Impacts of Climate Change on Tundra Fire Regimes: Using the Past as a Window to the Future

EPA Grant Number: FP917440
Title: Impacts of Climate Change on Tundra Fire Regimes: Using the Past as a Window to the Future
Investigators: Chipman, Melissa L
Institution: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
EPA Project Officer: Michaud, Jayne
Project Period: August 1, 2012 through July 31, 2015
Project Amount: $126,000
RFA: STAR Graduate Fellowships (2012) RFA Text |  Recipients Lists
Research Category: Academic Fellowships , Fellowship - Ecology


In tundra ecosystems where burning is rare on the modern landscape, are recent fires unique in the context of the past several millennia? Were tundra fire regimes sensitive to abrupt, large-scale climate and associated vegetation change in the past, and what does this suggest for future climate scenarios? What are the climatic conditions that exacerbate tundra burning, and how do these differ for various vegetation types?


Paleoecological analyses of lake sediment cores will be used to reconstruct long-term climate-vegetation-fire dynamics. These analyses include macroscopic charcoal records to reconstruct fire frequency, pollen to infer vegetation change and a combination of midge assemblages and carbonate isotopes to reconstruct climate. Lakes from three tundra ecoregions in Alaska will be targeted for analyses, capturing a broad range of climate and vegetation scenarios. The long temporal span of the records (~5,000– 14,000 years) allows for interpreting fire trends under novel past climate conditions, refining the understanding of climate thresholds that may alter fire regimes in the future.

Expected Results:

In tundra regions that rarely burn today, recent fires likely are anomalous, related to unique climate conditions at present. When fires did occur in the past, a relationship to periods of distinct warm and/or dry conditions is expected. However, tundra burning also is vegetation limited, with forest-tundra more flammable than shrub-dominated tundra, which in turn should be more flammable than grass- and sedge-dominated tundra. Thus, these different vegetation types should have different climatic thresholds to increased burning.

Potential to Further Environmental/Human Health Protection

This research directly impacts Arctic residents who rely on the natural resources in the tundra for survival. For example, these data are important for conservation practices in Alaska, including the design and implementation of fire suppression strategies. Moreover, understanding the effects of ongoing climate change on tundra ecosystems will provide information on empirical climate-fire-vegetation relationships necessary to anticipate changes under future climate scenarios.

Supplemental Keywords:

tundra, fire, paleoclimate

Progress and Final Reports:

  • 2013
  • 2014
  • Final