Wildfire Risk Mitigation in the Alaskan Wildland Urban Interface. Sustainability. 2021; 13(21):11754. https://doi.org/10.3390/su132111754
Forestry research in Alaska indicates that coniferous-dominated interior boreal forests are being replaced by deciduous trees due to recent climate warming and changes in the wildfire regime. Mann et al. 20121 suggested a dramatic shift in forest species dominance was already happening, since the 1990’s. Interior Alaska forests have averaged about ⅔ coniferous to ⅓ deciduous over the last several hundred years. Using landscape disturbance models under various global climate scenarios, Mann’s team predicted the ratio would soon be 1:1 and even reverse by mid-century, with hardwood stands comprising ⅔ of the forests. Now, 30 years of satellite imagery and improved vegetation mapping methods using new technology offer a chance to test their predictions.
Post-fire succession: When Alaska spruce forests burn the trees are killed, but black spruce stands tend to “self-replace” about ⅔ of the time—by seeding into the remnant moss layers2. On the other hand, it has been well-documented that “severe” (deep-burning) forest fires favor regrowth of hardwoods (birch, aspen and poplar). These species can grow fast in deeper active layers that result after severe fires in which most of the moss duff is removed3. This can result in a “relay succession” recovery where hardwoods dominate the canopy for a time before slower growing spruce can regain dominance of the canopy. In either case, if the stand reburns within about 50 years, small black spruce in the understory are destroyed before developing a robust seed bank, and the stands tend to become increasingly hardwood dominated. Ongoing studies to refine these parameters in eastern interior Alaska reveal that pure black spruce stands transitioned to deciduous forest about half the time after a severe fire4. Coniferous forest with even a small percentage of deciduous stems (> 7%) succeeded into a mixed-wood composition (50:50) and stands which had >30% pre-fire deciduous stems became exclusively deciduous.
Why is a shift in forest species important? Spruce forests have vastly different properties than broadleaf forests. These differences include: higher flammability, lower water uptake, slower litter decomposition rates, different atmospheric heating properties (surface albedo), and carbon sequestration capacity. Of course, they also differ with respect to supplying wood, game, and berries to humans. Black spruce trees thrive in cold, moist soil conditions, and actually enhance these conditions by accumulating a deep mossy soil organic layer. The moss layer is often too moist–with snowmelt water, rainfall, and seasonally thawing ice below–to support combustion beyond a few centimeters deep. Most of the carbon (C) stored in these slow-growing forests is in the moss and soil organic layers. Warmer summers and extended burning seasons in late summer tend to allow the moss duff layers to dry faster and deeper. In western Canada, 90% of C combusted in extensive 2014 fires in black spruce forest came from the forest floor 5. Deciduous trees, on the other hand, thrive in nutrient rich, dry and (relatively) warm soils, and reinforce these conditions with high decomposition rates, so the soil organic layer tends to be shallow. Their faster growth rate (productivity 5-7 times greater than black spruce forest) means that they store most of their C aboveground in the trees themselves6. Deciduous trees also require more water to sustain that rapid growth—a lot more! It was recently discovered that Alaska broadleaf trees take up 25% of available spring snowmelt water (compared to about 1% for spruce)7. But mature spruce forests (aged 70-120 years) win out when it comes to long-term C storage — they had 4-10 times the C stored in their organic soils (2.0-5.7 kg C m-2) compared to 50-year-old stands8.
Was the forest shift prediction accurate? Back to the changing forest composition. What does the latest research tell us about the predictions of a decade ago? As part of a multi-year NASA study, Wang, et al. 20209 used an enormous data set of satellite-derived vegetation cover type estimates covering all Alaska and northwestern Canada from 1984 to 20149. They documented a net loss of 14.7% (+/- 3%) coniferous forest along with an equivalent net gain of deciduous forest. These results seem consistent with the predicted forest composition shift caused by a more active fire regime in boreal forests relative to the last several millennia. In an ongoing separate study, preliminary data showed that in burned areas of the boreal biome the ratio of deciduous to evergreen forest cover increased 14.4% (from 23.4% to 37.8%) from 2001-2016, which was 3.3 times higher than in unburned areas10. However, these same authors also documented that mixed and deciduous forest types may be burning more now compared to previous decades, perhaps even burning at a faster rate than they were being replaced during the study time window. In addition, by coupling two types of remotely sensed data for vegetation, the researchers could estimate forest biomass and tree-canopy structure. This analysis showed that recovering burned forest, whether it succeeded to deciduous forest or remained evergreen, still had overall lower biomass and canopy density compared to areas that did not burn. This finding has implications for management scenarios involving fire use to reduce future fuel loadings, and also for carbon sequestration studies. Separate investigations confirm the loss of forest biomass across eastern interior Alaska and predict this will become the modern trend as the climate warms4. Impacts on wildfire and permafrost dynamics will result in overall decreases in biomass (particularly for spruce within the interior Tanana Valley, despite increases in quaking aspen biomass) and result in a continued shift towards a higher deciduous fraction. To a lesser extent, increased biomass is seen at certain locations, such as cold or wet locations, and at high elevations, such as along the north slopes of the Alaska range11. In summary, recent studies seem to support the predictions made a decade ago1 with respect to spruce forest declining and broadleaf and mixed forest increasing across interior Alaska.
What about negative feedbacks to boreal burning? Deciduous forests are more resistant to fires than spruce forests—a guiding principle of much fire suppression and fuel treatments strategy12. Under average summer conditions, coniferous forest is more conducive to large fire spread and accounts for at least half of the average yearly burned extent. Since hardwood forests are less flammable, why doesn’t a negative feedback kick in to reduce flammability as deciduous forests become more common on the landscape? The short answer is that most mega-fires burn in unusually hot/dry summers, and once the fire weather gets extreme enough, deciduous forests and regenerating forests become equally receptive to burning13. The “unusual” heat is becoming more “usual” in recent decades, and future climate scenarios predict dramatic increases in high fire danger days. As for the future of forests in Alaska, new models at the stand level are being developed which include the latest understanding of forest environmental drivers and physiological constraints4,11. A research study funded by the Department of Defense in eastern interior will be sharing findings regarding fire-prone areas of Alaska from Fairbanks to the Canadian border, complete with web visualization tools for managers (beta version: https://masseyr44.users.earthengine.app/view/decidfractreecoverserdpv1).
The takeaway: Alaska’s boreal forest is undergoing major changes driven by the domino effects of changing climate. Boreal forests are experiencing changes in the fire regime, which through interactions with the ecological and physiological attributes of trees are causing widespread shifts in forest composition. Those shifts in turn are causing a shift towards net C release to the atmosphere which could accelerate global warming. Overall, these shifts in forest species dominance are a fascinating example of how even a relatively simple biome like boreal forest can have complex responses to changes in climate.
Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Dr. Dan Mann and Dr. Eric Deutsch for helpful discussion and interpretation and to Zav Grabinski for editing help.
References: 1 Mann, D. H., T. S. Rupp, M. A. Olson, and P. A. Duffy. 2012. Is Alaska’s boreal forest now crossing a major ecological threshold? Arctic Antarctic and Alpine Research, v. 44, no. 3, p. 319-331.
2 Baltzer, Jennifer et al. 2019. Widespread ecological reorganization of boreal forests following severe wildfires. AGU Poster B33B-07, San Francisco, CA Dec. 9-12, 2019.
3 Hollingsworth, T. N., J. F. Johnstone, E.L. Bernhardt, S. F. Chapin. 2013. Fire severity filters regeneration traits to shape community assembly in Alaska’s boreal forest. Plos One 8(2):e56033.
4 Goetz, Scott, et al. (ongoing) SERDP Project RC18-C2-1183: Resiliency and Vulnerability of Boreal Forest Habitat across DoD Lands of Interior Alaska.
5 Walker, X. et al. 2018. Cross-scale controls on carbon emissions from boreal forest megafires. Global Change Biology 24 (9): 4251-4265.
6 Alexander, H. and M. Mack. 2016. A Canopy Shift in Interior Alaskan Boreal Forests: Consequences for Above and Belowground Carbon and Nitrogen Pools during Post-fire Succession. Ecosystems 19: 98-114.
7 Young-Robertson, J. M., W.R. Bolton, U.S. Bhatt, J. Cristóbal, R. Thoman. 2016. Deciduous trees are a large and overlooked sink for snowmelt water in the boreal forest. Scientific Reports 6:29504.
8 Hoy, E.E., M.R. Turetsky and E.S. Kasischke. 2016. More frequent burning increases vulnerability of Alaskan boreal black spruce forests. Environ. Res. Lett.11 095001
9 Wang, J. A., D. Sulla-Menashe, C.E. Woodcock, O. Sonnentag, R.F. Keeling and M.A. Friedl. 2020. Extensive Land Cover Change Across Arctic-Boreal Northwestern North America from Disturbance and Climate Forcing. Global Change Biology 26, 807–822.
10 Deutsch, E.J. and M.L. Chipman. 2020. Observations of Post-Wildfire Land Cover Trends in Boreal Alaska Using Geospatial Analyses. AGU Poster, Virtual, Dec. 1-17, 2020.
11 Foster, A.C. et al. 2019. Importance of tree- and species-level interactions with wildfire, climate, and soils in interior Alaska: Implications for forest change under a warming climate. Ecol. Modeling 409: 108765.
12 Beverly, J. L. 2017. Time since prior wildfire affects subsequent fire containment in black spruce. International Journal of Wildland Fire 26:919–929.
13 Barrett, K, T. Loboda, A.D. McGuire, H. Genet, E. Hoy, and E. Kasischke. 2016. Static and dynamic controls on fire activity at moderate spatial and temporal scales in the Alaskan boreal forest. Ecosphere7(11): e01572. 10.1002/ecs2.1572.
14 Dash, C.B., J.M. Fraterrigo, and F.S. Hu. 2016. Land cover influences boreal forest fire responses to climate change: geospatial analysis of historical records from Alaska. Landscape Ecology 31:1781–1793.
A pair of new 2021 papers take different tracks to assess the impact of human activities and anthropogenic climate warming, on fire season in south central Alaska. We still remember how smoke choked the Kenai and Matsu boroughs in 2019, for most of June-August. A University of Alaska team tallies the impacts–in $$, losses, and human health, while also placing the season in a historical context to look for anthropogenic influence. They deemed human influences thus far were less important than weather, but would become more of a factor by mid-century. An important finding was that heating seemed to overpower increased precipitation (over longer timescales): “The effect of warming temperatures dominates the effect of enhanced precipitation in the trend towards increased fire risk.” Read the full paper HERE: Uma S. Bhatt, et al. 2021. Emerging Anthropogenic Influences on the Southcentral Alaska Temperature and Precipitation Extremes and Related Fires in 2019. Land. 2021; 10(1):82. https://doi.org/10.3390/land10010082
Historically, wildfire detection in Alaska relied on keeping an eye on neighborhoods and on lightning storms. Much of the detection around the state was done by aerial patrols beginning in 1973. In fact, in 1978 the BLM had 12 aircraft dedicated solely to fire detection and another six smokejumper aircraft which often did loaded patrols after widespread thunderstorm activity!
Alaska Department of Forestry T-28 Trojan on the ramp at Ft. Wainwright, 1988. (Photos by Linn Clawson). Below, pilot and observer were required to wear parachutes on missions in the WW2 vintage fighter-turned-detection aircraft
Then, at the turn of this century, it became apparent that the weather satellites MODIS Terra and Aqua could detect heat signatures of fire—fortunate timing because the price of contracted aircraft had skyrocketed and those surplus WW2 airplanes were mostly out of service.
Alaskan fire managers excitedly tested the use of spaceborne images to make wildfire detection faster and less expensive. Although these satellites are now nearing the end of their useful life (after 20 years in orbit), the VIIRS instruments aboard two newer satellites are starting to provide data.
Alaskan fire managers again are eager to make use of the new capacity, and are receiving help from key partners, inside and outside of Alaska. Several talks and posters at the 2020 American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting held virtually in December highlighted important facets of ongoing efforts to harness the latest science and technology for use in Alaska.
The above figure (R. E. Wolfe, et al. FIRMS US/Canada – An Extension of NASA Near Real-Time FIRMS for the Forest Service and Inter-agency Wildfire Management Community—Fig. 1) diagrams the extensive network of agency and institution partnerships that have been established to gather and serve fire detection data to meet fire agencies needs around the country. With respect to the polar-orbiting satellites carrying some of these sensors, including VIIRS, Alaska find itself advantaged by twice as many daily satellite passes. Even more exciting, the Alaska Satellite Facility (ASF)—in the Geophysical Institute on the UAF campus– downloads the raw data directly, without waiting for processing and server functions in the lower 48. In the last couple years, ASF and GINA (Geographic Information Network of Alaska) have teamed up to feed VIIRS satellite detection hotspots directly to a digital map layer that can be accessed by fire managers less than one hour after the satellite passes. Compare the simplicity of the Alaska model with the above path for MODIS “rapid-response” data!
This kind of state-of-the-art service has taken a lot of logistical planning, hard work, and scrambles for funding both at the University of Alaska as well as the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center. The hard works pays dividends by giving fire management in Alaska a much needed boost against the background of longer, hotter fire seasons with flat suppression funding.
Not only has the satellite “hotspot” data proved useful for finding fires, it also is boosting our ability to monitor, model, and predict fire spread. A talk by Dr. Chris Waigl outlined how maximizing the use of three key remotely-sensed data streams: snow-off date to help start fire danger index models, improved wall-to-wall rasterized visuals of fuel drying by region, and improved regional algorithms to maximize the accuracy and sensitivity of satellite hotspot identification, were all used to good effect by Alaska fire management in 2020. Having the remotely sensed data to help with prioritization and decision-making was especially strategic during the COVID pandemic when managers were striving to spare staffing and reduce travel to rural villages.
Figure 3 Example of VIIRS fire heat points use in fire spread monitoring, P. Hickman.
The potential utility of remotely-sensed data for wildfire management has been recognized by scientists and agencies for some time, but it’s not always easy to bring a product from the laboratory to the operations room. There have been many discussions at various national levels and even a grassroots workshop in Fairbanks “Opportunities to Apply Remote Sensing in Boreal/Arctic Wildfire Management & Science”sponsored by NASA and facilitated by the Alaska Fire Science Consortium in 2017 addressing the potential application of remotely-sensed data. And although the story seemed very successful, given the above, it’s not over! Canada plans to launch the world’s first dedicated wildfire monitoring satellite constellation, WildFireSat, in 2025. And now we are thinking of ways to harness Artificial Intelligence for fire detection and spread monitoring! Stay tuned.
List of the AGU talks/posters referenced with links:
At their “All Hands” meeting in November a diverse array of researchers presented quick overviews of their findings the University of Alaska National Science Foundation-sponsored research project called EpsCor Fire & Ice. The scope of projects—many guided by the participation of fire managers and other stakeholder groups in Alaska—was remarkable. Below are a few sample highlights that will convince you to check out their slide deck summary from the meeting [HERE].
Alaska’s first ever study of wildfire smoke-related health outcomes (respiratory and cardiovascular) by Micah Hahn at UAA. She used a database on emergency room visits in Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Matsu (which collectively could account for 60% of Alaska’s population) during wildfire seasons 2015-2019. The biggest correlative effect with smoke seemed to be asthma: In Anchorage, for example, a 13% increase in ER visits was noted on days of elevated wildfire smoke (PM 2.5) exposure. A paper with full results is expected to be out soon.
Remote sensing specialists in the Boreal Fires team (Smith, Bandola, Panda, Waigl) continue to make headway with using newly available multi-spetral remotely sensed imagery and high-tech computational processes to improve Alaska fire fuels maps (Figure, below). Managers and fire modelers have repeatedly stressed that inaccurate mapping of fuels is one of the biggest limitations currently impeding better fire spread modeling.
Remote sensing products can also improve the quality of burn severity maps, even in WUI areas where suppression is still active (Schmidt).
Homeowner surveys in fire-impacted areas revealed how much risk homeowners thought they had prior to the fires and how they were directly impacted (Schmidt).
Why do some fire scars have great morel mushroom crops and others don’t? That vexing question was tackled (Yamin-Pasternak) with input from lots of participating harvesters who also pronounced the fire season of 2020 as the longest ever! Hint: they also ranked recent fires around the state relative to their productivity—a result you’re going to want to examine.
Erik Schoen and Ben Meyer from the UAF Institute of Arctic Biology studied the effects of the 2019 Shovel Creek fire on juvenile salmon. Although differences were found in water quality and food availability in burned vs. unburned reference areas, the growth rates of the fish were similar.
Those highlights ought to convince you to spend a few minutes looking at the slide deck from the meeting, just to see more items from this amazing interdisciplinary collaboration of science and management! Likely there’s a researcher looking for collaboration and input from you in your fire specialty, and Alaska Fire Science Consortium can help you make a connection. Go to https://www.alaska.edu/epscor/publications-presentations-posters/ and look for the 2020 Alaska EPSCoR All Hands Meeting, Boreal Fires component.
This AFSC research brief takes a look at early Alaska fire history from the 1940s. The “Zombie” Fires of 1942 is a historical narrative of an exceptional fire event related to the Alaska Railroad, including an early description of a holdover fire burning over winter.
Can remote sensing products help mitigate the loss of on-the-ground resources due to the COVID-19 pandemic?
Chris Waigl and the EPSCoR Boreal Fires Science team are rapidly developing new tools to aid with the fire season in Alaska. Products include, enhanced access to daily snow cover extent and fire danger maps, and highly focused fire-detection algorithms. The tools aim to provide data that can be integrated into existing systems facilitating direct applications for users, including fire operation managers.
Remote sensing of daily snow cover extent
Spring 2020 saw the introduction of a new daily snow cover extent mapping product for the state of Alaska. The source data from the NOAA National Ice Center is based on near-real time readings from the Interactive Multi-sensor Snow and Ice Mapping System (IMS). This satellite multi-sensor can differentiate between snow, ice, water, and snow-free ground with high levels of accuracy. The snow cover product is available seasonally for download as a vector file and as web-browser map with near-real time updates through the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center (AICC) mapping service, and year-round (with limited updates) from the Boreal Fires Team. Inter-annual comparisons of snow cover (Figure 1) can be made by geographic zone or throughout the state. This snow classification data could potentially be improved by validation through Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) and Visible Infared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) products, National Weather Service snow depth data, and citizen science projects that measure snow depth.
Improving access to spatial representations of Alaska Fire Danger Ratings
The Canadian Forest Fire Danger Rating System (CFFDRS) combines fire occurrence prediction systems, fire weather indices, and fire behavior systems to establish a fire danger rating. MesoWest produces fire danger ratings from CFFDRS for Alaska. The Boreal Fires team helps make this data more accessible by processing the MesoWest GeoTIFFs into a format that can be more easily used for webmapping by AICC. These fire danger ratings are available on the AICC web-mapping service and also hosted by the Boreal Fires Team. The fire danger ratings, known as Spruce Adjective Ratings, are grouped into low, moderate, high, very high, and extreme classes. These discrete groupings along with provincially specific parameters can create harsh differences in adjacent areas at province and international borders. CFFDRS has proven to have great application to Alaska. The Boreal Fires Team hopes that making the danger ratings more accessible will open the door for fine tuning the data to seamlessly fit Alaska, and lead to improved integration into fire behavior and analysis tools for the state.
VIFDAHL (VIIRS I-band Fire Detection Algorithm for High Latitudes)
VIIRS fire detection has shown to be invaluable for remote fire detection at high latitudes. VIFDAHL compliments VIIRS by subsetting high fire-danger areas and known fire locations. This information is particularly important for fire operations managers. Low-intensity detections have direct application to spotting residual fire hazards, which can help with resource prioritization Having additional inputs for where fire is now, particularly low-intensity detections, is helpful to identify ignition sources for fire behavior models.