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Ecosystem carbon emissions from forest fires in Alaska

Carbon emissions in Alaska relied on measurements of trees and changes in surface organic layer carbon pools after large-scale burning. In 2015 hundreds of forest fires burned across the state of Alaska resulted as second highest acreage burned in a year.  Nearly 300 forest fires occur in a week, as a result over 61,000 lightning strikes detected during this period. As of mid-September a total of 2.1 million hectares has been burned statewide in 700 separate forest fires. Deeper burning of surface layers happened during fires and on more well-drained sites at moderate to high severity levels. Summer of 2015 in Alaska has an exceptionally warm and dry condition following the largest forest fires recorded in decade.


Forest fires estimated carbon emission

Estimated burned depth from forest fires consumed almost the surface organic moss layers at about 5cm-10cm depth. This estimate confirmed using the relationship of every centimeter of organic mat thickness and soil temperature under organic layer. In sternly burned forest a total consumption of living moss organic layer is directly associated with warming at the soil surface layer. Additionally, soil temperature at about 30cm depth has 8–10 °C higher compared to unburned forest sites. Therefore, forest fire impacts on forested areas caused a fivefold decrease in surface organic layer thickness. As well as doubling of water storage in the soil layer, doubling in thaw depth and increase soil temperature.


Moreover, carbon emissions include the measurement above ground biomass and changes in surface organic layer carbon pools. In 2017 field surveys of Tanana, Alaska shows no live surface organic layers remained from 2015 forest fires. Due to these intense fires only residual dead, charred moss and lichen left behind that could not insulate soil layers. Also, post-fire thickness of organic layer and thermal conductivity are important factors to determine soil temperature and thaw depth. Nevertheless, the role of mineral to the total ecosystem carbon emissions is higher in forests that are normally calculated.


Forest fires have overall percentage of more than 60% in interior Alaska. And this abrupt removal of moss and soil organic layer elevates post-fire soil temperatures and thaw depths. Because of this a massive loss of carbon and nitrogen from soil layer minerals. As well as, a much warmer and wetter surface layer compared to unburned forest nearby. Therefore, carbon emissions are due to the addition of mass wasting of soil mineral in 2 years following forest fires.


Source: Prepared by Joan Tura from  BMC Carbon Balance and Management

Volume 13:2 January 8, 2018