Our Research Brief this month covers a new NASA-funded study led by Sander Veraverbeke of Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam which found lightning storms to be a main driver of recent large fire seasons in Alaska and Canada. Results of the study are published in the July, 2017 issue of Nature Climate Change.
MODIS (Moderate-Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer) satellite images and data from ground-based lightning networks were employed to study fire ignitions. Sander’s analysis found increases of between two and five percent a year in the number of lightning-ignited fires since 1975. Veraverbeke said that the observed trends are consistent with climate change, with higher temperatures linked to both more burning and more thunderstorms.
Study co-author Brendan Rogers at Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts says these trends are likely to continue. “We expect an increasing number of thunderstorms, and hence fires, across the high latitudes in the coming decades as a result of climate change.” This is confirmed in the study by different climate model outputs.
Charles Miller of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, another co-author, said while data from Alaska’s agency lightning networks were critical to this study, it is challenging to use these data to verify trends because of continuing network upgrades. “A spaceborne sensor that provides lightning data that can be linked with fire dynamics would be a major step forward,” he said. Such a sensor exists already– NASA’s spaceborne Optical Transient Detector –but it’s geostationary orbit limits its utility for high latitudes.
The researchers found that the fires are creeping farther north, near the transition from boreal forests to Arctic tundra. “In these high-latitude ecosystems, permafrost soils store large amounts of carbon that become vulnerable after fires pass through,” said co-author James Randerson of the University of California, Irvine. “Exposed mineral soils after tundra fires also provide favorable seedbeds for trees migrating north under a warmer climate.”
The Alaska Fire Science Consortium at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, also participated in the study, and provides this 2-page Research Brief executive summary.
Citation: Veraverbeke, S., B.M. Rogers, M.L. Goulden, R.R. Jandt, C.E. Miller, E.B. Wiggins and J.T. Randerson. Lightning as a major driver of recent large fire years in North American boreal forests. Nature Climate Change 7: 529–534 (2017). DOI: 10.1038/nclimate3329