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High latitude cooling associated with landscape changes from North American boreal forest fires

DOI: 10.5194/bgd-9-12087-2012

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Fires in the boreal forests of North America are generally stand-replacing, killing the majority of trees and initiating succession that may last over a century. Functional variation during succession can affect local surface energy budgets and, potentially, regional climate. Burn area across Alaska and Canada has increased in the last few decades and is projected to be substantially higher by the end of the 21st century because of a warmer climate with longer growing seasons. Here we simulated the changes in forest composition due to altered burn area using a stochastic model of fire occurrence, historical fire data from national inventories, and succession trajectories derived from remote sensing. When coupled to an Earth system model, younger vegetation from increased burning cooled the high-latitude atmosphere, primarily in the winter and spring, with noticeable feedbacks from the ocean and sea ice. Results from multiple scenarios suggest that a doubling of burn area would result in surface cooling of 0.23 ± 0.09 °C and 0.43 ± 0.12 °C for winter–spring and February–April time periods, respectively. This could provide a negative feedback to high-latitude terrestrial warming during winter on the order of 4–6% for a doubling, and 14–23% for a quadrupling, of burn area. Further work is needed to integrate all the climate drivers from boreal forest fires, including aerosols and greenhouse gasses.


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