Fire in the Far North

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Science  02 May 2008:
Vol. 320, Issue 5876, pp. 587
DOI: 10.1126/science.320.5876.587a

Paleoecological data sets contain historical records of biotic responses to changes in climate. Currently, high-latitude regions are suffering a particularly aggressive regimen of climate change; hence, an understanding of past vegetation dynamics in these regions is especially pertinent. Higuera et al. have analyzed pollen records from north-central Alaska and find that a combination of drier climates and shrubbier tundra during the late glacial period 14,000 to 10,000 years ago led to regular fires. Given present-day increases in shrub biomass and temperature, tundra fire activity might increase again, with consequences for vegetation dynamics and carbon cycling. Tinner et al. have analyzed pollen and other records from the past 700 years (a period that includes the Little Ice Age of 1500 to 1800 CE) in southern Alaska, and find that temperature fluctuations of 1° to 2°C, together with changes in moisture balance, led to conversions between boreal forest and tundra with concomitant alterations in fire regimes. Taken together, these findings are consistent with models predicting a conversion of tundra to boreal forest as temperatures increase. — AMS

PLoS ONE 3, e0001744 (2008); Ecology 89, 729 (2008).

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