New project funded by NSF’s Office of Polar Programs: Fire Regime Influences on Carbon Dynamics of Siberian Boreal Forests

Will boreal forest fires toast the permafrost?

The Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC) will be a key participant in a new, four-year study that was recently awarded funding by the National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs. The co-principal investigators from WHRC are Senior Scientist Dr. Scott Goetz and Assistant Scientist Dr. Susan Natali. The project, titled Fire Regime Influences on Carbon Dynamics of Siberian Boreal Forests, will be a collaborative project between WHRC and several higher education institutions including University of Texas-Brownsville (UTB), University of Florida, and Colgate University. Dr. Eric Davidson, WHRC President, noted that “This will be among the first studies to look at the interaction of fire and climate-induced thawing.”


Experimental burn in a larch forest in Siberia to examine the effects of fire on above and below ground carbon storage. Photo credit: Brandi Jo Petronio

Boreal forests cover 40% of the vegetated land area above the Arctic Circle and are a critical component of arctic ecosystems. Global change models predict these northern forests will become increasingly susceptible to fire activity with climate warming. This anticipated change in fire frequency and intensity will impact the vast amounts of carbon stored in Arctic permafrost (permanently frozen soil that has been undisturbed for thousands of years), which has become susceptible to thawing as a result of both forest fires and climate warming. Thawing permafrost could potentially release billions of tons of the heat-trapping gas, carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere, further raising global temperatures. The new study will examine whether or not permafrost thaws faster in burned areas, and it will also provide novel insights into the role of arctic ecosystems in the global climate system.


Larch forests in Siberia are underlain by permafrost. Photo credit: Sue Natali

In addition to producing important research, the Boreal Forest project will contain an educational component that will serve a broad spectrum of interests, including the training of six undergraduate and two graduate students from the partner universities. Outreach activities for local primary schools will be developed by UTB participants designed to help teachers integrate arctic science, boreal ecology, and climate change into the current curriculum. Through researcher’s presentations, primary students will experience real-life examples of arctic research and learn about different career and educational paths in the sciences. The project will also build professional partnerships between arctic researchers from the U.S. and Russia through the utilization of the Northeast Science Station in eastern Russia as the project’s research base. These collaborations will enable the project’s research findings to be integrated with Russian scientific efforts. It is anticipated that the project’s results will be widely disseminated through publications in scientific journals, presentations at international conferences, and through incorporation into higher education courses taught by the scientists.