As climate change reshapes Alaska’s landscapes, tundra fires are getting worse

Tundra fires have always happened. But historically, they were small and infrequent, experts say, describing the current situation as “unprecedented.”

Fire, Alaska

6/15/2022 4:58:00 AM

Historically, fires affecting the Southwest Alaska tundra have been small and infrequent. As climate change continues to reshape the state’s environment, tundra fires are becoming both more frequent and more severe.

Tundra fires have always happened. But historically, they were small and infrequent, experts say, describing the current situation as “unprecedented.”

The current fires in Southwest Alaska are burning on a landscape marked by permafrost and small vegetation, as well as a lack of trees, Grabinski said.]“The fires burning now really are unprecedented in that sense,” Fresco said.In some areas where once not-flammable lichen and moss grew, there might be more flammable grass and shrubs growing instead. So when lightning strikes, it’s more likely to lead to a fire, and a fire that spreads, she said.

[The trend of increasing tundra wildfires isn’t playing out the same around the state. Thoman said the increases are concentrated in tundra areas of Southwest Alaska and in the Noatak Valley, but the Seward Peninsula and North Slope aren’t showing the same uptick, though it’s not clear why.

Read more: Anchorage Daily News »

Tesla plays 'whack-a-mole' with snags as deliveries fall for first time in two years

Tesla Inc faces a series of hurdles ranging from production snags to rising inflation that may hit profits, Wall Street analysts said on Tuesday, as the electric-car maker reported a fall in deliveries for the first time in two years. Read more >>

Tundra wildfire creeps closer toward Alaska Native communityA tundra wildfire has moved closer to an Alaska Native community in southwest Alaska , but mandatory evacuations have not been ordered. DUMB.... stop already....

Half of Pilot Station is without running water as tundra fire nears - Alaska Public MediaBy Monday, the fire burned about 12 miles from the village, and the Pilot Station mayor said that he may soon have to turn off running water to the entire community.

Historic tundra fire spreads within 3.5 miles of St. Mary's as another fire burns 10 miles from Sleetmute - Alaska Public MediaThe incident commander on the East Fork Fire says the “biggest challenge we’re looking at right now is the fire situation around the state and starting to feel pressure on the number of resources that are available.'

Fires and smoke in AlaskaWith all the smoke in the area, you might be wondering where the smoke is come from and how close the fires are.

Tundra wildfire creeps closer toward Alaska Native communityA tundra wildfire has moved closer to an Alaska Native community in southwest Alaska , but mandatory evacuations have not been ordered. DUMB.... stop already....

Half of Pilot Station is without running water as tundra fire nears - Alaska Public MediaBy Monday, the fire burned about 12 miles from the village, and the Pilot Station mayor said that he may soon have to turn off running water to the entire community.

Alaska Fire Science Consortium . That’s unusual since most of Alaska’s fires tend to burn in the state’s Interior boreal forests, between the Brooks Range and the Alaska Range. The current fires in Southwest Alaska are burning on a landscape marked by permafrost and small vegetation, as well as a lack of trees, Grabinski said. [Related: Firefighters make more headway against wildfire as winds push it away from Southwest Alaska villages ] Tundra fires have always happened, said Nancy Fresco, an associate research professor at the International Arctic Research Center within the University of Alaska Fairbanks, “but climate change is greatly increasing their frequency and severity.” Historically, fires affecting the Southwest tundra were relatively small and infrequent, she said. “The fires burning now really are unprecedented in that sense,” Fresco said. That’s due to several factors. Statewide, Alaska is experiencing higher temperature trends that can cause drying, which in turn can spell more frequent and intense fires. And on top of that, climate change is causing vegetation in the region to change. With warmer seasons, the soil thaws earlier, and different plants begin to grow there, Fresco said. In some areas where once not-flammable lichen and moss grew, there might be more flammable grass and shrubs growing instead. So when lightning strikes, it’s more likely to lead to a fire, and a fire that spreads, she said. Tundra environments are vastly different around the state — in Utqiagvik, there is nothing that grows taller than a person’s calf, while in the Southwest region, willow and alder thickets grow some 10-feet high, Thoman said. Thoman also noted the western spread of the state’s boreal forest — meaning that over the long term, a tundra fire in Southwest Alaska may just be considered a forest fire, with warmer summers able to support tree growth. [ St. Mary’s residents pitch in to help protect their village from a historic tundra wildfire ] The trend of increasing tundra wildfires isn’t playing out the same around the state. Thoman said the increases are concentrated in tundra areas of Southwest Alaska and in the Noatak Valley, but the Seward Peninsula and North Slope aren’t showing the same uptick, though it’s not clear why. While Fresco’s fire modeling can’t say where and when future fires will burn in a precise way, she said it points to more severe fire years, particularly in tundra areas. “It’s extremely difficult to predict exactly when some of those more severe fire years might occur,” Fresco said. “But, certainly for tundra areas, the trend is towards greater risk of fire.” Fresco said while it can be hard for people to look at research that predicts bad news, there’s a positive side: It empowers people to plan and to ask how communities can get ready, she said. “It’s important to think about this statewide and to think how larger communities can help and support smaller communities in dealing with risk and then planning for risk,” Fresco said. “Because we’re all in this together.” Morgan Krakow Morgan Krakow is a general assignment reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. She is a 2019 graduate of the University of Oregon and spent the summer of 2019 as a reporting intern on the general assignment desk of The Washington Post. Contact her at mkrakow@adn.com.