Fire-mediated changes in the Alaskan Boreal Forest: Interactions of
changing climate and human activities
Recent economic and climatic changes in interior Alaska have resulted
in a decline in the well-being of rural residents and a decrease in the
resilience of the region to respond to projected future changes. Fire has
traditionally been an important part of ecosystem regulation in this region.
The goal of this assessment is to document the changing role of fire, particularly
as affected by human activities, on the boreal system and its human residents,
and to explore alternative scenarios of future changes that may affect human
The study site is the Yukon River drainage of interior Alaska and western
Canada (63.5–68_N; 130–160_W), and the project time frame is September 2007
to September 2010.
The study is designed to take into account multiple spatial and time
scales. The multiple spatial scales are: the boreal forest of western North
America, which contains two countries (Yukon Territory in Canada, and Alaska
in the United States), within which smaller regions centered on two communities
in each country are studied. Within these communities, long-term trends
spanning the period 1800–2100 are assessed, with intensive study and projection
of trends for the period 1950–2050. The assessment focuses primarily on
ecosystem provisioning services that are strongly affected by changes in
climate and fire regime; and on a set of management policies that influence
the relationships between fire, ecosystem services, and human well-being.
Fire and climate warming alter climate regulation at large(r) spatial
scales by changing vegetation composition, energy exchange within the atmosphere,
and carbon balance. This study examines how these ecological changes either
amplify or buffer the rate of climatic warming. Additionally, the effect
of feedback from these phenomena on state/territory and national policies
of carbon sequestration and fire suppression will also be examined.
Provisioning, regulating, and cultural services, such as subsistence
foods (for example, game, berries, and firewood), are affected by climate
warming and fire. Economic opportunities and risks (for example, wages and
property risk), and cultural ties to the land (as reflected in altered subsistence
activities, rural-urban migration, and forest harvest) are also assessed
in the study. The landscape pattern of these changes determines the consequences
for use by local communities.
Ecosystem modeling (the Terrestrial Ecosystem Model or TEM) and policy
analysis are the primary tools used to study the large-scale processes of
climate regulation in this assessment. Interviews with subsistence users
and ecological observations are used in the assessment to determine the
extent and impact of changes in subsistence foods. The Alaska Frame Based
Ecosystem Code (ALFRESCO) landscape modeling is used to explore how future
changes in climate-fire-vegetation interactions might alter fire regime
and ecosystem services.
Records of fires, employment, and community income are used to assess
the positive and negative economic effects of fires on communities. Additionally,
the assessment analyses the condition and trends through stand-age reconstructions
maps of fires since 1950, and interviews with elders. Landscape modeling
is used to explore alternative scenarios, especially the potential effects
of policy and management on the ecosystem services and drivers of change
in the ecosystems.
Project team and institutions
- Stuart Chapin (team leader, ecosystem ecologist), University of
- Dave McGuire (ecosystem modeler), University of Alaska
- Scott Rupp (landscape modeler), University of Alaska
- Tony Starfield (conservation modeler), University of Minnesota
- Erica Zavaleta (ecologist/anthropologist), University of California,
- Henry Huntington (anthropologist), private consultant, Alaska
- David Natcher (anthropologist), Memorial University of Newfoundland,
- Amy Lovecraft (political scientist), University of Alaska
- Sarah Trainor (political scientist), University of Alaska
- Roz Naylor (resource economist), Stanford University
- Paul Baer (resource economist), Stanford University
- Orville Huntington, resident of Huslia; Vice-Chair, Alaska Native
- La’ona DeWilde, resident of Huslia
- Stuart Chapin
Institute of Arctic Biology, University of Alaska
Fairbanks, AK 99775, USA
Funding for the preliminary assessment was provided by the U.S. National
Science Foundation for the period September 2003. The Bonanza Creek Long-term
Ecological Research Program has approved funding for the assessment to its
completion in 2010.
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