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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
June 29, 2022— When Susan Tessier and her husband, Tim, went out for the day, they had a lake on their Native allotment. When they came back, It was gone.
“My husband Tim and I left home in the morning and when we came back around 8:00 in the evening the whole lake had drained,” she writes in a post on the Local Environmental Observation Network site—a community science website where observers can report unusual changes in their local environment. “There was a hole that had blown out and it had drained into the ocean… It looked like it was blown up with dynamite.”
Water is the ecosystem engineer in the Arctic. The lowland tundra landscape is a network of lakes and streams, mosaicked across an expanse of frozen ground riddled with wedges of ice. The freezing, thawing, moving, eroding dynamics of these features shape the larger landscape, and determine the habitats of fish, birds, plants, mammals—and, of course people—living in the Arctic.
Abrupt lake drainage, like Tessier described, is just one way that changes in water and ice can influence the landscape, but a recent review paper conducted by University of Florida Postdoctoral Associate, Dr. Elizabeth Webb, and Woodwell Climate Associate Scientist, Dr. Anna Liljedahl, indicates events like this may become more common as the climate warms— overtaking lake expansion and slowly drying out the Arctic tundra.
This new paper comes on the heels of a 2022 study that Drs. Webb and Liljedahl also authored, which came to the same conclusion: despite the processes of lake expansion and drainage continuing simultaneously across the Arctic, net lake area is trending downward. The Arctic is getting dryer.
The review complements the strengths of the previous study, compensating for some of the limitations of using geographically coarse remote sensing data. Synthesizing data from 139 sites across the Arctic, pulled from 57 different studies, Drs. Webb and Liljedahl were able to corroborate their own past findings.
“Lake size can vary from one season to the next in response to factors like precipitation or evaporation, so if you’re only looking at a limited set of remote sensing images, that can influence a trend analysis,” explains Dr. Webb. “It’s actually really exciting from a scientific rigor perspective to have two completely different remote sensing methods showing the same result.”
The review also adds weight to the idea that permafrost thaw is the primary driver in the loss of Arctic lakes. A large portion of Arctic soil is ice-rich, perennially frozen ground called permafrost, and as the climate heats up, it has begun to thaw and destabilize. That thawing can both create new ponds, and help drain them. The review indicates that decreases in size and number of Arctic lakes are more prevalent than expected, dominating the dynamic in some areas.
This contradicts another leading theory that changes in precipitation and evaporation rates— called the “water balance hypothesis” — are driving changes in lake area. Prior to Drs. Webb and Liljedahl’s investigations, the prevailing thought was that lake creation would outpace drainage rates, for at least the next several decades.
It works like this: most Arctic lakes form when wedges of ice in permafrost melt, leaving behind a depression that fills with water. The water absorbs and holds more heat, slowly thawing and eroding surrounding permafrost, growing from puddle to pond to lake over the years.
Drainage can happen in one of two ways. The first is vertically, which occurs when the permafrost beneath the lake thaws down to the unfrozen ground beneath, allowing the water to seep out the bottom. This can take hundreds or thousands of years, depending on how deep the permafrost is.
The second way is horizontally, through what Dr. Liljedahl calls “capillaries”. Ice wedges are common across the Arctic, connected by an underground network of ice that pushes the soil above them upwards as they grow, creating ridges that impede water flow. But when the tops of these wedges melt, the ridged ground above them subsides, forming narrow channels between lakes and ponds. When an expanding lake meets one of these capillary channels, the lake can drain in a matter of hours, as if the plug has been pulled on a bathtub drain.
“The formation of lateral drainage channels can interrupt this lake expansion process at any time, and I think that’s what’s making it override expansion and cause the net drying effect,” Dr. Liljedahl says. “The lake that took millenia to grow can be gone in a couple of hours.
So what does an Arctic with fewer lakes mean? In terms of carbon, the picture isn’t clear. Since lake expansion— a common source of methane emissions— and lake drainage are happening concurrently, the net effect is not easy to discern.
“With lake drainage, it’s much less clear what the carbon consequences are. The current thinking is that lake expansion releases orders of magnitude more carbon than lake drainage, but because it’s complicated, we’re not quite sure,” says Dr. Webb. “It’s definitely an open research question.”
Dr. Liljedahl notes that there is also documentation of permafrost recovering and re-growing in drained lake beds. “Over decades, they could develop new ice-wedges and vegetation on the surface. Lake beds could experience net carbon accumulation for at least a couple of decades after drainage,” Dr. Liljedahl says.
However, the ecological consequences of fewer Arctic lakes are more certain. Fish and other aquatic species will have the size of their habitat reduced and their freedom of migration restricted, as lakes drain and connecting streams dry up. Species that feed on fish or rely on wetland vegetation, like muskrats, will also be impacted.
Small lakes are an important source of freshwater for Arctic communities. Tessier wrote in her post about the lake drainage she witnessed, “We are sad to lose the lake because in winter, after it froze up, we used to go cut ice chunks for drinking water. It has really clear water. If we get enough snow we can use snow water instead, but it is not as good.”
As more lakes drain, clean freshwater could become harder to access. Combined with the destabilization of the ground itself as permafrost thaws, Arctic communities are facing massive changes.
Dr. Liljedahl hopes that refining our understanding of water dynamics in the Arctic will aid adaptation measures. She has been awarded a three year NSF grant to continue studying the ice wedge capillary network and its role in the Arctic hydrological system. She’ll use remote sensing to quantify the distribution of the ice-wedges contributing to increased drainage. She also plans to pull data from field measurements to figure out how permanent the capillaries are, since vegetation feedback loops could help permafrost recover and return the surface to its original elevation.
“We have more to do before we can feel like the models are representing a realistic scenario. We need to better understand what is happening at the sub-meter scale with water, because the presence or absence of surface water will have a major impact on how the landscape evolves,” Dr. Liljedahl says.
Woodwell Climate Research Center has released its first course in partnership with FutureLearn, a UK-based global social education platform that delivers learning through online courses, partnering with more than 260 universities and brands. FutureLearn aims to transform access to education for their diverse network of over 17 million learners with courses that empower them to solve the world’s biggest challenges, and Woodwell will be developing additional future courses through the partnership that address other areas of our scientists’ expertise, such as forest carbon and risk assessment.
The newly released course, Thawing Permafrost: Science, Policy, and Environmental Justice in the Arctic, represents years of Woodwell scientists’ research and experience in permafrost regions. It features Arctic Program Director Dr. Sue Natali and Associate Scientist Dr. Brendan Rogers, who also lead Woodwell’s Permafrost Pathways project, as well as Woodwell’s Chief Communications Officer Dr. Heather Goldstone. Over the 4 weeks of the course, learners are introduced to advanced geology and climate science concepts relating to permafrost, translated into an accessible, go-at-your-own-pace experience.
“Permafrost thaw is an underappreciated problem, which unfortunately means that its impacts continue to be underestimated,” said Dr. Brendan Rogers. “While I’m excited for people to learn more about it through the course, my biggest hope is that all of those people will then share what they learned with someone else, and help expand the conversation.”
Offered free of charge on FutureLearn’s online platform, the course is designed for a broad audience, from policy influencers to business leaders, teachers, activists, and anyone interested in climate change.
“Unfortunately, climate change may not be a significant part of people’s formal education. But we all need to understand what’s going on,” said Woodwell Chief Communications Officer, Dr. Heather Goldstone. “With FutureLearn, we can share our insights and expertise with a large, diverse audience, delve into content more deeply than we ever could in a webinar, and provide a more interactive and flexible experience for learners.”
The course is open now for enrollment and on-demand learning, and Woodwell will be offering a facilitated session immediately after COP, with moderators available to answer learner questions.
With the Arctic warming 3 to 4 times faster than the rest of the world, permafrost thaw has become a significant climate threat. Scientists estimate that permafrost contains 1.4 trillion tonnes of carbon, an amount more than double what is currently in the Earth’s atmosphere. That carbon sink is stable as long as it stays frozen, but with recent and projected thaw, the organic matter in permafrost is breaking down and releasing carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, increasing the rate of climate change.
Addressing this issue requires extensive data collection on permafrost emissions, as well as equitable strategies for adaptation by Arctic communities. To tackle this issue, Woodwell has partnered with the Arctic Initiative at Harvard Kennedy School, the Alaska Institute for Justice, and the Alaska Native Science Commission to connect experts in climate science, human rights, and public policy with frontline communities and high-level decision makers. The partnership is pioneering a six-year research program called Permafrost Pathways that will develop action plans to address the compounding impacts of permafrost thaw.
With the understanding that this needs to be a sustainable process with long-term impact, Permafrost Pathways’ scientists are expanding and coordinating a pan-Arctic carbon monitoring network to improve the accuracy of permafrost thaw emissions estimates. More precise measurements will fill critical data gaps and reduce uncertainties, so that permafrost emissions can be factored into global carbon budgets, climate models, targets, and measures for mitigation and adaptation. That, combined with high-resolution satellite and aircraft-based observations and advanced computer modeling, will allow for tracking the changing landscape in near real-time and more accurately projecting future emissions.
Permafrost Pathways is also collaborating with local communities to co-create Indigenous-led adaptation strategies. For many, relocation or infrastructure upgrades are needed urgently, but there is currently no process or resources to enable communities to move forward. With Arctic residents already feeling the brunt of climate change, the involvement of frontline communities is crucial in developing successful adaptation plans and effective policies.
Despite its big strides, Permafrost Pathways is still in its infancy and there is a long road ahead when it comes to tackling the complexity of permafrost thaw. Today, at least 192 countries, plus the European Union, have signed on to the Paris Agreement’s promise of reducing emissions to keep warming below 2 degrees C. But many emissions reduction goals do not include carbon released by permafrost thaw. The international community needs to take strong action to change this or else permafrost thaw could undermine climate goals.
In the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2021 report, permafrost thaw was named as an issue that should be included in carbon budgets and global reduction schedules, but often isn’t because there is not enough data on its climate impact. Continued support of data gathering programs like Permafrost Pathways will provide the international community, top country-level climate negotiators, and environmental ministers the knowledge needed to fix that oversight and start filling gaps.
In Arctic communities, permafrost thaw is already causing disasters like flooding, coastal erosion, and infrastructure damage. To combat this, national and international policy makers need to act now to integrate permafrost thaw into disaster policies and community-led adaptation frameworks. This will create clear planning and response procedures for future permafrost-related issues.
Permafrost thaw is an issue that affects everyone. Understanding the local and global implications and sharing that information within immediate social circles as well as on social media platforms can help start conversations that spur action. The public also has the power to influence the development of climate policies by pressuring elected officials to tackle this serious issue.>
A 2022 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report confirms that the Earth is on track to warm 1.5 degrees celsius by 2040. Warming beyond this will cause global issues like struggling coral reefs, catastrophic storms, and extreme heat waves. The international community has developed a global carbon budget that tracks how much carbon can be added to the atmosphere by human-caused emissions before we push warming past 1.5 and even 2 degrees. It functions much like a household budget— where spending more than you earn can jeopardize your stability and comfort.
With the carbon budget, that means balancing how much carbon is released into the atmosphere with how much is being stored by natural sinks. According to the IPCC, the world needs to wean itself off of “spending” down that budget as we rapidly approach 2 degrees of warming.
But IPCC’s budget calculations aren’t factoring in a major source of emissions—permafrost thaw. Massive amounts of carbon are stored in frozen Arctic soils known as permafrost. As permafrost thaws, that carbon is released into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide and methane. Scientists estimate that emissions from permafrost thaw will range from 30 to 150 billion tons this century.
Despite being on par with top-emitting countries like India or the United States, permafrost thaw is not included in the global carbon budget. It has historically been excluded because of gaps in data that make existing estimates of emissions less precise. Dr. Max Holmes, President of Woodwell Climate Research Center, says it’s “especially alarming… that permafrost carbon is largely ignored in current climate change models.” That’s because permafrost thaw emissions could take up 25-40% of our remaining emissions budgeted to cap warming at 2°C. Imagine leaving the cost of rent out of your household budget. It doesn’t mean you don’t have to pay it, it just means you won’t be prepared when that bill arrives.
Excluding permafrost thaw also means that projections of the rate of warming will be off. The unaccounted carbon will speed up warming, reducing the amount of time we have to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
Permafrost thaw is already negatively impacting Arctic residents, especially Indigenous communities. In 2019, a Yup’ik community that has lived in Newtok, Alaska for hundreds of years had to begin moving to higher, volcanic ground because the thawing permafrost under their town was causing disastrous floods and sinking infrastructure. Woodwell Arctic program director and senior scientist, Dr. Sue Natali, who studies permafrost thaw in Yup’ik territory, says “it’s a place where permafrost is on the brink of thawing, and will be thawed by the end of the century, if not much sooner.”
Since permafrost spans multiple countries, it has been difficult to determine who should take responsibility for it. Consequently, there is currently little government framework for adaptation. The Yup’ik people had to reach out to a variety of government agencies and lived without plumbing for decades before the federal government finally awarded them support for relocation. The community paid a heavy price for it, though. Without proper policy in place to manage climate relocation, they had to bargain for government assistance, and in the end, turned ownership of the land they were leaving over to the U.S. government.
It took sixteen years from when Congress agreed to assist the Yup’ik community to when their promises were put into action. While scientists, like the ones spearheading Woodwell’s Permafrost Pathways program, are monitoring and modeling thaw to better prepare people for the damage it can cause, vulnerable communities do not have sixteen years to wait for assistance and relocation.
If permafrost thaw continues to be overlooked by government agencies, then it will remain difficult to prevent the Earth from warming beyond 2ºC and to support frontline communities most affected by it. Tackling permafrost thaw for both Arctic communities and the planet will require a coordinated international effort.
Looking for some background on Permafrost? Read the first piece in our permafrost series: “What is Permafrost?” To learn about what must be done to combat this issue, read part three: “What can be done about permafrost thaw?”
Thinking about climate change usually brings to mind dramatically melting ice caps and rising sea levels, but there’s another threat that’s caught the attention of climate scientists for its potential to be equally as disastrous—thawing permafrost.
Located anywhere between a few centimeters to 4,900ft below the Earth’s surface, permafrost is soil composed of sand, gravel, organic matter, and ice that has been frozen for at least two consecutive years. Some has been frozen for centuries or even millenia, and it’s this ancient permafrost in the Arctic that holds the greatest significance for climate change.
Arctic permafrost stretches across Alaska, Scandinavia, Russia, Iceland, and Canada, and can be found beneath the Arctic Ocean, the Arctic tundra, alpine forests, and boreal forests. It covers 15% of the land in the Northern Hemisphere and 3.6 million people live atop it. Scientists estimate that Arctic permafrost contains 1.4 trillion tonnes of carbon, an amount more than double what is currently in the Earth’s atmosphere. That carbon sink is stable as long as it stays frozen, but when it thaws, soil microbes break down the organic matter in permafrost and release carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, increasing the rate of climate change.
In many places, forests, plants, and peat act as protective insulation for Arctic permafrost. This insulation helps keep carbon-storing organic matter, like plants and animals, as well as bacteria and archaea, frozen in the permafrost. However, climate change is already causing the Arctic to warm three to four times faster than the rest of the planet.
In addition to rapid warming speeding decay, it also strips back permafrost’s protective layers with increasing fires and heavy summer rains that burn and erode away top soil layers, further accelerating thaw. In some places, permafrost thaws so abruptly that the ground can collapse. Developing infrastructure that requires deforestation and underground pipes further exposes permafrost to warming. Additionally, as sea ice melts, coastal Arctic permafrost is exposed to warmer waters. The combined result is extensive permafrost thaw across the region.
Researchers have been studying permafrost thaw to determine the size of the threat it poses. Methods such as placing soil moisture sensors in strategic locations and examining soil cores collected by drilling holes into the soil to document the different layers of permafrost help gauge the rate and extent of thaw.
In a recent TEDTalk, Dr. Sue Natali, Woodwell’s Arctic program director and senior scientist, cautioned that, “By the end of this century, greenhouse gas emissions from thawing permafrost may be on par with some of the world’s leading greenhouse-gas-emitting nations.”
There are already visible signs of vast permafrost thaw in the Arctic. Since ice is an essential part of the ground’s structural integrity, the soil becomes unstable when it thaws. This leads to dangerous situations like landslides, sinkholes, and destabilized infrastructure that threaten millions of people. Remote communities are particularly impacted, losing access to roads and sources of freshwater.
For both the carbon it threatens to release, and the destabilizing impacts it has on Arctic residents, permafrost thaw is a serious threat. One that, as the Arctic continues to warm, demands urgent attention and remediation.
Until now, that attention has been slow in coming. Read about why combatting permafrost thaw is such a complex issue in part two of our Permafrost series: “The critical missing expense in global climate budgets.”
It was supposed to be a quiet season, but only two months into summer and Alaska is already on track for another record-setting wildfire season. With 3 million acres already scorched and over 260 active fires, 2022 is settling in behind 2015 and 2004 so far as one of the state’s worst fire seasons on record. Here’s what to know about Alaska’s summer fires:
Southwestern Alaska, in particular, has been suffering. The season kicked off with an unseasonably early fire near Kwethluk that started in April. Currently, the East Fork Fire, which is burning near the Yup’ik village of St. Mary’s, AK, is among the biggest tundra fires in Alaska’s history. Just above Bristol Bay, the Lime Complex— consisting of 18 individual fires— has burned through nearly 865,000 acres. One of the longest lasting fires in the Lime Complex, the Upper Talarik fire, is burning close to the site of the controversial open-pit Pebble Mine.
For Dr. Brendan Rogers, who was in Fairbanks, AK for a research trip in May, the explosive start of the fire season contrasts strongly to conditions he saw in late spring.
“It was a relatively average spring in interior Alaska, with higher-than-normal snowpack. Walking around the forest was challenging because of remaining snow, slush, and flooded trails,” said Dr. Rogers.
Early predictions showed a 2022 season low in fire due to heavy winter snow. But the weather shifted in the last ten days of May and early June. June temperatures in Anchorage were the second highest ever recorded. High heat and low humidity rapidly dried out vegetation and groundcover, creating a tinderbox of available fuel. This sudden flip from wet to dry unfolded similarly to conditions in 2004, which resulted in the state’s worst fire season on record.
The conditions for this wildfire season were facilitated by climate change, and the emissions that result from them will fuel further warming. The hot temperatures responsible for drying out the Alaskan landscape were brought on by a persistent high pressure system that prevents the formation of clouds— a weather pattern linked to warming-related fluctuations in the jet stream.
“With climate change, we tend to get more of these persistent ridges and troughs in the jet stream,” says Dr. Rogers. “This will cause a high pressure system like this one to just sit over an area. There is no rain; it dries everything out, warms everything up.”
The compounding effects of earlier snowmelt and declining precipitation have also made it easier for ground cover to dry out rapidly under a spell of hot weather. More frequent fires also burn through ground cover protecting permafrost, accelerating thaw that releases more carbon. According to the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy, the frequency of big fire seasons like this one are only increasing— a trend expected to continue apace with further climate change.
Additionally, this summer has been high in lightning strikes, which were linked to the ignition of most of the fires currently burning in Alaska. Higher temperatures result in more energy in the atmosphere, which increases the likelihood of lightning strikes. On just one day in July over 7,180 lightning strikes were reported in Alaska and neighboring portions of Canada.
The destruction from these wildfires has forced rural and city residents alike to evacuate and escape the path of burning. Some residents of St. Mary’s, AK have elected to stay long enough to help combat the fires, clearing brush around structures and cutting trees that could spread fire to town buildings if they alight.
But the impact of the fires is also being felt in towns not in the direct path of the flames. Smoke particulates at levels high enough to cause dangerously unhealthy air quality were carried as far north as Nome, AK on the Seward Peninsula.
“Even though a lot of these fires are remote, that doesn’t preclude direct human harm,” says Woodwell senior science policy advisor Dr. Peter Frumhoff.
Recent research has shown that combatting boreal forest fires, even remote ones, can be a cost effective way to prevent both these immediate health risks, as well as the dangers of ground subsidence, erosion, and loss of traditional ways of life posed by climate change in the region.
Mid-July rains have begun to slow the progression of active fires but, according to Dr. Frumhoff, despite the lull, it is important to keep in mind that the season is not over yet.
“The uncertainty of those early predictions also applies to the remainder of the fire season — we don’t know how much more fire we’ll see in Alaska over the next several weeks.”
It’s a big idea—a pan-Arctic monitoring network for permafrost emissions—but big ideas are exactly what The Audacious Project was created to foster.
This April, Woodwell Climate Research Center was awarded 41.2 million dollars through Audacious to not only build such a network, filling gaps in our understanding of how much carbon is released into the atmosphere from thawing permafrost, but also to put research to work shaping policy and helping people.
The new project, called Permafrost Pathways, combines scientific prowess from Woodwell with policy, community engagement, and Indigenous knowledge from the Arctic Initiative at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, the Alaska Institute for Justice (AIJ), and the Alaska Native Science Commission.
Carbon emissions from permafrost thaw are one of the biggest areas of uncertainty in global climate calculations. Thawing permafrost is expected to release between 30 and 150 billion tons of carbon by 2100, the higher estimates on par with or even exceeding the United States’ cumulative emissions if allowed to continue at current rates. Yet permafrost is not accounted for in carbon budgets and international agreements. Permafrost Pathways will develop more complete data on permafrost carbon and deliver that research into the hands of those poised to decide how we deal with the warming Arctic.
Permafrost Pathways is led on the Woodwell side by Arctic Program Director Dr. Sue Natali and Associate Scientist Dr. Brendan Rogers, who have both been researching permafrost carbon for years. Dr. Natali found her way to the Arctic through a desire to work in a place significant to the global carbon story. The rapid changes she has witnessed in the past decade have underscored the Arctic as ground zero for climate change.
“I’ve seen dramatic changes from one year to the next in the places where I work, and Arctic residents have been observing these changes for decades,” Dr. Natali says. “You can measure something one year and then the ground there collapses the next. The physical changes across the landscape are really startling to see.”
Drs. Natali and Rogers have seen eroded hillslopes, research trips abandoned due to wildfire, community meetings with Arctic residents whose homes are sinking—every experience reinforced the fact that there was still much more to learn about how thawing permafrost feeds into climate change and is impacting Arctic communities.
The Audacious grant will allow Drs. Natali and Rogers to pull together the threads of their prior research into a project that starts to tackle the issue on a grander scale.
“When you’re focused on individual problems or hypotheses, you’re not able to really think big about something like monitoring across the Arctic,” says Dr. Rogers. “Opening up a funding source like this lets you think at a scale that matches the problems we face.”
The project is thinking really big, with the goal of installing 10 new eddy covariance towers—structures with instruments that measure carbon flux—in key areas where data is currently lacking. Pathways will also maintain existing key towers that would otherwise be decommissioned, and augment others to measure carbon fluxes year-round.
“There are a lot of existing towers that are either not running through the winter, or they’re not measuring methane, or they’re on hold for instrumentation upgrades or lack of funding,” Dr. Natali says. “We will get even more new data by maintaining old towers than constructing new ones.”
In parallel, Woodwell will work with a team at University of Alaska Fairbanks to develop a novel permafrost model that fully harnesses the data, accounting for important but currently neglected processes, and ultimately delivers more accurate projections of permafrost emissions to inform policy makers and Arctic communities.
While the science team ramps up new data collection, AIJ will be breaking down the issue of adaptation. The Arctic is warming faster than anywhere else on Earth, and it is not waiting for exact measurements to make the consequences known.
The land upon which many Alaska Native communities are located is destabilizing in the face of usteq—a Yupik word for the catastrophic ground collapse that occurs when thawing permafrost, erosion, and flooding combine to pull the ground out from under them. In many places the formerly solid cornerstones of villages—houses, roads, airports, cemeteries— have had to be picked up and moved to more stable ground.
“It is an awful, awful decision that communities are being faced with because the land on which they’re living is becoming uninhabitable,” says Executive Director of AIJ, Dr. Robin Bronen.
On top of the trauma of watching their villages sink into the Earth, there is no clear path for Arctic communities deciding they must completely relocate.
“It’s become painfully clear that we in the United States have no institutional or governance structure to facilitate this type of movement of people,” says Dr. Bronen. There is no standardized way for people displaced by the climate crisis seeking resettlement to apply for funding and technical assistance for a community-wide relocation.
“If policy changes aren’t made nationally, then a lot of communities in the United States are going to be experiencing this incredible disconnect between making the decision that they are ready to leave, but having no resources to implement that decision,” says Dr. Bronen.
Permafrost Pathways will be working with Arctic residents to help them adapt to their rapidly shifting landscape. Through AIJ and the Alaska Native Science Commission, the project will connect with communities, collaborate to generate data they can use in their decision making and, if they make the choice to move, work with them to secure the resources needed for relocation.
Permafrost Pathways isn’t the first to tackle these issues but, Dr. Natali says, it does represent a unique combination of expertise that could push forward both carbon mitigation and climate adaptation policies.
Leader of the Arctic Initiative, professor, and Senior Advisor to Woodwell’s president, Dr. John Holdren understands the value of connections in making lasting change; he has been speaking to top policy makers in the U.S. and abroad for much of his career.
“All of us at the Belfer Center have been linking science and policy for a long time and communication is important to that,” says Dr. Holdren. “In my view, it’s going to remain important to have personal connections at high levels.”
Working through these connections, Permafrost Pathways will put the project’s science into the hands of policymakers to impress upon them the issue’s urgency.
“All the news coming out about permafrost carbon has been bad news,” says Dr. Holdren. “I think what we are going to find is that the high estimates are much more likely to be right than the low estimates. We’ve got to get that factored into the policy process.”
For Dr. Natali, the most important outcome of Permafrost Pathways is a future in which the threats presented by permafrost thaw are taken seriously by governments.
“I want to see permafrost thaw emissions accounted for,” says Dr. Natali. “I want to see the national and international community actually wrestle with the effects of permafrost thaw and to take action to respond to the climate hazards.”
Dr. Rogers says he hopes the collaborative nature of this already-big project will have even larger, rippling effects— paving the way for new partnerships and policy change.
“There’s the critical work that we will be doing, and then there are the new doors that a project of this scope opens,” says Dr. Rogers. “And we aren’t reaching our end goal without those open doors.”
The Audacious Project is an initiative of the non-profit TED that funds large-scale solutions to the world’s most challenging problems. Every year, the Project selects a cohort of big ideas to nurture with funding and resources.