Where there’s smoke there’s fire: Influence of Arctic tundra fire on methane dynamics

Smoke from a tundra fire near the Baird Mountains, Alaska. Photo by Josh Foreman/National Park Service.

By Elizabeth Yoseph, Forum Contributor

Putting Theory into Practice

The Arctic is the fastest-warming place on Earth. It’s one thing to learn about rapid climate change as a Bard CEP Climate Science and Policy graduate student from textbooks and classroom discussions. It’s a wholly more impactful experience to directly contribute toward advancing our scientific understanding of the environmental and societal consequences of climate change like those occurring in the Arctic. This summer, I had the opportunity to do just that as an intern with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) before switching gears to begin the environmental law program at Vermont Law School (VLS).

Scientific Research as a NASA Intern

I interned with a team of scientists working on the Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE), a 10 year-long field and airborne campaign funded by NASA. ABoVE combines ground-based research in Alaska and northwestern Canada with data collected by NASA airborne instruments and satellites to investigate ecological impacts of rapidly changing climate in high northern latitudes.

The consequences of dramatic climate-induced changes in the Arctic, such as the thawing of permafrost (ground historically frozen for 10s to 100s of thousands of years), increasing wildfires, and changes to wildlife habitats, have significant implications for current and future global climate change. However, some of the specific drivers and dynamics in this region remain poorly understood. Increased thawing of permafrost from climate warming may in turn give rise to enhanced methane emissions (a.k.a. hotspots) from exposed soils that begin to decompose and release carbon, accelerating a positive permafrost-carbon feedback. Increased frequency and severity of fires also observed in the region may further amplify this climate feedback. Given these unknowns, more research is needed to investigate processes that drive methane dynamics at finer scales.

Members of the ABoVE science team recently demonstrated that an infrared remote sensing instrument (AVIRIS-NG) can be used to facilitate this type of research into methane hotspot patterns (Elder et al., 2020). However, a detailed study was limited by the sheer volume of data generated from the high-resolution imagery. Who would have the time to leverage this new dataset? You guessed it — this is where my internship stepped in to help fill the gap.

I led a study that provided a unique, site-level analysis of methane hotspots in a high priority region in southwestern Alaska, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta (YKD). Using comparisons with Alaska fire history data, we investigated whether tundra fires enhance methane hotspots. We found that methane hotspots were on average:

  • 47% more likely in burned areas
  • 125% more likely near fire edges
  • 6% more likely near fire edges with a water feature present

Our results suggest that tundra fires are an important driver of methane dynamics in the Arctic, with older fire edges exerting a particularly strong influence on methane hotspot distribution. Given the projected increases in fire frequency and severity with climate change, the associated enhanced methane emissions could turn the Arctic tundra into a carbon source, and thus, accelerate climate warming.

Translating Science into Policy
I was both excited and motivated by my internship experience. I had the opportunity to participate in the full scientific process as part of a community that is unmatched in its commitment to excellence, collaboration and advancement. I feel truly honored to have been welcomed into that space. The results of our analysis, however, reaffirmed my sense of urgency in galvanizing a global response to climate change before we reach a catastrophic point of no return.

Preventing global climate catastrophe will take action and collaborations both big and small from all sectors of society. For my part, I want to combine scientific discovery with the power of the law to move from understanding to action, especially as it relates to the climate change impacts on the ocean environment. I couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity than my internship with NASA to hone my scientific analysis skills. Now, I’m at VLS to develop the legal acumen and experience needed to effectively advocate for transformative ocean governance and policy.

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