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Fire in the Arctic Landscape: Impacts, interactions and links to global and regional environmental change

Anaktuvuk River 2007 Burn

Between July 16 and October 1, 2007, the “Anaktuvuk River” (AR) fire burned over 1000 km2 (400 square miles) of tundra on the North Slope of Alaska (see Figure to the right). This was the largest fire in Alaska in 2007 (http://fire.ak.blm.gov/), and it would be considered a very large fire in any year, even in a more fire-prone landscape like boreal forest. What is particularly remarkable about the AR fire is that it burned on the treeless tundra where small fires occasionally burn but large ones are quite rare; the area burned in this one fire is equal to the total area burned by all recorded fires on the North Slope since 1950 (Jones et al., 2009, Racine and Jandt 2008; http://agdc.usgs.gov/data/blm/fire/index.html). The AR fire was large enough to include several complete 1st-3rd order watersheds, and most of the burned area was classified as “high” or “extremely high” severity by BLM fire severity standards (G. Shaver personal observation, R. Jandt BLM fire survey trip report July 2008). All of the land burned in the AR fire is in the foothills region of the North Slope, including diverse tundra, streams, lakes, and wetlands at elevations of 200-600 m. The dominant vegetation is moist acidic tundra, characterized by the tussock-forming sedge Eriophorum vaginatum (Walker et al. 1989, 2003).

The 2007 Anaktuvuk River fire created a unique opportunity to observe the response of a pristine tundra landscape to a major disturbance. The area burned is large enough (>1000 km2) that its impacts can be measured directly at multiple scales, from small plots, to small (1st-order) catchments and hillslopes, to large (3rd-order) catchments, to the atmospheric boundary layer above the entire burn. As the burned area recovers over time, observations of changes in key ecosystem processes and in terrestrial and aquatic communities afford insights into controls and interactions among system components that would not be possible from long-term observation of an undisturbed or unmanipulated tundra landscape.

This project establishes a long-term, multiscale, multidimensional program of observation, comparison, and analysis on the AR fire. The observations, comparisons, and analysis build upon work begun in 2008 (the first summer following the fire) with SGER funds from the NSF Arctic Systems Science and NEON programs. Key components of the research include measurement of (1) surface C, water, and energy exchanges, (2) terrestrial organic matter, C, and element stocks, (3) terrestrial vegetation composition and structure, (4) lake and stream chemistry and water flow, (5) lake and stream community composition, and (6) evaluation of spectral reflectance measures of production, biomass, community composition, and burn impacts for use in scaling up to larger areas and for comparison with satellite- and airplane based measures of reflectance.

 

References

Jones, B.M., C.A. Kolden, R. Jandt, J.T. Abatzoglou, F. Urban, and C.D. Arp. 2009. Fire Behavior, Weather, and Burn Severity of the 2007 Anaktuvuk River Tundra Fire, North Slope, Alaska. Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research 41(3): 309–316.

Racine, C.H., and R. Jandt. 2008. The 2007 ‘Anaktuvuk River’ Tundra Fire On The Arctic Slope of Alaska: A New Phenomenon? Proceedings Ninth International Conference on Permafrost, in press

Walker, M.D., D.W. Walker, and K.R. Everett. 1989. Wetland soils and vegetation, arctic foothills, Alaska. US Fish and Wildlife Service Biological Report 89(7). 89 pp.

Walker, M.D., D.A. Walker, and N.A. Auerbach. 2003. Plant communities of a tussock tundra landscape in the Brooks Range foothills, Alaska. Journal of Vegetation Science 5: 843- 867.

 

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