Changing Boreal Fire Regimes

Understanding intensifying boreal fire regimes and their role in driving climate change

photo by Brendan Rogers

Team Collaborators

The climate is changing faster in northern latitudes than the rest of the globe, intensifying wildfire regimes across the boreal landscape.

Boreal forests punch above their weight when it comes to carbon storage—they make up a third of global forests, but store roughly two thirds of global forest carbon, mainly in the organic matter in their soils. However, these important carbon stores are at risk in a changing climate.

Longer fire seasons, more intense fire weather, and increased lightning ignitions are intensifying fire regimes in the north. The resulting increase in fires and the area burned directly contributes to larger amounts of carbon being emitted into our atmosphere. However, boreal fire emissions are largely missing from the climate models that inform the IPCC and global carbon budgets, are not completely reported in national greenhouse gas inventories, and are not managed with carbon or climate in mind.

How will boreal fire regimes continue to evolve, how will these changes impact greenhouse gas emissions and our global climate, and is there anything we can do about it?

Our Work

  • Fire mapping. We’re pairing multiple scales of remote sensing imagery with deep learning models to more accurately map wildfire occurrence across the circumpolar boreal forest. This new technique is especially important for Siberia, which currently does not have reliable, operational data.
  • Fire carbon emissions and climate impact. We are continuing our work with international collaborators collecting field observations on fire severity, burn depth, and carbon emissions to the atmosphere. These field measurements are combined with geospatial data and machine learning models to estimate carbon emissions across large scales, to estimate the impacts on permafrost, and to quantify the feedbacks to climate.
  • Future projections. We are using machine learning and process models to project the impact of future climate on arctic and boreal wildfire regimes. These projections will be fed into models that quantify permafrost and wildfire feedbacks to climate change, and impacts on climate targets such as the 1.5 and 2°C goals established by the Paris Climate Agreement.
  • Fire self-regulation. We are studying how boreal fires spread and are ultimately extinguished, as well as how this is impacted by top-down (e.g., fire weather, climate) vs. bottom-up (vegetation type, fuel, site drainage) drivers. This information is critical for being able to project fire regimes under continued climate change.
  • Fire management as a mitigation strategy. We are combining fire carbon emissions estimates, econometric data, and modeling to explore the ways in which boreal fire management, particularly fire suppression, can be used as a climate mitigation tool by keeping carbon in the ground and out of the atmosphere. We are working with partners on the ground to implement changes to fire management plans, quantify the impacts on carbon, and engage with agencies and community members in Alaska.
Research area

Above: Field research in a burned black spruce boreal forest. Photos by Jill Johnstone and Brendan Rogers.


While some climate models include boreal fire, they do not capture the emissions generated when fire burns soil organic matter or thaws permafrost. Our work aims to elevate and socialize these emissions as the global climate threat that they are, and to quantify how their release will impact our ability to meet climate targets.

Our research showing fire management to be a cost-effective natural climate solution has received attention because of its potential impact on carbon budgets. In 2023, and for the first time in US history, a land management agency has increased fire protection in an area specifically to protect carbon. After we shared our research with the fire management community in Alaska, USFWS designated 1.8 million acres of Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge as a pilot program for increased fire protection to preserve vulnerable ice- and carbon-rich permafrost.

Our ultimate aim is to increase funding for boreal fire management agencies and operationalize carbon and permafrost protection from fire in the US (Alaska) and Canada. Our work on fire management and self-regulation can also help inform fire management agencies’ practices with improved tools and understanding.

Partners & Collaborators
  • NASA ABoVE logo
  • NSF logo
  • Audacious Project logo
  • Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation logo
  • Alaska Venture Fund logo
  • Northern Arizona University logo

Selected Related Publications

Escalating carbon emissions from North American boreal forest wildfires and the climate mitigation potential of fire management

Phillips, C. A., Rogers, B. M., Elder, M., Cooperdock, S., Moubarak, M., Randerson, J. T., and Frumhoff, P. C. (2022). Science Advances


Lightning as a major driver of recent large fire years in North American boreal forests

Veraverbeke, S., Rogers, B. M., Goulden, M. L., Jandt, R. R., Miller, C. E., Wiggins, E. B., and Randerson, J. T. (2017). Nature Climate Change


Increasing wildfires threaten historic carbon sink of boreal forest soils

Walker, X. J., Baltzer, J. L., Cumming, S. G., Day, N. J., Ebert, C., Goetz, S., Johnstone, J. F., Potter, S., Rogers, B. M., Schuur, E. A. G., Turetsky, M. R., and Mack, M. C. (2019). Nature