Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting nature.com. You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Carbon loss from an unprecedented Arctic tundra wildfire

Abstract

Arctic tundra soils store large amounts of carbon (C) in organic soil layers hundreds to thousands of years old that insulate, and in some cases maintain, permafrost soils1,2. Fire has been largely absent from most of this biome since the early Holocene epoch3, but its frequency and extent are increasing, probably in response to climate warming4. The effect of fires on the C balance of tundra landscapes, however, remains largely unknown. The Anaktuvuk River fire in 2007 burned 1,039 square kilometres of Alaska’s Arctic slope, making it the largest fire on record for the tundra biome and doubling the cumulative area burned since 1950 (ref. 5). Here we report that tundra ecosystems lost 2,016 ± 435 g C m−2 in the fire, an amount two orders of magnitude larger than annual net C exchange in undisturbed tundra6. Sixty per cent of this C loss was from soil organic matter, and radiocarbon dating of residual soil layers revealed that the maximum age of soil C lost was 50 years. Scaled to the entire burned area, the fire released approximately 2.1 teragrams of C to the atmosphere, an amount similar in magnitude to the annual net C sink for the entire Arctic tundra biome averaged over the last quarter of the twentieth century7. The magnitude of ecosystem C lost by fire, relative to both ecosystem and biome-scale fluxes, demonstrates that a climate-driven increase in tundra fire disturbance may represent a positive feedback, potentially offsetting Arctic greening8 and influencing the net C balance of the tundra biome.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

from$8.99

All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Atmospheric radiocarbon values over the past 57 years and radiocarbon values of the burned soil surface in the Anatuvuk River fire scar, Alaska, USA.

References

  1. 1

    Ping, C. L. et al. High stocks of soil organic carbon in the North American Arctic region. Nature Geosci. 1, 615–619 (2008)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  2. 2

    Harden, J. W., Sundquist, E. T., Stallard, R. F. & Mark, R. K. Dynamics of soil carbon during deglaciation of the Laurentide ice-sheet. Science 258, 1921–1924 (1992)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  3. 3

    Higuera, P., Brubaker, L. B., Anderson, P. M., Brown, T. A. & Kennedy, A. T. Frequent fires in ancient shrub tundra: implications of paleorecords for Arctic environmental change. PLoS ONE 3, e0001744 (2008)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  4. 4

    Hu, F. S. et al. Tundra burning in Alaska: linkages to climatic change and sea ice retreat. J. Geophys. Res. Biogeosci. 115, G04002 (2010)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  5. 5

    Jones, B. M. et al. Fire behavior, weather, and burn severity of the 2007 Anaktuvuk river tundra fire, North Slope, Alaska. Arct. Antarct. Alp. Res. 41, 309–316 (2009)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. 6

    Oechel, W. C. et al. A scaling approach for quantifying the net CO2 flux of the Kuparuk river basin, Alaska. Glob. Change Biol. 6, 160–173 (2000)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. 7

    McGuire, A. D. et al. Sensitivity of the carbon cycle in the Arctic to climate change. Ecol. Monogr. 79, 523–555 (2009)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. 8

    Goetz, S. J., Bunn, A. G., Fiske, G. J. & Houghton, R. A. Satellite-observed photosynthetic trends across boreal North America associated with climate and fire disturbance. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 102, 13521–13525 (2005)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 9

    Schuur, E. A. G. et al. Vulnerability of permafrost carbon to climate change: Implications for the global carbon cycle. Bioscience 58, 701–714 (2008)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10

    The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007)

    Book  Google Scholar 

  11. 11

    Field, C. B., Lobell, D. B., Peters, H. A. & Chiariello, N. R. Feedbacks of terrestrial ecosystems to climate change. Annu. Rev. Environ. Resour. 32, 1–29 (2007)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. 12

    Kasischke, E. S. & Turetsky, M. R. Recent changes in the fire regime across the North American boreal region—spatial and temporal patterns of burning across Canada and Alaska. Geophys. Res. Lett. 33 (13). L09703 (2006)

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  13. 13

    Zimov, S. A. et al. Contribution of disturbance to increasing seasonal amplitude of atmospheric CO2 . Science 284, 1973–1976 (1999)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14

    Chapin, F. S., III et al. Role of land-surface changes in Arctic summer warming. Science 310, 657–660 (2005)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  15. 15

    Balshi, M. S. et al. Vulnerability of carbon storage in North American boreal forests to wildfires during the 21st century. Glob. Change Biol. 15, 1491–1510 (2009)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  16. 16

    Krawchuck, M. A., Moritz, M. A., Parisien, M.-A., Van Dorn, J. & Hayhoe, K. Global pyrogeography: the current and future distribution of wildfire. PLoS ONE 4, 1–12 (2009)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. 17

    Boby, L. A., Schuur, E. A. G., Mack, M. C., Johnstone, J. F. & Verbyla, D. L. Quantifying fire severity, carbon and nitrogen emissions in Alaska’s boreal forests. Ecol. Appl. 20, 1633–1647 (2010)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. 18

    Turetsky, M. R. et al. Recent acceleration of biomass burning and carbon losses in Alaskan forests and peatlands. Nature Geosci. 4, 27–31 (2011)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  19. 19

    Tarnocai, C. et al. Soil organic carbon pools in the northern circumpolar permafrost region. Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 23, GB2023. 1–11 (2009)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20

    Chapin, F. S., III et al. Arctic and boreal ecosystems of western North America as components of the climate system. Glob. Change Biol. 6, 211–223 (2000)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. 21

    Randerson, J. T. et al. The impact of boreal forest fire on climate warming. Science 314, 1130–1132 (2006)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  22. 22

    Schuur, E. A. G. et al. The effect of permafrost thaw on old carbon release and net carbon exchange from tundra. Nature 459, 556–559 (2009)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  23. 23

    Trumbore, S. E. & Harden, J. W. Accumulation and turnover of carbon in organic and mineral soils of the BOREAS northern study area. J. Geophys. Res. 102, 28817–28830 (1997)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  24. 24

    Schell, D. & Barnett, B. Peat Cores from the Toolik Lake and Imnaviate Creek Regionhttp://metacat.lternet.edu/das/lter/advancedsearch.jsp?site=ARC〉 (12 files named 89scpt01.txt to 89scpt12.txt) (US Long Term Ecological Research Database, 1989)

    Google Scholar 

  25. 25

    Shaver, G. R. & Chapin, F. S., III Production:biomass relationships and element cycling in contrasting Arctic vegetation types. Ecol. Monogr. 61, 1–31 (1991)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. 26

    Hobara, S. et al. Nitrogen fixation in surface soils and vegetation in an Arctic tundra watershed: a key source of atmospheric nitrogen. Arct. Antarct. Alp. Res. 38, 363–372 (2006)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. 27

    Ping, C. L., Bockheim, J. G., Kimble, J. M., Michaelson, G. J. & Walker, D. A. Characteristics of cryogenic soils along a latitudinal transect in Arctic Alaska. J. Geophys. Res. Atmos. 103 (D22). 28917–28928 (1998)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  28. 28

    Luo, Y. Q. Terrestrial carbon-cycle feedback to climate warming. Annu. Rev. Ecol. Evol. Syst. 38, 683–712 (2007)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. 29

    Mack, M. C., Schuur, E. A. G., Bret-Harte, M. S., Shaver, G. R. & Chapin, F. S., III Ecosystem carbon storage in Arctic tundra reduced by long-term nutrient fertilization. Nature 431, 440–443 (2004)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  30. 30

    Sturm, M., Racine, C. & Tape, K. Climate change—increasing shrub abundance in the Arctic. Nature 411, 546–547 (2001)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  31. 31

    Rocha, A. V. & Shaver, G. R. Advantages of a two band EVI calculated from solar and photosynthetically active radiation fluxes. Agric. For. Meteorol. 149, 1560–1563 (2009)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  32. 32

    Walker, D. A. et al. The circumpolar Arctic vegetation map. J. Veg. Sci. 16, 267–282 (2005)

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

We thank J. Ahgook Jr, L. Boby, M. Cahill, E. Miya, E. Miller, J. Oyler, C. Roberts, E. Suronen, C. Wachs, C. Wasykowski and D. Yokel for their contributions to fieldwork, C. Apodaca, G. Blohm, E. Brown, G. Crummer and D. Nossov for their contributions to laboratory work and sample analyses, H. Alexander for contributing to data analyses, and P. Ray for insights into tussock morphology. This research was supported by the US NSF Division of Environmental Biology, the Division of Biological Infrastructure and Office of Polar Programs, by the US National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis and by the US Bureau of Land Management Alaska Fire Service and Arctic Field Office.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

M.C.M., M.S.B.-H., T.N.H., R.R.J. and D.L.V. designed the study with input from E.A.G.S. and G.R.S. M.C.M., T.N.H., R.R.J. and M.S.B.-H. conducted soil and vegetation sampling fieldwork and M.C.M., E.A.G.S. and D.L.V. analysed samples and data. M.C.M. wrote the manuscript with input from all co-authors.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Michelle C. Mack.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Additional information

The data described in this study is publicly available in the Arctic Long Term Ecological Research data archive (http://ecosystems.mbl.edu/arc/burn/data.html).

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Methods, additional references, Supplementary Figures 1-6 with legends and Supplementary Tables 1-3. (PDF 3757 kb)

PowerPoint slides

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Mack, M., Bret-Harte, M., Hollingsworth, T. et al. Carbon loss from an unprecedented Arctic tundra wildfire. Nature 475, 489–492 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature10283

Download citation

Further reading

Comments

By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.

Search

Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing