Lightning as a major driver of recent large fire years in North American boreal forests


Changes in climate and fire regimes are transforming the boreal forest, the world’s largest biome. Boreal North America recently experienced two years with large burned area: 2014 in the Northwest Territories and 2015 in Alaska. Here we use climate, lightning, fire and vegetation data sets to assess the mechanisms contributing to large fire years. We find that lightning ignitions have increased since 1975, and that the 2014 and 2015 events coincided with a record number of lightning ignitions and exceptionally high levels of burning near the northern treeline. Lightning ignition explained more than 55% of the interannual variability in burned area, and was correlated with temperature and precipitation, which are projected to increase by mid-century. The analysis shows that lightning drives interannual and long-term ignition and burned area dynamics in boreal North America, and implies future ignition increases may increase carbon loss while accelerating the northward expansion of boreal forest.

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Figure 1: Ignition locations and burned area of two recent years with large burned area in boreal North America.
Figure 2: Ignitions and burned area were considerably higher than the longer-term mean near the treeline in the Northwest Territories in 2014 and Interior Alaska in 2015.
Figure 3: Changes in ignition, fire size and burned area between 1975 and 2015.
Figure 4: A cascade from lightning ignitions to burned area and carbon emissions.
Figure 5: A positive feedback loop between climate, lightning, fires and northward forest expansion partly mitigated by a negative fuel feedback.


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This work was funded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Carbon in Arctic Reservoirs Experiment (CARVE) and the Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE, NNX15AU56A). We acknowledge the World Climate Research Program’s Working Group on Coupled Modeling, which is responsible for the Climate Model Intercomparison Project, and we thank the climate modelling groups for producing and making available their model output. We wish to thank Environment and Climate Change Canada for their generous permission to use Canadian Lightning Detection Network data. We thank NASA for providing access to the Optical Transient Detector gridded lightning climatology data. Part of the research was carried out at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with NASA. S.V. would like to thank C. Verstraete for discussions on early ideas of this paper and support.

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S.V. and J.T.R. designed the research. S.V. performed the analysis of contemporary climate and fire time series, and developed the future projections. B.M.R. developed the future fuel feedback estimates. R.R.J. contributed to the interpretation of the Alaskan lightning data. S.V. drafted the paper. All authors participated in manuscript editing.

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Correspondence to Sander Veraverbeke.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Veraverbeke, S., Rogers, B., Goulden, M. et al. Lightning as a major driver of recent large fire years in North American boreal forests. Nature Clim Change 7, 529–534 (2017).

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