Fire activity in the Alaskan boreal forest, though episodic at annual and intra-annual time scales, has experienced an increase over the last several decades. Increases in burned area and fire severity are not only releasing more carbon to the atmosphere, but likely shifting vegetation composition in the region towards greater deciduous dominance and a reduction in coniferous stands. While some recent studies have addressed qualitative differences between large and small fire years in the Alaskan boreal forest, the ecological effects of a greater proportion of burning occurring during large fire years and during late season fires have not yet been examined.
Some characteristics of wildfires that can be detected remotely are related to fire severity and can provide new information on spatial and temporal patterns of burning. This analysis focused on boreal wildfire intensity (fire radiative power, or FRP) contained in the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) daily active fire product from 2003 to 2010. We found that differences in FRP resulted from seasonality and intra-annual variability in fire activity levels, vegetation composition, latitudinal variation, and fire spread behavior.
Our studies determined two general categories of active fire detections: new detections associated with the spread of the fire front and residual pixels in areas that had already experienced front burning. Residual pixels had a lower average FRP than front pixels, but represented a high percentage of all pixels during periods of high fire activity (large fire years, late season burning, and seasonal periods of high fire activity). As a result, the FRP from periods of high fire activity was less intense than those from periods of low fire activity. Differences related to latitude were greater than expected, with higher latitudes burning later in the season and at a higher intensity than lower latitudes. Differences in vegetation type indicate that coniferous vegetation is the most fire prone, but deciduous vegetation is not particularly fire resistant, as the proportion of active fire detections in deciduous stands is roughly the same as the fraction of deciduous vegetation in the region.
Qualitative differences between periods of high and low fire activity are likely to reflect important differences in fire severity. Large fire years are likely to be more severe, characterized by more late season fires and a greater proportion of residual burning. Given the potential for severe fires to effect changes in vegetation cover, the shift toward a greater proportion of area burning during large fire years may influence vegetation patterns in the region over the medium to long term.
Additional publication details
Controls on variations in MODIS fire radiative power in Alaskan boreal forests: implications for fire severity conditions