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Arctic fires could have climate impact

July 28, 2011 at 8:26 PM   |   Comments

WOODS HOLE, Mass., July 28 (UPI) -- A dramatic loss of carbon in a 2007 wildfire on Alaska's North Slope could have a profound impact on possible climate change, U.S. researchers say.

Woods Hole Institute scientist Gauis Shaver and colleagues say the blaze on the slopes of Alaska's Brooks Mountain Range released 20 times more carbon into the atmosphere than what is annually lost from undisturbed tundra.

An increase in the frequency and size of wildfires in the region may release large amounts of the greenhouse gas CO2 to the atmosphere and accelerate the transformation of the frozen, treeless tundra of today into a different kind of ecosystem less capable of storing carbon, researchers said. This could have profound implications for atmospheric carbon and climate, a Woods Hole release said Thursday.

Arctic tundra stores huge amounts of carbon in cool, wet soils insulated by permafrost, a layer of permanently frozen ground.

While fire has been almost non-existent in Alaska's North Slope for thousands of years, the 2007 Anaktuvuk River fire ravaged a 40-by-10 mile swath of tundra, the larges fire ever seen in the region.

The fire scorched upper soil layers and caused the release of more than 2.2 million tons of CO2 to the atmosphere.

An Arctic region regularly disturbed by fire could mean massive releases of CO2 into the atmosphere, a decrease in carbon stocks on land, and a rapid impact on climate, Shaver and his colleagues warn.

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