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Keywords:

  • Arctic;
  • charcoal records;
  • climatic warming;
  • paleoecology;
  • sea ice retreat;
  • tundra fire

[1] Recent climatic warming has resulted in pronounced environmental changes in the Arctic, including shrub cover expansion and sea ice shrinkage. These changes foreshadow more dramatic impacts that will occur if the warming trend continues. Among the major challenges in anticipating these impacts are “surprises” stemming from changes in system components that have remained relatively stable in the historic record. Tundra burning is potentially one such component. Here we report paleoecological evidence showing that recent tundra burning is unprecedented in the central Alaskan Arctic within the last 5000 years. Analysis of lake sediment cores reveals peak values of charcoal accumulation corresponding to the Anaktuvuk River Fire in 2007, with no evidence of other fire events throughout the past five millennia in that area. Atmospheric reanalysis suggests that the fire was favored by exceptionally warm and dry weather conditions in summer and early autumn. Boosted regression tree modeling shows that such conditions also explain 95% of the interannual variability in tundra area burned throughout Alaska over the past 60 years and that the response of tundra burning to climatic warming is nonlinear. These results contribute to an emerging body of evidence suggesting that tundra ecosystems can burn more frequently under suitable climatic and fuel conditions. The Anaktuvuk River Fire coincides with extreme sea ice retreat, and tundra area burned in Alaska is moderately correlated with sea ice extent from 1979 to 2009 (r = −0.43, p = 0.02). Recurrences of large tundra fires as a result of sea ice disappearance may represent a novel manifestation of coupled marine-terrestrial responses to climatic warming.