photo by Brendan Rogers
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?
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.