Tundra Fires Change Permafrost Landscape

by | Nov 17, 2015

A photo (left) taken in August 2015 shows thermokarst development as a network of troughs forming over degrading ice wedges. LiDAR data (right) shows permafrost terrain subsidence in the aftermath of a large and severe Arctic tundra fire. (Credit: USGS)

A photo (left) taken in August 2015 shows thermokarst development as a network of troughs forming over degrading ice wedges. LiDAR data (right) shows permafrost terrain subsidence in the aftermath of a large and severe Arctic tundra fire. (Credit: USGS)

According to a study led by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), large tundra fires cause top-down permafrost thaw, playing a major role in altering Arctic landscapes.

Researchers used repeat airborne LiDAR data acquisitions to quantify thermokarst development in the aftermath of the 2007 Anaktuvuk River tundra fire. By comparing data post-fire, researchers determined that thermokarst affected more than 34 percent of the studied burned tundra area, compared to less than 1 percent in similar unburned tundra.

With LiDAR data acquisitions, we are able to document landscape changes in a measurable way like never before, said lead author Benjamin Jones, a research geographer with USGS. It is likely that the impact of fires and other disturbances on permafrost-influenced terrain in the Arctic has been underestimated since highly precise elevation data, such as from LiDAR datasets, are not widely available in these regions.

The paper, Recent Arctic tundra fire initiates widespread thermokarst development, was published in the journal Scientific Reports, the online open-access journal from the publishers of Nature.

 

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