Fires, heatwaves get an early start this year

In some places, an extreme summer has already begun

Mumbai sunset skyline along the water

Springtime in the Northern hemisphere is a momentary respite for many places—a pause before the heat of summer and potential for drought and fire. This year, however, summer arrived early, bringing with it scorching temperatures and out-of-control fires that have made national and international headlines.

Record March-April heatwave sweeps India and Pakistan

Portions of India and Pakistan already have experienced record-setting heat. Unseasonably warm weather began in March, when India recorded the hottest monthly temperatures that the country has seen in the past 122 years—hitting an average maximum of 33.1 degrees Celsius (91.6 Fahrenheit). The heatwave continued with the third hottest April on record. The hottest time for India is typically May and June, before the monsoon season begins.

In addition to the early start of summer temperatures, this heat wave is particularly concerning for its scope. The heat has settled over most of India as well as parts of neighboring Pakistan for two months.

“The most shocking part for me has been the geographical extent and the duration,” said Woodwell Assistant Scientist, Dr. Zach Zobel in an interview with CNBC.

The heat-related death toll in Maharashtra state, the second-most populous state in India, has already reached 25. Heat waves like this one become particularly dangerous when humidity is high—preventing the human body from cooling itself through sweat and evaporation.

Earlier and more intense heat waves also have the potential to disrupt India’s crop yields, particularly heat, which is vulnerable to hot, dry weather. As climate change progresses unchecked, extreme heat waves like this one will become more and more common.

Megafires in New Mexico forcing evacuations

On the other side of the globe, rising temperatures have resulted in a rash of destructive fires well before the usual summer season. The state of New Mexico is currently fighting 20 separate fires in 16 counties. Two, the Hermit’s Peak and Calf Canyon fires, recently merged into the state’s second-largest wildfire on record, which has been burning now for more than a month.

The merged “megafire” has destroyed at least 276 structures and forced the evacuation of nearly 13,000 residences.

New Mexico is used to a fire season that starts in May or June. Climate change is making out-of-season fires more common and big fires were seen this year in Colorado and California as early as December and January. The United Nations declared a global wildfire crisis in February.

Climate change is warming and drying out western U.S. states, increasing the number of “fire weather days.” This has made fire management harder, limiting the possible timeframe for prescribed burns that reduce fuel loads. Intense winds also played a large role in fanning the New Mexico fires, one of which began as a prescribed burn that escaped.

Heat rising, summers lengthening with climate change

As temperatures rise, the risks from deadly heatwaves and wildfire are growing. Fire seasons and extreme heat seasons are lengthening, frequently starting earlier and ending later, giving the land no time to recover from dry winters or the prior year’s heat. The response to both the fires in New Mexico and heat in India and Pakistan is the same—rapidly reducing global emissions by 15% every year to hit the IPCC target of 1.5 degrees of warming.

“There is no question that heat waves are made worse by fossil fuels and climate change everywhere in the globe,” said Dr. Zobel. “India and Pakistan are two of the hottest places in the world and will likely continue to see heat waves of this magnitude and worse over the next several decades.”

Woodwell workshop brings Indigenous firefighters to Brasilia

A week-long workshop encourages knowledge sharing between Indigenous Brazilian fire brigades

workshop participants on field trip in Cerrado

On March 28, 2022, firefighters from Indigenous communities across Brazil gathered in Brasília, the country’s capitol, for a week-long geography and cartography workshop. The workshop, a collaboration between the Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB) and the Amazon River Basin (COICA), IPAM Amazônia, and Woodwell Climate Research Center, walked participants through the basics of using Global Information Systems technology to monitor and manage their own lands and forests.

Forests and native vegetation on Indigenous lands have been sustainably managed for millenia, and studies have found Indigenous stewardship of forests is an effective measure for preventing deforestation and degradation. Escaped fires can present a threat to forests, and many Indigenous communities have their own brigades that work on detecting and preventing runaway fires. In some places, prescribed burns are used as a tool for shaping and cultivating the land.

Participants attended from Indigenous lands located in a variety of Brazilian landscapes—from the Cerrado to the heart of the Amazon. Despite differences, participants found learning from other Indigenous communities extremely valuable.

“People came with a variety of skill sets,” said Woodwell Water Program Director Dr. Marcia Macedo. “What was most meaningful for participants was seeing other people like them, who do the same work and are also Indigenous people, already dominating material, knowing how to make the maps, and helping others. It gave them confidence that they could also figure it out.”

After a day of introduction to the core concepts of GIS and mapping, participants headed out to Brasília National Park to test their newfound skills. They visited burned areas from both an escaped fire and a prescribed burn, compared the two, marked GPS points, and took pictures. The data gathered on the field trip was used over the next few days to practice making maps. 

“The goal was to not only teach the theory and help them understand the steps for making maps, but also mainly to develop the skills for them to be able to apply to their own lands on their own time,” said Woodwell postdoctoral researcher, Dr. Manoela Machado, who helped organize the event.

The workshop also fostered discussions about the complexity of management when fire can be both a threat and a tool. Because fire manifests differently in different biomes, well-managed fires look different for each community.

“On the final day, we had a discussion of values. Is fire good or bad? For whom—ants, forests, human health?” said Dr. Machado. “You can’t just criminalize fire if it’s a part of traditional knowledge and used as a tool for providing food, for example. So it’s a complex issue.” 

Dr. Machado hopes the conversations will continue. She says the goal would be to host this workshop again to expand its reach, potentially beyond Brazil to include participants in other Amazonian countries.

Unchecked boreal forest fires are eating into our carbon budget

Proper management could be a cost-effective solution

firefighter stands in front of burning boreal forest

What’s new?

A recent paper, published in Science Advances, has found that fires in North American boreal forests have the potential to send 3 percent of the remaining carbon budget up in smoke. The study, led by Dr. Carly Phillips, a fellow with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), in collaboration with the Woodwell Climate Research Center, Tufts University, the University of California in Los Angeles, and Hamilton College, found that burned area in U.S. and Canadian boreal forests is expected to increase as much as 169 and 150 percent respectively—releasing the equivalent annual emissions of 2.6 billion cars unless fires can be managed. The study found proper fire management offers a cost-effective option, sometimes cheaper than existing options, for carbon mitigation.

Understanding boreal forest carbon

Boreal forests are incredibly carbon rich. They contain roughly two-thirds of global forest carbon and provide insulation that keeps permafrost soils cool. Burned areas are more susceptible to permafrost thaw which could in turn release even more carbon into the atmosphere. Although fires are a natural part of the boreal ecosystem, climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of them, which threatens to overwhelm the forest’s natural adaptations.

Despite the value of boreal forests for carbon mitigation, the U.S. and Canada spend limited amounts of funding on fire suppression, usually prioritizing fire management only where people and property are at risk. Alaska accounts for one fifth of all burned area in the U.S. annually, but it receives only 4 percent of federal funding for fire management. Limiting fire size and burned area through proper management can be effective at reducing emissions.

What this means for boreal fire management

To prevent worsening emissions, fire management practices will have to be adjusted to not only protect people and property, but also to address climate change. Fire suppression in boreal forests is an incredibly cost-effective way to reduce emissions. The study found that the average cost of avoiding one ton of carbon emissions from fire was about $12. In Alaska, that means investing an average of just $696 million per year over the next decade to keep the state’s wildfire emissions at historic levels.

Increasing wildfires also pose an outsized threat to Alaska Native and First Nations communities, who may become increasingly isolated, and may lack the resources to evacuate quickly if wildfire encroaches on their lands. Many Alaska Native people already play a crucial role in existing wildfire crews, and investing in more fire suppression could create additional job opportunities for Indigenous communities.

Despite centuries of successful Indigenous management, the Xingu’s fire regimes are changing

Indigenous community in the Xingu reserve

DCIM100MEDIADJI_0158.JPG

What’s new?

The first designated Indigenous land in Brazil, Território Indígena do Xingu (TIX), has been cited by studies for decades as a successful buffer against the deforestation, degradation, and fires that plague other parts of the Amazon. A recent study, co-authored by Dr. Divino Silvério, Professor at the Universidade Federal Rural da Amazônia, and Dr. Marcia Macedo, Woodwell Water Program Director, shows that fire regimes are changing in the Xingu region, leading to more forest loss and degradation.

The paper shows roughly 7 percent of the TIX has been degraded by drought and fire. Degradation is part of a feedback loop wherein damaged forests become drier and more susceptible to burning in future fires.

“I remember when I started my Ph.D., a 2006 paper showed that Indigenous lands were extremely effective fire breaks—the Xingu just never saw fire. Climate change has completely changed that story,” said Dr. Marcia Macedo.

Understanding: Changing fire regimes

Indigenous communities in the TIX have been managing the rainforest for centuries with finely adapted slash and burn cycles that create space for agriculture and promote the growth of natural species used in construction, medicine, and cooking. These cycles can last three to four decades before an area is burned again. Traditionally, burns were well controlled and the rainforests surrounding burned areas were healthy enough to prevent flames from escaping.

But over the past two decades, the paper observed, escaped fires have occurred more often within the reserve and the likelihood that forest is lost post-fire is rising, particularly in seasonally flooded forests. Indigenous management practices have not changed significantly, the paper explains, so why the increased prevalence of fire and degradation?

Climate change is drying out forests, making them more susceptible to escaped burning from management practices. The other factor driving degradation within the territory is growing population. Indigenous communities are becoming less nomadic, and village populations are rising, increasing the area of forest used for subsistence. Degradation was higher in areas surrounding villages.

“The way Indigenous people manage fire has stayed the same, but we now have a different climate,” said Dr. Divino Silvério. “Indigenous people have been in these regions for many decades or centuries. And all this time they have had their own fire management to produce food that usually doesn’t end in these huge forest fires.”

What this means for Indigenous fire management

Climate change will force Indigenous communities within the reserve to adapt traditional practices to protect the forest against more frequent, intensifying fires—despite these communities not contributing to global emissions.

Previous attempts to manage increasing fires through prescribed burning have clashed with the needs of residents of the TIX. Burning at a different time of year does not cultivate the same species, and residents were concerned it was jeopardizing the growth of plants used for medicine.

Dr. Silvério is working with residents of the Xingu to understand how to integrate changes to fire management practices with traditional strategies in a way that supports community needs. One example, he said, could be shifting the primary construction material from grasses (that grow after fire) to palms.

“Indigenous people will probably need to learn how to live in this new reality, an environment with more drought and more fires. We are trying to work in a participative way to construct solutions with them.”

Black spruce are losing their legacy to fire

Although evolved to thrive in fire-disturbed environments, a recent study shows more frequent fires are threatening black spruce resilience

burnt black spruce forest with young poplar understory, photo by Jill Johnstone
For the past five to ten thousand years, black spruce have been as constant on the boreal landscape as the mountains themselves. But that constancy is changing as the climate warms.

A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, led by Dr. Jennifer Baltzer, Canada Research Chair in Forests and Global Change at Wilfrid Laurier University, found that shifts in wildfire regimes are pushing black spruce forests to a tipping point, beyond which the iconic species may lose its place of dominance in boreal North America.

Synthesizing data from over 1500 fire-disturbed sites, the study showed black spruce’s ability to regenerate after fire dropped at 38% of sites and failed completely 18% of the time—numbers never before seen in a species evolved to thrive after fire.
healthy black spruce forest

The Stabilizing Feedback of Black Spruce

“They almost look like a Dr. Seuss tree.” says Dr. Brendan Rogers, an Associate Scientist at Woodwell and co-author on the PNAS study. He’s referring to the way black spruce are shaped—short branches that droop out of spindly trunks. Clusters of small dark purple cones cling to the very tops of the trees. Black spruce forests tend to be cool and shaded by the dense branches, and the forest floor is soft and springy.

“The experience of walking through these forests is very different from what most people are accustomed to. The forest floor is spongy, like a pillow or waterbed,” Dr. Rogers says. “It’s often very damp, too, because black spruce forests facilitate the growth of moss and lichen that retain moisture.”

However, these ground covers can also dry out quickly. Spruce have evolved alongside that moss and lichen to create a fire-prone environment. It only takes a few days or even hours of hot and dry weather for the porous mosses to lose their moisture, and the spruce are full of flammable branches and resin that fuel flames up into the tree’s crown.

Black spruce need these fires to regenerate. Their cones open up in the heat and drop seeds onto the charred organic soil, which favors black spruce seedlings over other species. The organic soil layers built up by the moss are thick enough to present a challenge for most seedlings trying to put down roots, but black spruce seeds are uniquely designed to succeed.

Dr. Jill Johnstone, Affiliate Research Scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, who also contributed to the PNAS study, compares it to a lottery system that black spruce have rigged for millennia.

“After fire, anything can happen,” says Johnstone. “But one way to make sure you win the lottery is to buy a lot of tickets. Black spruce has the most tickets. It has the most number of seeds that are the right size to get roots down into mineral soil, and so it tends to regenerate after fire.”

Potential competitors like white spruce, Dr. Johnstone says, don’t disperse very far from standing trees so they only get a few lottery tickets. Deciduous species like aspen or birch have seeds that are too small to work through the thick organic layers—their tickets are faulty. So the fire lottery tends to perpetuate black spruce’s dominance in what’s known as a “stabilizing feedback loop”.

intact spruce forest, photo by Brendan Rogers

Hotter, Dryer Conditions are Inhibiting Black Spruce Regeneration

That stable loop has begun to break down, however. Black spruce just aren’t re-establishing themselves as frequently after fire. The study examined the characteristics of different sites to better understand what might be hampering regeneration success.

recently burned black spruce trunks, photo by Brendan Rogers
Sites that failed to regenerate with black spruce were typically drier than normal. They also tended to have shorter intervals between successive fires. Black spruce stands have historically experienced the kinds of intense, stand-replacing fires that burn through everything only once per century. This long interval allows the trees to build up a healthy bank of cones to release seeds the next time they burn. More frequent, returning fires short-circuit the regeneration process.

Increased burning also strips away more of that thick organic soil layer that favors black spruce, revealing mineral soils underneath that level the playing field for other tree species. The more completely combusted those organic layers are, the more likely spruce are to have competition from jack pine, aspen, or birch. Loss of black spruce resilience was more common in Western North America, which aligns with the fact that drier sites are more likely to lose their black spruce.

burnt boreal forest, photo by Brendan Rogers
“Basically, the drier the system is, the more vulnerable it is to fire,” Dr. Baltzer says. “And these are the parts of the landscape that are also more likely to change in terms of forest composition, or shift to a non-forested state after fire. If climate change is pushing these systems to an ever drier state, these tipping points are more likely to be reached.”

For Dr. Rogers, it also highlights the real possibility of losing black spruce across much of boreal North America as the region warms.

“This is evidence that black spruce is losing its dominant grip on boreal North America,” Rogers says. “It’s happening now and it’s probably going to get worse.”

Losing Black Spruce Could Accelerate Permafrost Thaw

Landscape-wide ecological shifts from black spruce to other species will have complicated, rippling impacts on the region.

Of most concern is the impact on permafrost. In many parts of the boreal, those mossy soil layers that promote black spruce also insulate permafrost, which stores large amounts of ancient carbon. Replacing the dark, shaded understory of a black spruce forest with a more open deciduous habitat that lacks mossy insulation could accelerate thaw. Thawing permafrost and associated emissions would accelerate a warming feedback loop that could push black spruce to its tipping point.

Widespread loss of black spruce also has implications for biodiversity, particularly caribou species that overwinter in the forest and feed on lichen. Both barren-ground and boreal caribou, important cultural species for northern communities, are already in decline across the continent and would suffer more losses if the ecosystem shifts away from the black spruce-lichen forests that provide food and refuge.

Dr. Johnstone did point out some potential for black spruce to recover, even if initial regeneration post-fire is dominated by other species. Slower growing, but longer lived, conifers can often grow in the shade of pioneer deciduous species and take over when they begin to die off—but this requires longer intervals between fires for the spruce to reach maturity. There is also the possibility that more deciduous trees, which are naturally less flammable than conifers, could help plateau increasing fires on the landscape.

But both these hopes, Dr. Baltzer says, are dependent on getting warming into check, because deciduous or conifer, “if it’s hot enough, and the fuel is dry enough, it will burn.”