Breaking news! Fire melts permafrost.

From the department of Obvious Science, the “Surface Albedo Collective” and the University of Alaska comes this stunner of a press release.

Image from The Royal Society, Philosophical Transactions B (A) shows a burned area (B) shows same area before the fire

Image from The Royal Society, Philosophical Transactions B (a) shows a burned area (b) shows same area before the fire

Research links tundra fires, thawing permafrost


Wildfires on Arctic tundra can contribute to widespread permafrost thaw much like blazes in forested areas, according to a study published in the most recent issue of the online journalScientific Reports.

The project, led by the U.S. Geological Survey, examined the effects of the massive Anaktuvuk River fire, which burned roughly 1,000 square kilometers of tundra on Alaska’s North Slope in 2007. Using aerial data, researchers detected permafrost thaw in about a third of the fire’s footprint, compared to less than 1 percent in undisturbed areas.

“Once you burn off that protective layer, what we observed is the effect isn’t immediate but takes a few years to really get going,” said Chris Arp, a study co-author and assistant professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Water and Environmental Research Center.

The connection between wildfires and permafrost loss is better documented in boreal forests, where burns are relatively common. Tundra fires are less common, so their effects have not been studied as extensively. Using a laser mapping technique called lidar, researchers were able to document thawing during flyovers both two and seven years after the fire occurred.

Researchers flew over the area repeatedly, using lidar to produce detailed topographic models of the burned area. Anchorage-based USGS research geographer Benjamin Jones led the project.

Photo by Christopher Arp. New growth sprouts from tussocks on the tundra following the Anaktuvuk River fire in 2007.

They found that thermokarst, irregular topography such as slumping hillsides and surface depressions, was common in the fire zone.

Arp said lidar was an invaluable resource. The data allowed researchers to measure changes in the land surface over time and predict how these changes will affect hydrology and vegetation within the Anaktuvuk River fire boundary, Arp said.

Understanding conditions that cause permafrost thaw is important because the frozen soils and peatlands store significant amounts of carbon, the Scientific Reports study states. When permafrost thaws, the organic material in the soil decomposes and releases greenhouse gases, such as methane and carbon dioxide, which are considered factors in climate change.

Arp said the changes are also notable because permafrost is the foundation of Arctic lands and ecosystems, both in the wilds and areas where roads and pipelines are built. Dramatic changes in permafrost, like the conditions observed following the Anaktuvuk River fire, will create new plant communities, change wildlife habitat and affect downstream waters, he said.


Contributors to the study included the USGS Land Change Science and Land Remote Sensing programs, the USGS Alaska Science Center, UAF, the Arctic Landscape Conservation Cooperative, and the Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research.

The study is available at Scientific Reports, the online journal from Nature, at


48 thoughts on “Breaking news! Fire melts permafrost.

  1. Shocked! Shocked I am that direct application of heat melts frozen things!!
    Speaking of which- I need to apply for a research grant: Topic- Adding more heat will melt permafrost faster… Should be good for at least $5m

    • Joe, it’s not that simple, the fire actually releases CO2, which accelerates global warming, which melts permafrost. I know this because I modeled it, on a real computer, using information I obtained off the Internet, so it must be true

    • On my first ever trip to Alaska, via the Alcan highway, circa 1967, I took the long route, up to Dawson in the Klondike.
      There was one small section of Bonanza Creek, that had not been gutted by all the machine dredging of yore, and was still owned by the descendants of the original claim holder. The current long grey bearded gold miner, knew all about permafrost. All of his property was frozen solid all year round. But his ground was full of gold dust; which had been thoroughly assayed down through the years.
      Any pan of that soil was bound to yield some shiny flakes of the pure metal. But at less than $1 worth of the shiny dust per pan, it was hardly worth mining, given the frozen ground, and he didn’t have any sluicing machinery.
      But he did have a hole in the ground; which he called his gold mine. So after the Spring snow melt, he would go and gather brush and wood from his land, and build himself a big bonfire down at the bottom of that hole; and after a bit of that treatment, he could get down there with a shovel, and pry loose enough of that once frozen permafrost, to put himself several yards of dirt, in a pile on the side of that hole.
      So tourists like me, and sometimes in bus loads, would drive by and stop, and listen to this old geezer tell tall tales, probably mostly lies; but all the good for the telling of, anyway.
      So he would show all the city slickers how to use a gold pan, and he had a nice long trough. of slowly running water, so that folks could grab a pan of that gold dirt, from his permafrost hole, and proceed to swish it around, until the flakes would show, and be collected in a tiny pill bottle for the yokel to take home.
      All of this participatory tourism was not free of course. It cost you $1 a pan to pan the dirt, and you were guaranteed some gold, or the next pan was free.
      Now I think I already said, that this old codger had had his land assayed, and the yield was a good bit less than $1 per pan full of pixie dust.
      Now what a racket. This guy charges his customers $1 to work for him, panning his low yield gold; and he also clinches the sale of his gold at the same time, without having to have somebody expensive test the gold for him; and all he has to do is light a fire in the spring time, on top of his permafrost hole, and clean up his beard; put a few more stitches in the tears in his jeans, and then sit down and jawbone with a bunch of duffers; like me.
      Well I would have listened to his tall yarns for nothing; but I was glad to pay him several dollars, to get just a few flakes of real Klondike Gold from Bonanza Creek, and feel like I could have been there.
      PS it was not at all uncommon for someone to hit a nice nugget, or a chip of gold still attached to some quartzite looking rock. A lot of Klondike gold sold for more than the gold price, to the jewelry trade, because of the rocky nuggets that could turn up there.

      • Kind of reminds of the guy with a cowboy hat and flannel shirt, that talks with a drawl, reticently parts with a hundred dollar bill to buy into a table at a casino, and slowly but surely wipes out the chip stacks of all of these too-cool-hipsters-in-their hoodies and sun glasses.
        Never underestimate an old miner, or cowboy, or lumberjack.

      • “Never underestimate an old cowboy, miner, or lumberjack.” – got’em galore in
        my very old west family… enjoyed that..

  2. Wait…how did all that peat get there? It’s permanently frozen, right? So…logically…it was all delivered there by a giant fleet of freezer trucks manned by Gore, Mann, and Hansen in order to save us from carbon!

  3. “Breaking news! Fire melts permafrost.”
    WRONG! Fire changes the surface and these changes SLOWLY impact the permafrost. It has nothing to do with the fire itself melting anything.

    From the original press release:
    “Once you burn off that protective layer, what we observed is the effect isn’t immediate but takes a few years to really get going,”

    • It was tongue in cheek, note also the comment on Albedo.
      And in fact, fire is the root cause of the melting, by changing the albedo.

      • You can pass this off as “tongue in cheek,” but that just exposes other issues. Like why you feel the desire to belittle some perfectly legitimate science. It is almost like you (and most of the readers) never got past “Wildfires on Arctic tundra can contribute to widespread permafrost thaw …” and decided that was all the research was about.
        Rather, the report is about actual data to quantify the EXTENT and SEVERITY of the impact. For instance, the impacts developed over 7 years — not in 1 day or even 1 year. 34% of the area showed thaw subsidence — not 1% and not 100%. Subsidence was greatest in upland terrain. Etc. All of this provides valuable baseline data for understanding the geology and ecology of the region.
        Would you prefer that scientist DIDN’T actually collect data and just used computer models or equations to estimate what might happen? (That’s rhetorical, in case people missed it.)

      • tjfolkerts,
        Lighten up. You’re being way too serious. And you asked this:
        Would you prefer that scientist DIDN’T actually collect data and just used computer models or equations to estimate what might happen?
        That’s the M.O. of climate scientists. You didn’t know that?

      • tjfolkerts, what was the cause of the fires? Man’s CO2? No. If a tract of the permafrost melts is it due to Man’s CO2 rather than the heat absorbed by a blackened surface (the Sun and all that)?
        There are those who would spin the data to say “yes”. This is a bit of counter spin.

      • Who knew, charring plant material (turning it black) changes the albedo?
        To give Tim as much credit as one can, I have seen some very interesting research tied to climate change at the end, obviously to get funding for the basic science that would not otherwise get the time of day. That being said, it still perpetuates (wrongly so) the myth.

      • Tjfolkerts,
        Yes, they do use data, but it is from two fly-overs years apart, utilizing radar. I’d like to see more on-the-ground-work, and some discussion about succession of plant growth that naturally occurs after such fires, which can be gleaned by studying the sites of fires that occurred 50, 100, 500 and 1000 years ago. There are likely some interesting geological progressions to be learned from old fire sites as well.

      • “…Researchers flew over the area repeatedly, using lidar to produce detailed topographic models of the burned area. Anchorage-based USGS research geographer Benjamin Jones led the project…”

        It was more often than just twice.

        “…Estimates from the large Anaktuvuk River tundra fire of 2007 suggest that vegetation and soil organic carbon combustion during the fire emitted an amount of carbon equivalent to the annual net C sink for the entire Arctic tundra biome. Our observations of permafrost degradation and thermokarst development in the first seven years following the fire has also likely led to the mobilization of carbon previously frozen in permafrost…”

        Weasel words and the necessary carbon dioxide claim for this and future funding.

        “…Jones et al. hypothesized that the landscape-scale impacts of the Anaktuvuk River fire would be different across the extent of the burn area based on variability in ground-ice content at the landscape-scale…”

        First define the confirmation bias theory.

        “…While fires in Arctic tundra have been comparatively infrequent during the past 60 years, limited data indicate an increase in their occurrence over decadal19 and millennial39,40 time-scales…”

        Weasel bias based on insufficient and time period limited data.

        “…Analysis of multi-resolution spaceborne optical data showed that ~50% of the area burned at high severity. In this severely burned tundra, the fire burned the surface vegetation layer and consumed nearly 30 cm of the insulating surface soil organic layer, often down to mineral soil…”

        Imagine that, they determined 30cm (12 inches) of plant growth difference from photos.
        Confirmation bias at work again?
        Yes, truly earth shaking science… Hardly even tundra shaking science.
        Form a hypothesis. Look at pictures that allegedly confirm the hypothesis. Perform lidar flyovers; and then sit down in a lab while ‘analyzing’ the pictures. No field work necessary.
        Blame all changes on the fire while insinuating that more and greater fires are coming…
        “(a) Mean daily permafrost temperature data (1 m depth) recorded between July 2009 and January 2014 at a severely burned and unburned yedoma upland tundra site. (b) Mean September permafrost temperature (1 m depth) between 2009 and 2013. The mean annual ground temperature at the burned site has increased by 1 °C since 2009 and the mean monthly September temperature has increased from −0.5 °C to −0.1 °C since 2009. Figure created in SigmaPlot® 10.”
        When was it above freezing? Albedo changes due to natural fires are natural!

      • Well I saw the blast area of Mt St. Helens very shortly after the eruption ended, and also later on when the plant life recovery began. My sister and I were on the very last bus up the mountain before they closed the whole area to build that visitor center up there.
        The next day, ou couldn’t drive your car to within 20 miles of where we parked that day.
        And it would surprise the hell out of me, if all of that devastation did NOT significantly change the radiation characteristics of that area , both the incoming and outgoing.
        So if that is what they mean by the fire starting the melt, then I would buy that.
        I am sure that the roaring fire season we had this spring and summer, is why the Sierra is now being deluged with record snows.

  4. wow, back in 1977-
    “The nation’s largest fire, near Nome,
    Alaska, ruined 135,541 hectares of land
    used by reindeer for grazing. A total of
    606,900 hectares on tundra have burnt
    in the last two weeks”

    • The Arctic National Wildlife Reserve is 19.2 million acres. That is 30,000 square miles. You can fit the State of Delaware (Veep’s home) into that in 12 different non overlapping places, and the State of Rhode Island, in 20 different places. That’s where the New York Yacht Club holds its Americas Cup boat races. (RI).
      The Jan 2008 issue of SciAm has a serious front cover article about using that much waste land in the drought ridden desert South West of California, to build a full size solar PV plant. A much smaller (only 16,000 square miles) thermal solar (a la Ivanpah) plant is also planned.
      Maybe they could burn a coupla thousand acres of ANWR tundra, so they could drill for oil, and save the desert south west.

  5. Plus, some additional “ground breaking” realizations:
    1) Road cuts melt permafrost
    2) Foundations and basement excavations melt permafrost
    3) Agriculture and landscaping melt permafrost
    4) Anthropogenic heat flux (from motors, heaters, electrical currents, HVAC, etc, etc) melts permafrost
    5) Wells melt permafrost.

  6. “Researchers flew over the area repeatedly”.
    Needless to say they flew in plugin aircraft recharged using “green” electricity produced from organic, non-GMO, woven hemp windmills.

  7. Like James 48 says, perhaps they should nave read the journals and reports from the Army Corp building the Alaska Highway.
    I have noticed the same duplicity from my local Highways division. blaming Global Warming for the frost heaves in our highways.. just after their new policy of clearing 100 yards either side of the road .
    Who knew that clearing the undergrowth exposed the ground to the warming rays of our sun?
    Apparently everybody but bureaucrats and the sycophants they fund.

    • They will try and blame everything for their lack of engineering competence. I’ve seen a lot of dept-of-transport types that are clueless about the fact that some areas use 15 yard dumps with 6-8 yards of sand as ballast, to plow snow, and when they have their blade down things like rumble strips just get torn to shreds. Who knew?

      • My first experience with Massachusetts highway snow removal was when three dump trucks, faster than the legal 55mph speed limit, flew past my tiny car (Triumph Herald). The trucks ran as a staggered line down the highway so that the first plow fed the second plow, down to the third one. Anyone to the right of the third plow quickly learns to stay ahead no matter the legal limit or get out of the way. Very hard for my Triumph Herald as it would take me over a mile going down a slight slope to reach a maximum sixty three miles per hour.
        The snow plows completely covered my car with ice and slush that froze solid immediately. I had to panic stop blind and then wend my way to the side with my head out the window.
        Later, I found out that even heavily weighted trucks can be stopped when they run into a thick piece of ice. Using Newton, they keep the trucks full of sand or salt and run them as fast as they can. Thick sheets of ice only cause the trucks to slightly shudder as the ice breaks free.
        Little consolation as I used a hand scraper trying to chisel off ice covering my windshield. As any ex-Triumph owner can tell you, Triumphs, back then, were not designed for American winters or summers. Even then, I had half the radiator covered just so the engine would stay warm enough to run. One could forget melting a lot of windshield ice. On hot summer days I had t use the heater on full to keep from overheating in traffic.

  8. I use LiDAR at work; take what it says with a LARGE grain of salt. It’s great for level information, but not very accurate when identifying vegetation, buildings, water or anything else.
    For a study which relies on LiDAR, I would call it plus or minus 30%, personally.

  9. And from the point of view of good old Sol, shining down as he’ wont ot do, does not a plowed/cultivated field look like burn’t tundra? Would the plowed field not rise in temperature like the tundra does?
    Would not also, the plowed field produce more CO2 in the same way as the exposed/burned tundra does?
    We must assume they do, not least as good farmaland is land containing lots of organic material. On the other hand, A Desert= a place of low soil organic material. The plants make The Climate.
    There we have it, The Farmers have produced not only the observed warming signal but also the rise in CO2. It wasn’t actually the farmers, it was the soil bacteria, egged on by huge doses of nitrogen fertiliser applied by the farmers and the bacteria are the (extremely) temperature sensitive element.
    My Gut Feeling says: The rise in CO2 is a symptom of the warming, not the cause. Ask Murray Salby or even yourself, detrend the Mauna Loa graph and plot it against any of the temeperture records.

  10. Actually, once you weed out the (perhaps) necessary genuflections to the Global Warming papacy, this is an interesting study. It is always interesting to see how nature responds to a calamity like a forest fire. Usually there is a whole sequence of micro-environments that appear and disappear, one after another.
    The study contains what may be a sort of disclaimer, but also shows how much further study is needed:
    “However, interpretation of terrain subsidence remained inconclusive due to uncertainties associated with the InSAR techniques, the loss of image coherence across large areas within the burn, the influence of surface soil organic layer combustion on detected subsidence, and the relatively coarse spatial resolution (>10 m) of the data.”
    The real test of their dedication, as scientists, will be whether they actually travel up to that mosquito infested landscape to do field work, or whether they lounge back in comfy armchairs in front of video screens, and demand better satellites.
    My understanding is that, if they can’t get the money for better satellites, they send the interns north.

    • Here is a paper on the variables involved in the succession of plants from willow to alder to poplar to white spruce to black spruce on the banks of Alaskan Rivers. Forest Fires are only one of a number of things that can change the routes of the successions. Others are beavers, over populations of snowshoe hares, floods, and whether the flood plain turns to a “terrace”. One fascinating factor is that the shade of spruce so cools the forest floor that permafrost can return to soils that were free of it.
      The paper is dated, (1980’s I think), and therefore doesn’t contain the proper genuflections, which I find downright refreshing.

    • I’ve been spending some time broadening my mind by studying thermokarsts. Apparently the jury is still out, concerning the deep meaning of these geological formations. (I’m not sure how I ever survived not knowing they even existed.) Some say they are ominous indications of gloom and doom, whist others suggest they may be a hopeful sign of our salvation from doom and gloom. For example, here is a study that suggests they may counter warming with a cooling effect. (I’ll leave it up to you whether that is good news or not.)

  11. The photo of the burn area pre-fire suggests the area has been thawing annually, which most permafrost does in what is known as its active layer, which can be as much as 20 feet or more deep. They suggest that increased subsidence indicates the permafrost may be disappearing but then qualify with
    “However, interpretation of terrain subsidence remained inconclusive due to uncertainties associated with the InSAR techniques, the loss of image coherence across large areas within the burn, the influence of surface soil organic layer combustion on detected subsidence, and the relatively coarse spatial resolution (>10 m) of the data.”
    I would have to give them a fairly weak “maybe”.

  12. “The Quantification of the Efflorescence and Sweetness of The Taste of Spit: An NSF Decade Initiative.”
    That was the joke about the NSF 20 years ago.
    Sadly, NSF (and NASA et al. Gov. funding bodies) has fallen over itself to really fund such Ponzi schemes with kick-backs to the hallowed Saints a.k.a. “Program Managers” at the 100k US dollar level, although to avoid detection (IRS) it was sent by wire transfers to accounts in Switzerland! And the “Program Managers” low and behold, had a very Important Meeting of a UN “Science Workshop” in Switzerland! Day 1 of the “Workshop” is for the “Program Managers” to arrive at a Swiss Bank, in Geneva for instance, and empty the account of the money, in local currency of course. Then on return, at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, the “Program Manager” converts the “local Swiss currency” into US Dollars. Oh Boy! Those Schiphol
    Currency Converters! … What a rich lot! … Ready to Convert and hand out the booty! Lov Em.
    Ha ha True Story.

  13. Caleb and Dave: I worked in permafrost areas for many years. Studies of changes to the albedo through changes in vegetation cover or digging a trench are very useful. It’s too bad they didn’t put in some vertical profile data logging in areasthat were burned and unburned and done some soil type and lidar correlations to see what else could be learned.
    We have come a long way since 1969 ….
    See the video to learn a little about permafrost, environmental activism, harsh climate construction, politics and the plus and minuses of what we do in construction, engineering and changing our lives for better or worse.

  14. Let us for the discussion assume that the report is correct (i.e. describes what takes place in the real world, reasonably accurately). I would then suggest that this phenomenon could be real good news for those worried about rise in atmosheric CO2- concentration. As far as I know, the “permafrost issue” is based on an assumtion that permafost is a methane storage, and that thawing will lead to a huge methane release. I woud like to point to another process ( clearly visible on the photos in the article). A thawing of permafrost MIGHT release some methane, but will also reactivate plant growth in these semi-arctic conditions. The dominating biotic component in these regions is peat (like _Sphagnum_ species). Now peat is a true carbon sink (with an net accumulation of carbon – fundamentally different from the rapid-turnover tropical forests, -where the only carbon storage is in the Standing biomass, with no accumulation (except for eventual riverine export of carbon)
    In Cod we trust

  15. Regardless of the “obvious” results of this study, to me, having worked in cold climate utility delivery for several years, I found the article interesting. It demonstrates the insulating capacity of even a thin layer of vegetation, which will also catch snow to provide additional insulation. I studied frost penetration for several years in Saskatchewan, Canada. In non permafrost areas, frost could penetrate 13 to 15 feet under cleared roads, 4 or 5 feet in the snow filled road ditch, and 7 to 8 feet in an adjacent grass covered field.
    In permafrost, light vegetation and tree shadows would prevent thawing of the permafrost in many areas except for a the top few inches, whereas once removed it would turn to muck to 8 to 10 feet. (Highly variable depending on exposure and location.)
    In more temperate areas, a ploughed field in the summer time absorbs way more heat than a grassed field. Conversely, in the fall, the ploughed field loses way more heat than the lightly insulated grass field. Most people out on the land off the paved highways have observed that. Here is a photo from today: the ploughed field is snow covered, the adjacent pasture and hay field is mostly free of snow. (It is not hidden in the grass.) The article may seem obvious to many, but to me as a retired engineer and mostly retired farmer, I find it interesting. Addition of trees to the mix has another impact.

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