When it comes to reversing climate change, trees are a big deal. Globally, forests absorb nearly 16 billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, and currently hold 861 gigatonnes of carbon in their branches, leaves, roots, and soils. This makes them a valuable global carbon sink, and makes preserving and maintaining healthy forests a vital strategy in combating climate change.

But not every forest absorbs and stores carbon in the same way, and the threats facing each are complex. A nuanced understanding of how carbon moves through forest ecosystems helps us build better strategies to protect them. Here’s how the world’s different forests help keep the world cool, and how we can help keep them standing.

Tropical forest carbon

Tropical rainforests are models of forest productivity. Trees use carbon in the process of photosynthesis, integrating it into their trunks, branches, leaves, and roots. When part or all of a tree dies and falls to the ground, it is consumed by microorganisms and carbon is released in the process of decay. In the heat and humidity of the tropics, vegetation grows so rapidly that decaying organic matter is almost immediately re-incorporated into new growth. Nearly all the carbon stored in tropical forests exists within the plants growing aboveground. 

Studies estimate that tropical forests alone are responsible for holding back more than 1 degree C of atmospheric warming. 75% of that is due simply to the amount of carbon they store. The other 25% comes from the cooling effects of shading, pumping water into the atmosphere and creating clouds, and disrupting airflow.  

In many tropical forest regions, there is a tension between forests and agricultural expansion. In the Amazon rainforest, land grabbing for commodity uses like cattle ranching or soy farming has advanced deforestation. Increasing protected forest areas and strengthening the rights of Indigenous communities to manage their own territories has proven effective at reducing deforestation and its associated emissions in Brazil. “Undesignated lands” have the highest levels of land grabbing and deforestation.

Fire has also become a growing threat to the Amazon in recent years, used as a tool to clear land by people illegally deforesting. When rainforests have been fragmented and degraded, their edges become drier and more susceptible to out-of-control burning, which weakens the forest even further. Enforcing and strengthening existing anti-deforestation laws are crucial to reduce carbon losses.

In Africa’s Congo rainforest, clearing is usually for small subsistence farms which, in aggregate, have a large effect on forest loss and degradation. Mobilizing finance to scale up agricultural intensification efforts and rural enterprise within communities, while implementing protection measures, can help decrease the rate of forest destruction. Forests and other intact natural landscapes such as wetlands and peatlands could be the focus of climate finance mechanisms that encourage sustainable landscape management initiatives. 

Temperate forest carbon

Much of the forest carbon in the temperate zone is stored in the trees as well— particularly in areas where high rainfall supports the growth of dense forests that are resilient against disturbances like drought or disease. The temperate rainforests of the Northwestern United States, Chile, Australia, and New Zealand contain some of the largest and oldest trees in the world. 

Two thirds of the total carbon sink in temperate forests can be attributed to the annual increase in “live biomass”, or the yearly growth of living trees within the forest. This makes the protection of mature and old-growth temperate forests paramount, since older forests add more carbon per year than younger ones and have much larger carbon stocks. Timber harvesting represents one of the most significant risks to the carbon stocks in temperate forests, particularly in the United States where 76% of mature and old growth forests go unprotected from logging. Fire and insects are also significant threats to temperate forests particularly in areas of low rainfall or periodic drought.  

Maintaining the temperate forest sink means reducing the area of logging, by both removing the incentive to manage public forests for economic uses and by providing private forest owners with incentives to protect their land. Low-impact harvesting practices and better recycling of wood products can also help bring down carbon losses from temperate forests. In areas threatened by increasingly severe wildfires, reducing fuel loads especially near settlements can help protect lives and property. 

Boreal forest carbon

In boreal forests, the real wealth of carbon is below the ground. In colder climates, the processes of decay that result in emissions tend to lag behind the process of photosynthesis which locks away carbon in organic matter. Over millennia, that imbalance has slowly built up a massive carbon pool in boreal soils. Decay is even further slowed in areas of permafrost, where the ground stays frozen nearly year round. It estimated that 80 to 90% of all carbon in boreal forests is stored belowground. The aboveground forest helps to protect belowground carbon from warming, thaw, decay, and erosion.

Wildfire— although a natural element in boreal forests— represents one of the greatest threats to boreal forest carbon. With increased temperatures, rising more than twice as fast in boreal forests compared to lower latitudes, and more frequent and long-lasting droughts, boreal forests are now experiencing more frequent and intense wildfires. The hotter and more often a stand of boreal forest catches fire, the deeper into the soil carbon pool the fire will burn, sending centuries-old carbon up in smoke in an instant. Logging of high-carbon primary forests is also a big issue in the boreal.

The number one protection for boreal forest carbon is reducing fossil fuel emissions. Only reversing climate change will bring boreal fires back to the historical levels these forests evolved with. In the meantime, active fire management in boreal forests offers a cost effective strategy to reduce emissions— studies found it could cost less than 13 dollars per ton of carbon dioxide emissions avoided. Strategies for fire management included both putting out fires that threaten large emissions, and controlled and cultural burning outside of the fire season to reduce the flammability of the landscape.

Fund for Climate Solutions awards five new grants

From floods to fire, the 2023 summer cohort of FCS projects seeks scalable climate solutions

The second round of 2023 Fund for Climate Solutions (FCS) awardees has been announced. The FCS advances innovative, solutions-oriented climate science through a competitive, internal, and cross-disciplinary funding process. Generous donor support has enabled us to raise more than $10 million towards the FCS, funding 58 research grants since the campaign’s launch in 2018. This latest cohort of grantees includes five projects working toward a range of scalable solutions to address climate impacts around the globe, from boreal and tropical forests, to heat-impacted cities, to much-discussed and still-struggling carbon markets.

Boreal fire management to protect permafrost and carbon

Lead PI: Brendan Rogers
Co-PI: Peter Frumhoff

As the climate changes, wildfires in boreal forests are intensifying and putting tremendous amounts of carbon at risk of accelerated release from trees and soils to the atmosphere. Motivated by previous Woodwell Climate research, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has recently set aside 1.6 million acres of the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Reserve in Alaska for enhanced fire management to protect carbon and permafrost, and has invited our collaboration to assess the potential and cost-effectiveness of boreal fire management as a to-date overlooked natural climate solution. This invitation is an unprecedented opportunity for actionable scientific research and timely policy impact. Supported by the FCS, the team will conduct the first-ever field study of boreal fire management for climate mitigation. Then, they will bring this work and its implications to decision makers and interest holders in Alaska and DC, positioning Woodwell Climate to expand the reach of this work within Alaska and, ultimately, to other boreal nations.

How climate change will exacerbate the vulnerability of people experiencing homelessness in Las Vegas

Lead PI: Christopher Schwalm

Climate change is exacerbating the vulnerability of people experiencing homelessness in Las Vegas, NV as they face increasing extreme heat risk on the street and flood risk inside stormwater infrastructure. In the city, people experiencing homelessness cope with extreme heat by sheltering in stormwater infrastructure. During the summer of 2022, Las Vegas experienced its wettest monsoon season in over 10 years, resulting in the loss of two lives due to flooded tunnels. This award will support our partnership with local homelessness organizations to develop ways to measure projected lethal heat days and extreme flooding, informing emergency evacuations and raising awareness of climate risk. Research Assistant Monica Caparas will be the on-site scientific lead, and serve as the point of contact for all local partnerships. Because the threat of climate change to people experiencing homelessness isn’t limited to Las Vegas, this work aims to advance climate justice by creating a replicable framework and best practices for establishing and nourishing working relationships with local communities, social service organizations, and government agencies.

Insights and lessons from 20 years of research on forest dynamics and agricultural sustainability in the Amazon

Lead PI: Ludmila Rattis
Co PIs: Marcia Macedo, Michael Coe, Linda Deegan, Christopher Neill, and Paulo Brando

Tanguro Field Station celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2024. Since its establishment by the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM Amazônia), 177 research papers have been published based on work conducted there. More than 215 students and journalists have participated in activities at Tanguro and produced theses, dissertations, policy briefs, and special content in prestigious journals and news outlets. While research at Tanguro has significantly advanced our understanding of tropical regions and continues to provide valuable ecological insights, there is a pressing need to synthesize past research. This award will support the preparation and publication of a synthesis paper that consolidates the findings and key insights from 20 years of research at Tanguro to facilitate a better understanding of the complex interdependencies within tropical ecosystems. This synthesis will also aid in developing a proposal to establish a Biological Integration Institute (BII-NSF) at Tanguro to promote collaboration, interdisciplinary approaches, and knowledge sharing among researchers, policymakers, and people affected by climate change and deforestation in the region.

Detecting post-fire recruitment failure and permanent forest loss

Lead PI: Arden Burrell
Co PIs: Yili Yang, Anna Talucci, and Brendan Rogers

Extensive field campaigns in the boreal forest and the western US have revealed that at an increasing number of study sites, tree species are failing to re-establish after fire destroys the stand. Such post-fire recruitment failure is increasing due to climate change, leading to a loss of both wildlife habitat and carbon storage, and reducing the area’s ability to provide ecosystem services. However, the large-scale extent of recruitment failure has not been studied—this is a key knowledge gap. The goal of this research is to perform a pilot study on existing sites in Yellowstone National Park to prove the feasibility of using remote sensing to detect recruitment failure, with the ultimate goal of obtaining further funding from US government agencies or private foundations. Bringing together Woodwell Climate scientists currently working on separate projects, including Permafrost Pathways, NASA ABoVE, and NSF Arctic System Science programs, this project will build on and synergize their existing research.

Advancing access to and applications of the Landscape Capital Index

Lead PI: Wayne Walker
Co-PIs: Seth Gorelik, Glenn Bush

Carbon markets could be a powerful mechanism for incentivizing natural climate solutions (NCS) while at the same time enhancing the well-being of land stewards and their communities. However, these markets have faced intense criticism for a lack of transparency and integrity. The project team has been working to develop the Landscape Capital Index (LCI), an independent, data-driven tool for assessing the potential of any tract of land to deliver climate mitigation, co-benefit, and conservation outcomes. With support from the FCS, the team will develop a web-based data platform prototype for beta testing and development into an interactive solution. This future state-of-the-art platform will enable access to and engagement with the LCI. The project team will also conduct targeted validation research to make sure the LCI performs well for strategic use cases in key geographic areas, with the goal of building user confidence in the data product’s integrity.

When boreal forests burn in the Far North of the U.S. and Canada, the whole world feels the impact. From communities evacuating from the blazes, to smoke clogging the air thousands of miles to the south, to the release of carbon emissions that accelerate climate change, boreal forest fires are a global issue. 

Research from Woodwell Climate has recently expanded our understanding of the scope of impact that boreal fires have. A new paper, led by Research Associate Stefano Potter, quantified emissions associated with fires across most of boreal North America, shedding light on the dynamics of boreal fires and climate change. These four graphics explain:

1. Boreal fires threaten an important carbon sink.

Using a new higher-resolution dataset, generated as part of NASA’s Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE), Potter and his co-authors created a map of burned area across the boreal region. The researchers combined satellite imagery with observations from the largest database of boreal field studies, which allowed them to calculate emissions from both vegetation burned aboveground, and organic matter in the soils that burned belowground.

The results show that the overwhelming majority of carbon emissions from boreal fires—over 80% of total emissions in most places—comes from soils rather than trees. Despite the dramatic imagery of burning forests, most of the real damage is happening below the ground.

2. The true impact of boreal emissions is currently underestimated.

That finding on its own was not surprising to researchers, as the majority of carbon in boreal forests is stored below the ground. However, the fact that the overwhelming contribution of belowground carbon to fire emissions is being left out of existing global fire and climate models, means we’re drastically underestimating carbon emissions from Arctic and Boreal environments.

“A large reason for that is because the [existing] models are not detecting the belowground carbon combustion, which we are modeling directly,” says Potter. 

Potter and the team working on the paper were able to accurately model belowground carbon loss because of their machine learning approach and the abundance of available field measurements in their dataset. 

Accurately representing these numbers in global fire models is critical, because these models are used to plot climate trajectories and inform carbon budgets, which tell us how much we need to cut emissions to stay below temperature thresholds like 1.5 or 2 degrees C.

3. Boreal fires are becoming more intense.

It is becoming more urgent to get an accurate understanding of boreal emissions, because boreal fires are becoming larger, more frequent and more intense. Burned area has increased as fire seasons stretch longer, return intervals between fires shorten, and single ignitions can result in massive blazes that burn further and deeper and cause greater carbon loss.

In 2023, for example, while the number of ignitions has been lower than most years since the 1990s, burned area as of August has far surpassed any year in the past three decades.

4.Fire suppression can be a cost effective protection against carbon loss.

Ultimately, preventing carbon loss from boreal forest fires will require bringing down emissions from other sources and curbing warming to get fires back within historical levels. But preventing boreal forests from burning in the short term can offer a climate solution that could buy time to reduce other emissions. 

A collaborative study between Woodwell Climate and the Union of Concerned Scientists, published in Science Advances, modeled the cost effectiveness of deploying fire suppression in boreal North America and found that actively combatting boreal fires could cost as little as 13 dollars per ton of CO2 emissions avoided—a cost on par with other carbon mitigation solutions like onshore wind or utility-scale solar. Informed by this data, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has decided to start combating fires in Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge, not only when they present a threat to human health, but also with the intent of preventing significant carbon losses. Yukon Flats is underlain by large swaths of carbon-rich permafrost soils, at risk of thawing and combusting in deep-burning fires.

Deepening our understanding of the complex boreal system with further research will help inform additional strategies for bringing emissions under control, preventing devastating fires that threaten human health both regionally, and across the globe.

Canada’s fire season has barely started and it’s already on track to break records. So far, NOAA has documented more than 2,000 wildfires that have resulted in the forced evacuation of over 100,000 people across Canada. The most recent bout of fires burning in Ontario and Quebec has sent smoke southward into the Eastern U.S., causing record levels of air pollution in New York and warnings against outside activity as far south as Virginia.

Only a little over a month into the wildfire season, fires have already burned 13 times more land area than the 110-year average for this time of year, and they show no sign of stopping, according to Canadian publication The Star. Indigenous communities, some of whom live year-round in remote bush cabins, have been particularly harmed by the blazes.

According to Woodwell Climate Senior Scientist Dr. Jennifer Francis, the phenomenon of winds pushing smoke down to the northeastern U.S. has been linked to rapid Arctic warming caused by climate change.

In the upper atmosphere, a fast wind current called the jet stream flows from west to east in undulating waves, caused by the interaction of air masses with different temperatures and pressures, particularly between the Arctic and temperate latitudes.

As global temperatures have risen, the Arctic has warmed two to four times faster than the average global rate. Dr. Francis stated in an interview in the Boston Globe that the lessening of the temperature differences between the middle latitudes and the Arctic has slowed down the jet stream, which results in a more frequent occurrence of a wavy path.
Another factor contributing to the widespread smoke is an ongoing oceanic heat wave in the North Pacific Ocean. The blob of much-above-normal sea water tends to create a northward bulge in the jet stream, which creates a pattern that sends cooler air down to California and warm air northward into central Canada—resulting in the persistent heat wave there in recent weeks. Farther east, the jet stream then bends southward and brings the wildfire smoke down to the Northeast.

“Big waves in the jet stream tend to hang around a long time, and so the weather that they create is going to be very persistent,” Dr. Francis said. “If you are in the part of the wave in the jet stream that creates heat and drought, then you can expect it to last a long time and raise the risk of wildfire.”

The wildfires are also decimating North American and Canadian boreal forests, the latter of which holds 12 percent of the “world’s land-based carbon reserves,” according to the Audubon Society<./a> And three quarters of Canada’s woodlands and forests are in the boreal zone according to the Canadian government.

“The surface vegetation and the soil can dry out pretty dramatically given the right weather conditions. For this fuel, as we call it in fire science, it often just takes one single ignition source to generate a large wildfire,” said Woodwell Climate Associate Scientist Dr. Brendan Rogers.

As the climate continues to warm, Dr. Rogers said the weather conditions that lead to fuel drying and out-of-control wildfires also increase. This creates a feedback loop. Heat waves caused by greenhouse gas emissions increase the prevalence of wildfires. The fires in turn destroy these natural carbon sinks and, in turn, speed up climate change.

While the ultimate solution to breaking this feedback loop lies in reducing emissions and curbing climate change, Dr. Rogers and other researchers at Woodwell Climate have conducted research into fire suppression strategies that could help prevent large boreal fires from spreading and help keep carbon in the ground.

A study conducted in collaboration with Woodwell and other institutions found that suppressing fires early may be a cost-effective way to carbon mitigation. Woodwell Climate’s efforts also include mapping fires, using geospatial data and models to estimate carbon emissions across large scales, and looking at the interplay between fires and logging.

“Reducing boreal forest fires to near-historic levels and keeping carbon in the ground will require substantial investments. Nevertheless, these funds pale in comparison to the costs countries will face to cope with the growing health consequences exacerbated by worsening air quality and more frequent and intense climate impacts expected if emissions continue to rise unabated. Increased resources, flexibility, and carbon-focused fire management can also ensure wildlife, tourism, jobs, and many other facets of our society can persevere in a warming world,” Dr. Rogers said.

Transcript edited for grammar and clarity.

Sarah Ruiz: Fire. It’s a transformative force on any landscape, scorching and destroying, but often making space for new life. It also plays a part in transforming our global climate, releasing stored carbon from forests and other ecosystems that we simply cannot afford to add to our atmosphere. I’m here today with three of Woodwell Climate Research Center’s experts on fire and climate change: Dr. Manoela Machado, Dr. Brendan Rogers, and Dr. Zach Zobel. We’re here to discuss how fire fits into the climate change puzzle, as both a symptom and the cause of the warming climate. Consider this a “fireside chat” of sorts. Let’s begin.

Brendan, you work primarily in boreal forests, where fires are a natural part of the landscape, correct?

Dr. Brendan Rogers: Yes, that’s right. So even though boreal forests are in the north and they’re cold and damp for a lot of the year, the surface vegetation in the soil, the soil organic matter can dry out pretty dramatically in the summer. This fuel, as we call it in fire science, often all it takes is just one single ignition source to generate a pretty large wildfire. Humans certainly ignite fires, but still most of the burned area in boreal forests is coming from lightning ignitions.

Fire is also an important natural process in boreal forests. Many of the fires are what we call stand replacing—meaning they’re high intensity, they kill most of the trees, at least in Alaska and Canada. This initiates the process of forest succession, with often different types of vegetation, and tree species playing pretty key ecological roles. But fire regimes are changing and intensifying with climate change, taking us outside the range of what we would consider our natural variability that we’ve seen in these systems for millennia.

SR: Now, Manu, you work in the Amazon rainforest, where fire is never a natural part of the landscape. Can you explain what Kind of role fire plays in a tropical rainforest?

Dr. Manoela Machado: The Amazon biome did not evolve with fire pressure selecting for strategies of survival, which means that the plants are not adapted to this disturbance. Fire is a very powerful tool used to transform the landscape and has been used for millennia. Traditional and Indigenous communities still use it for agricultural purposes, but that’s not the fire that we see on the news, making headlines of “fire crisis in the Amazon.”

Those catastrophic events with lots of smoke in the atmosphere, they’re normally related to deforestation fires, which are fires used after clear cutting to clear out biomass and use the land for cattle ranching and other agricultural purposes. Those fires can escape into forest areas. So the ignition sources are always human—there are no natural ignition sources in the Amazon forest.

SR: With climate change, these dynamics are shifting in many places, as drier and hotter conditions make it easier for fires to spark. Zach, could you talk to us a little bit about what makes a forest susceptible to fire, and how climate change might be affecting that?

Dr. Zach Zobel: Fire weather is a given set of atmospheric parameters that indicate—if there was an ignition source—fire would be able to grow and spread rapidly. What we do is we model what is known as the fire weather index. This index consists of four different atmospheric variables, and those are: temperature (the hotter it is, the more likely vegetation is going to dry out quicker); relative humidity (the lower the humidity, the more rapidly vegetation can dry out); precipitation, both backward looking (“has it rained a lot recently”) and today; and wind speed, because once a fire starts, if the wind is adequately high, that’s when it’s going to spread.

We take those variables out of the climate models, and we model it—what it looks like historically, versus what it’s going to look like in the future. And what we find is that in several fire regimes, most of them actually, these “high fire risk days” are starting to rapidly increase.

We see it especially in the Mediterranean, Brazil, eastern Australia, the Western United States, in several parts of Africa. Over the next 30 years, we think these high fire risk days are going to increase on the order of a couple of weeks in some locations like the Western US, to upwards of one to two months in the Mediterranean and Brazil. And that’s pretty significant, when you think about how historically these days only occurred maybe one week a year. 

SR: So what are some of the risk outcomes posed by those more frequent, intense fires, globally?

BR: More frequent intense fires are changing the ecology of many boreal forests in some cases, leading to transition from forest to grassland or shrubland, which of course impacts the resident animals. But there are also large impacts on humans. The smoke from large wildfire seasons is a direct threat to human health, and rural and especially Indigenous communities often feel the largest impacts. Additionally, in areas of permafrost, which is ground that is frozen year after year, fires can lead to permafrost thaw for many years. That can often destabilize the ground leading to ground collapse, presenting a hazard to people that are living in these areas.

MM: I think the Amazon has many similarities with the Arctic, despite being very different environments. Despite not being natural, fires have become a recurrent issue that coincides with the dry season, which then creates what we call the burning season. Any fire is damaging to an environment that is not adapted to it. So there’s the immediate release of huge amounts of carbon when that biomass is burning, and there’s the delayed mortality that understory fires cause, so there’s continued emissions of carbon as well. That can cause a shift in species composition.

And fire also begets fire, which means that forest canopy that is disrupted allows more wind and sun to penetrate the forest, which creates drier microclimates. And tree mortality increases the fuels on the forest floor as well. So a degraded forest becomes even more vulnerable to future burning. As Brendon mentioned as well, there are several studies linking the burning season with higher hospitalization rates of people with respiratory illnesses as well.

SR: So, then what do these changes mean in terms of fire risk? How much of what we’re seeing now is on par with or accelerated compared to what climate models have been showing?

ZZ: Manu, and Brendan just hit it right on the head. What we’re seeing is the driver of these increasing high fire risk days, is largely because the length of the dry season is increasing in many of these fire regimes. Since they talked about the tropics and the Arctic, I’ll use California as an example. The dry season is typically from April to November or December. What makes California almost even more unique is that if this extends later and later into November and December, that’s when the Santa Ana winds start to pick up. So we found that that’s what’s happening in California, the wildfire season is expanding into later in the season. And that’s when their seasonal winds start, ahead of the rainy season.

In terms of risk to life and property, there’s also another factor that I think is a little underappreciated. (and this is happening in the Mediterranean and Australia and some of the major spots I talked about, maybe less so in Brazil, but Chile as well) is people are moving into areas that traditionally have had wildfires, even in the absence of climate change. And so, as we continue to build up property, let’s say in California, in the wildland urban interface as it’s known, that’s when you start to see things unfold, like we saw in 2019, in Australia and the Camp Fire as well in California.

When we talk with our partners, we always show them how rapidly the climate models are viewing this increase in fire weather days. We definitely caveat it by saying, Here’s what the observations are showing us. The climate models aren’t even keeping up with how quickly wildfire risk days are increasing. So we view it as is “this is the best-case scenario for the next 30 years.” And the best-case scenario is scary enough. And that’s kind of the message we send to the people that we work with when presenting this data.

SR: Not only do increased fires have immediate ecological and safety impacts. They also represent a significant risk to our ability to achieve climate goals. Forests are one of our most valuable carbon sinks, and keeping them healthy and standing is essential to curbing warming. Let’s talk a little bit about how fires pose a threat to that.

BR: So boreal forest fires release some of the largest amounts of carbon per unit area for any biome on Earth. And this is because most of the fuel is coming from the soil organic matter or Duff. And most of the climate impacts are from CO2 and methane. But actually, there’s a whole host of gases that are released into the atmosphere. And what’s worse, in areas of permafrost, those fires can induce permafrost thaw and degradation that can also release even more greenhouse gases over the ensuing years. This is what triggers the global feedback mechanisms from boreal fires—climate warming, leading to more fires, which leads to more net emissions of greenhouse gases that further fuels climate warming.

When we combine the carbon release estimates from intensifying fire regimes with the interactions between fire and permafrost thaw, the numbers are somewhat sobering. And they may impact our ability to meet the global temperature targets such as one and a half and two degrees above pre-industrial as set out in the Paris Climate Agreement. These impacts are largely not accounted for in climate models or remaining carbon budgets. So, one big question is what can we actually do about it?

I first want to stress that the fires themselves are not the cause of the problem. They’re a system response to warming. So ultimately, the solution is reducing and eliminating fossil fuel emissions that are warming our climate. That said, we do actually have some level of control over boreal fires through fire management control that we don’t have, for example, when it comes to other bigger system feedbacks. Our group has done some work to show that boreal fire management and specifically suppression of fires when they’re first ignited and relatively small, could be a cost effective way to keep carbon in the ground and protect against rapid permafrost thaw. Actually recently, for the first time, a land management agency in the US has adopted these ideas and designated land in Alaska to be protected from fire purely for the purpose of protecting permafrost and carbon. Of course, there are many, many considerations that come into play with changing land management, for example, the ecological impacts, and of course, the people that live on or near that land, including indigenous communities. So these are really complex decisions. But ultimately, as we’re hopefully headed down a path towards global net zero emissions, towards climate stabilization and eventual climate cooling. I think that limiting boreal fire emissions should be considered as a natural climate solution that also has many co-benefits for the habitat, for human health, and the economy.

SR: So Manu, is fire management also a potential solution for the Amazon?

MM: Um, I don’t think it’s a solution, I think is something that exists, but also kind of in tune with what Brendan was saying that fire is not the core of the issue. In the Amazon, deforestation is the major issue regarding climate change in general. So, this process of land grabbing and clearing for cattle ranching and cropland is the driver of deforestation and for as long as we have that, we will have these catastrophic fire events. These deforestation fires and the leakage that comes from that into forest areas, those are not things that firefighters can face with safety. These are intentional fires, and they’re part of the deforestation process. So, the path to ending these fires is through tackling deforestation. The other types of fires such as pasture fires, forest fires that are not in those areas of like frontier of deforestation, they can be dealt with through prevention and combat actions, such as preparing firebreaks ahead of the expected burning season, and having well trained, well equipped brigades ready for action. And that’s something that we’ve been trying to do as well. We’ve been providing GIS training to Indigenous fire brigades across the Amazon and developed some other partnerships as well with spatial analysis and trying to help out with science too, but the core issue is not fire it’s deforestation.

SR: So, combating fires and learning to manage them when they arise is important, as well as working with communities on the ground to do so. But the root cause of climate change lies in the vast amount of carbon emissions that are released by human activities. Ultimately, bringing fires under control will require mitigating emissions and curbing climate change, otherwise, forest fires might just become too hot to handle. Thank you, everyone, for sharing your perspectives on fire and climate change with us today.

Located in Eastern Alaska, the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge is larger than many U.S. states. It’s a roadless landscape of rocky mountain outcroppings, flat meadows, treeless tundra, and dense spruce forests, bisected by the Yukon River and dotted with thousands of lakes and wetlands. Several Alaska Native communities call the refuge home and subsist off of its natural resources. This diverse, expansive wilderness is well adapted to fire, and it’s not uncommon to see pink fireweed blooms or young grass and seedlings sprouting from burn scars.

But the relationship between fire and land here—as in many places—has been changing as the climate warms. Yukon Flats sits atop ancient, ice-rich ground, called Yedoma permafrost, formed during the last ice age. Thawing Yedoma is a significant source of carbon dioxide and methane emissions to the atmosphere. Fire, made more intense and frequent by climate change, threatens to accelerate that thaw. In an effort to preserve carbon stores, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently dedicated 1.6 million acres of the Yukon Flats refuge to piloting a new firefighting regime, one designed to protect carbon, in addition to human lives and property.

Science builds the case for policy change

This decision was, in part, influenced by research led by Dr. Carly Phillips, during her time as a research scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, alongside Woodwell Climate Senior Science Policy Advisor, Dr. Peter Frumhoff, and Associate Scientist, Dr. Brendan Rogers. In a 2022 paper in Science Advances, the group quantified the threat boreal forest fires pose to climate goals. Wildfires in boreal North America alone could, by mid-century, use up 3% of remaining global carbon dioxide emissions associated with keeping temperatures below the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C limit. This is a conservative estimate—the authors suggest the true numbers could be even larger as the accelerating effect of fires on permafrost thaw, and the release of other greenhouse gasses, were not included in the analysis. 

The study also examined the cost-effectiveness of combatting those fires as a potential climate solution. Molly Elder, an economics and public policy Ph.D. candidate at Tufts, performed an analysis of data from across Alaska’s fire management zones and found that actively suppressing boreal fires could cost less than 13 dollars per ton of carbon dioxide emissions avoided—putting it on par with other carbon mitigation solutions like onshore wind or utility-scale solar. 

“The work we did in this project proved and quantified what the management community already knew, which is that management is effective at reducing burned area when fires are actively suppressed,” says Elder.

Combating boreal fires could provide much needed mitigation, and at a low cost, but there are some logistical obstacles between the hypothetical model and actual implementation. Typically, in Alaska, boreal forest fires are left to burn unless they present a risk to human life or property. This is partly because these forests are fire-adapted, but also partly due to the sheer vastness of boreal wilderness. With limited resources, it is not always practical or possible to track down and put out a fire, especially in a place without roads like Yukon Flats. Firefighters are already stretched thin with lengthening and increasingly high-intensity fire seasons.

So the research group worked with the fire management community in Alaska, facilitated by the Alaska Fire Science Consortium, to better understand the needs of firefighters and demonstrate the co-benefits of fire suppression in addition to preserving carbon. 

“Many of the fire managers expressed how stretched their resources already were and resistance to the idea that yet another mandate would be added to their plate,” says Dr. Phillips. “However, after discussing the implications of our research, and the ambition that additional funding would come with any mandate, we got more buy-in.”

Fire suppression: It’s not a dirty word

The other concern managers raised was whether fire suppression would ultimately be successful in achieving their goals. Historically, fire suppression efforts in the US have been counterproductive to protecting forests.

In the late 1800s, lack of understanding of the ways Indigenous communities in Western states have used fire to maintain healthy forests resulted in decades of near-total suppression of fire in the region. In many western US forests, (adapted to what Dr. Rogers calls “high-frequency, low-intensity” fire) suppression allowed highly flammable, dry vegetation—which would normally be periodically burned away—to build up. When fires did spark, they were then capable of growing to a size and intensity that could damage, rather than activate, the forest. 

But in boreal Alaska and Canada, it’s just the opposite. The spruce-dominated forests are adapted to high-intensity fires that only return every hundred or so years. As climate change speeds up the return of fires with hotter and drier conditions, boreal forests have begun to suffer major losses. 

“The frequency of boreal fires, ultimately, is increasing. In many places we’re seeing more reburning and larger burned areas,” says Dr. Rogers. “Climate change and human actions are shifting that fire regime out of its historical range into this new realm. So the whole idea of fire suppression in the boreal is to keep fires closer to historical levels, to which the systems and fauna are adapted. Suppression can help delay permafrost degradation, limiting carbon emissions and buying us time to reach our climate targets.” 

Past missteps with fire suppression have made fire managers cautious, though. Lisa Saperstein, Regional Fire Ecologist with U.S. Fish and Wildlife, notes that, with limited resources, priorities in intense fire seasons will have to shift to protecting human settlements over carbon and permafrost. But, given the co-benefits of keeping fire activity to historic levels—and the urgency of reigning in emissions in any way we can—managers in Yukon Flats were willing to try.

“This type of shift in values is always difficult, especially when the outcome is uncertain. Support from leaders of fire management organizations, in addition to land managers, has been a key factor in this effort moving forward,” says Saperstein. 

If a fire starts in the woods, how do you fight it?

This change in tactics won’t mean that every fire that ignites will be put out—both impractical and unhelpful from an ecological perspective—but it will mean more aggressively targeting fires when they arise. Since the 1980s, when fire was detected in Yukon Flats, it would be monitored by the Alaska Fire Service, but not suppressed, except when presenting a threat to human communities.

“This pilot project is a new twist to a long-standing partnership between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Alaska Fire Service. For select areas of the Refuge, now if a fire start is detected, we ask the Alaska Fire Service to only send a crew if they are confident in 100% containment within three days,” says Yukon Flats Refuge Manager, Jimmy Fox.

The suppression teams will target fires that they judge as “quick fixes”, curbing the potential for them to grow into large, stand-replacing sized blazes. If a fire becomes too big to fight quickly, the teams revert to the old tactic of simply monitoring.

“If a crew is deployed, we ask that they cease suppression and return to base after three days, regardless of containment status,” says Fox. “This request is grounded in concern for the Alaska Fire Service having resources available if communities become threatened from other fires.”

Fox says refuge management and Alaska Fire Service members will stay flexible as the pilot project unfolds so they can respond to changing conditions.

“In conservation, we tend to focus on the technical aspects of a challenge and avoid the difficulties that come with asking ourselves to adapt,” says Fox. “This pilot project is both adaptive and technical. It has required me to stay curious and listen. It has required me to learn new information, and share it in a way that is comprehensible. It’s required being comfortable with uncertainty, and yet standing in purpose. It has been a learning journey so far, and will continue to be.”

Putting models to the test

On the research side, the team at Woodwell Climate hopes this new strategy will present an opportunity to study the practical implementation of fire suppression as a climate solution.

“This is the proof of concept,” says Dr. Frumhoff. “This is the opportunity to really see in a rigorous way whether we can apply this solution at a meaningful scale and gain meaningful carbon benefits with relatively modest cost. And it’s directly traceable to the conversations that the research team had with fire managers.”

The 1.6 million acres slated for fire suppression are small compared to the 8.6 million that comprise the entire refuge, or the 5.6 billion acres of permafrost in the northern hemisphere, but it’s a very important start. Research and analysis of the effectiveness of this solution could aid its expansion to other regions of the Arctic.

“It’s a big moment, because, while it’s obviously a relatively small area compared to all of Alaska, 1.6 million acres is still a lot of land,” says Dr. Rogers. “We’re hoping that it’s a jumping off point and can translate to other refuges and other agencies with the addition of proper funding and staffing.”

And each summer, the case for protecting permafrost and boreal carbon, while working to  dramatically reduce emissions from fossil fuels, continues to grow. 

“Every year that goes by, as fires intensify and climate change gets worse, this message might resonate just a little more, ” says Dr. Rogers. “Because it’s a problem that’s not going away if we do nothing about it. And we can do something about it.”

What’s New?

A recent paper offers new insight into the state of global forests. Using remote sensing imagery from MODIS satellites, researchers were able to categorize forest condition in two important biomes—the Amazon and the Siberian Taiga—differentiating between high stability, low stability, and non-forested areas. These “stability classes” provide another metric of assessing the conservation and carbon value of land, as high stability forests tend to be healthier, more resilient, primary forest stands that store large amounts of carbon and contribute to cooling the planet more than lower stability forests.

“Mature forests have higher biodiversity and create their own microclimate,” says paper co-author and Woodwell Associate Scientist, Brendan Rogers. “They’re more resistant to drought and other types of disturbance. And then because of that, they tend to be more stable in the face of environmental perturbations over time.”

Understanding forest stability

To estimate forest stability, researchers analyzed satellite data that combined measures of photosynthetic radiation with a canopy water stress index. That new approach was able to identify whether or not a forest has been disturbed by either human land use (ex. logging) or natural processes (wildfire, insects outbreaks, etc.) and map the degradation level.

Co-author Dr. Brendan Mackey from Griffith University in Australia says that stability mapping is a first critical step in making an inventory of the world’s remaining primary forests which store more carbon, support the most biodiversity, and deliver the cleanest water. 

According to Dr. Rogers, the less interruption in the ecological processes of the forest, the more secure the carbon stored in both the trees and soils are. Further human interference in an unstable forest could tip it into decline. 

“I think one of the problems for primary forest conservation globally has been this idea that it’s either a forest or not a forest. So, internationally agreed upon definitions of what constitutes a forest sets a pretty low bar. You can get away with calling a plantation with very young trees a forest, but that could have been converted from a high biomass mature forest, and they’re simply not the same—not in terms of carbon, biodiversity, or ecosystem services,” says Dr. Rogers.

What this means for forest conservation

Using a gradient of forest stability instead of a black and white definition of forest/not-forest allows for more nuanced decision-making where both carbon monitoring and conservation planning are concerned.

“The first priority is to protect stable forests from further human disturbance, as once an area is deforested, it takes decades to centuries—and in some cases millenia—for it to regrow to a primary state. The second priority is to identify forest areas where restoration efforts will be most cost effective,” says Dr. Mackey.

According to the paper’s lead author, Dr. Tatiana Shestakova, this means places where a small investment could have bigger positive results.

“If you pick a forest that was degraded in some way, but it still keeps patches of more or less healthy forests, you can reinstate ecological processes faster and easier,” says Dr. Shestakova.

Dr. Shestakova said she encourages other researchers to apply the methods to their particular regions of expertise and expand estimates of forest stability globally.

“The benefit of this approach is that it was tested in such contrasting ecoregions, and has been proven to be a simple and efficient way to assess this important dimension of forest condition,” says Dr. Shestakova.