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Keywords:

  • Arctic;
  • fire;
  • North Slope;
  • shrubs;
  • Thermokarst;
  • tundra

Abstract

[1] Characteristics of the natural fire regime are poorly resolved in the Arctic, even though fire may play an important role cycling carbon stored in tundra vegetation and soils to the atmosphere. In the course of studying vegetation and permafrost-terrain characteristics along a chronosequence of tundra burn sites from AD 1977, 1993, and 2007 on the North Slope of Alaska, we discovered two large, previously unrecognized tundra fires. The Meade River fire burned an estimated 500 km2 and the Ketik River fire burned an estimated 1200 km2. Based on radiocarbon dating of charred twigs, analysis of historic aerial photography, and regional climate proxy data, these fires likely occurred between AD 1880 and 1920. Together, these events double the estimated burn area on the North Slope of Alaska over the last ~100 to 130 years. Assessment of vegetation succession along the century-scale chronosequence of tundra fire disturbances demonstrates for the first time on the North Slope of Alaska that tundra fires can facilitate the invasion of tundra by shrubs. Degradation of ice-rich permafrost was also evident at the fire sites and likely aided in the presumed changes of the tundra vegetation postfire. Other previously unrecognized tundra fire events likely exist in Alaska and other Arctic regions and identification of these sites is important for better understanding disturbance regimes and carbon cycling in Arctic tundra.