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United States

Fire-mediated changes in the Alaskan Boreal Forest: Interactions of changing climate and human activities

Project Summary

Recent economic and climatic changes in interior Alaska have resulted in a decline in the well-being of rural residents and a decrease in the resilience of the region to respond to projected future changes. Fire has traditionally been an important part of ecosystem regulation in this region. The goal of this assessment is to document the changing role of fire, particularly as affected by human activities, on the boreal system and its human residents, and to explore alternative scenarios of future changes that may affect human well-being.

The study site is the Yukon River drainage of interior Alaska and western Canada (63.5–68_N; 130–160_W), and the project time frame is September 2007 to September 2010.

The study is designed to take into account multiple spatial and time scales. The multiple spatial scales are: the boreal forest of western North America, which contains two countries (Yukon Territory in Canada, and Alaska in the United States), within which smaller regions centered on two communities in each country are studied. Within these communities, long-term trends spanning the period 1800–2100 are assessed, with intensive study and projection of trends for the period 1950–2050. The assessment focuses primarily on ecosystem provisioning services that are strongly affected by changes in climate and fire regime; and on a set of management policies that influence the relationships between fire, ecosystem services, and human well-being.

Fire and climate warming alter climate regulation at large(r) spatial scales by changing vegetation composition, energy exchange within the atmosphere, and carbon balance. This study examines how these ecological changes either amplify or buffer the rate of climatic warming. Additionally, the effect of feedback from these phenomena on state/territory and national policies of carbon sequestration and fire suppression will also be examined.

Provisioning, regulating, and cultural services, such as subsistence foods (for example, game, berries, and firewood), are affected by climate warming and fire. Economic opportunities and risks (for example, wages and property risk), and cultural ties to the land (as reflected in altered subsistence activities, rural-urban migration, and forest harvest) are also assessed in the study. The landscape pattern of these changes determines the consequences for use by local communities.

Assessment Approach

Ecosystem modeling (the Terrestrial Ecosystem Model or TEM) and policy analysis are the primary tools used to study the large-scale processes of climate regulation in this assessment. Interviews with subsistence users and ecological observations are used in the assessment to determine the extent and impact of changes in subsistence foods. The Alaska Frame Based Ecosystem Code (ALFRESCO) landscape modeling is used to explore how future changes in climate-fire-vegetation interactions might alter fire regime and ecosystem services.

Records of fires, employment, and community income are used to assess the positive and negative economic effects of fires on communities. Additionally, the assessment analyses the condition and trends through stand-age reconstructions maps of fires since 1950, and interviews with elders. Landscape modeling is used to explore alternative scenarios, especially the potential effects of policy and management on the ecosystem services and drivers of change in the ecosystems.

Project team and institutions

  • Stuart Chapin (team leader, ecosystem ecologist), University of Alaska
  • Dave McGuire (ecosystem modeler), University of Alaska
  • Scott Rupp (landscape modeler), University of Alaska
  • Tony Starfield (conservation modeler), University of Minnesota
  • Erica Zavaleta (ecologist/anthropologist), University of California, Santa Cruz
  • Henry Huntington (anthropologist), private consultant, Alaska
  • David Natcher (anthropologist), Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada
  • Amy Lovecraft (political scientist), University of Alaska
  • Sarah Trainor (political scientist), University of Alaska
  • Roz Naylor (resource economist), Stanford University
  • Paul Baer (resource economist), Stanford University
  • Orville Huntington, resident of Huslia; Vice-Chair, Alaska Native Science Commission
  • La’ona DeWilde, resident of Huslia

Contact information

  • Stuart Chapin
    Institute of Arctic Biology, University of Alaska
    Fairbanks, AK 99775, USA

Funding for the preliminary assessment was provided by the U.S. National Science Foundation for the period September 2003. The Bonanza Creek Long-term Ecological Research Program has approved funding for the assessment to its completion in 2010.



Journal publications


  • Chambers, S. and F.S. Chapin, III. 2003. Fire effects on surface-atmosphere energy exchange in Alaskan black spruce ecosystems: Implications for feedbacks to regional climate . J. Geophys. Res . D108:8145, doi: 10.1029/2001JD000530.
  • Chapin, F.S., III. 2003. Effects of plant traits on ecosystem and regional processes: A conceptual framework for predicting the consequences of global change. Annals of Botany 91:455-463.
  • Chapin, F.S., III, T.S. Rupp, A.M. Starfield, L. DeWilde, E.S. Zavaleta, N. Fresco, and A.D. McGuire. 2003. Planning for resilience: Modeling change in human-fire interactions in the Alaskan boreal forest. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 1:255-261.
  • Harden, J.W., R. Meier, C. Darnel, D.K. Swanson, and A.D. McGuire. 2003. Soil drainage and its potential for influencing wildfire. Pages 139-144 in Galloway, J.P., ed., Studies by the U.S. Geological Survey in Alaska, 2001 . U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1678. Reston, Virginia.
  • Hinzman, L.D., M. Fukuda, D.V. Sandberg, F.S. Chapin, III and D. Dash. 2003. FROSTFIRE: An experimental approach to predicting the climate feedbacks from the changing boreal fire regime . Journal of Geophysical Research-Atmospheres 108(D1), 8153, doi:10.1029/2001JD00415.
  • Huntington, H.P., M. Berman, L. Cooper, L. Hamilton, L. Hinzman, K. Kielland, E. Kirk, J. Kruse, A. Lynch, A.D. McGuire, D. Norton, and A. Ogilvie. 2003. Human dimensions of the Arctic System: Interdisciplinary approaches to the dynamics of social-environmental relationships. Arctic Research of the United States , 17:59-69.
  • McGuire, A.D., M. Sturm, and F.S. Chapin, III. 2003. Arctic Transitions in the land-Atmosphere System (ATLAS): Background, objectives, results, and future directions. Journal of Geophysical Research 107, 8147, doi:10.1029/2001JD001244 [printed 108(D1), 2003].
  • Sandberg, D.V., F.S. Chapin, III, and L. Hinzman. 2003. FROSTFIRE: a study of the role of fire in global change in the boreal forest. Pages 192-196 in K.E.M. Galley, R.C. Klinger, and N.G. Sugihara (eds.). Proceedings of Fire Conference 2000: The First National Congress on Fire Ecology, Prevention, and Management. Miscellaneous Publication No. 13 , Tall Timbers Research Station, Tallahassee, FL.
  • Turner, M.G., S.L. Collins, A.L. Lugo, J.J. Magnuson, T.S. Rupp, and F.J. Swanson. 2003. Disturbance dynamics and ecological response: The contribution of long-term ecological research. BioScience. 53(1): 46-56.


  • Chapin, F.S., III. T.V. Callaghan, Y. Bergeron, M. Fukuda, J.F. Johnstone, G. Juday, and S.A. Zimov. 2004. Global change and the boreal forest: Thresholds, shifting states or gradual change? Ambio 33: 361-365.
  • Chapin, F.S., III, L. Henry, and L. DeWilde. 2004. Wilderness in a changing Alaska: Managing for resilience. International Journal of Wilderness 10: 9-13.
  • Chapin, F.S., III, G. Peterson, F. Berkes, T.V. Callaghan, P. Angestam, M. Apps, C. Beier, Y. Bergeron, A.-S. Crepin, K. Danell, T. Elmqvist, C. Folke, B. Forbes, N. Fresco, G. Juday, J. Niemela, A. Shvidenko, and G. Whiteman. 2004. Resilience and vulnerability of northern regions to social and environmental change. Ambio 33:344-349.
  • Csiszar, I., C.O. Justice, A.D. McGuire, M.A. Cochrane, D.P. Roy, F. Brown, S.G. Conard, P.G.H. Frost, L. Giglio, C. Elvidge, M.D. Flannigan, E. Kasischke, D.J. McRae, T.S. Rupp, B.J. Stocks, and D.L. Verbyla. 2004. Land use and fires. Chapter 19 (pages 329-350) in Land Change Science: Observing, Monitoring, and Understanding Trajectories of Change on the Earth‚s Surface . Edited by Gutman, G., Janetos, A.C., Justice, C.O, Moran, E.F., Mustard, J.F., Rindfuss, R.R., Skole, D., Turner II, B.L., and Cochrane, M.A. Dordrecht, Netherlands, Kluwer Academic Publishers.
  • Forbes, B., N. Fresco, A. Shvedenko, K. Danell, and F.S. Chapin, III. 2004. Geographic variations in anthropogenic drivers that influence the vulnerability and resilience of high-latitude nations. Ambio 33:377-382.
  • Haight, R.G., Cleland, D.T., Hammer, R., Radeloff, V.C., and T.S. Rupp. 2004. Assessing fire risk in the wildland urban interface: the case of northern lower Michigan. Journal of Forestry. 102(7):41-47.
  • Johnstone, J. F., F.S. Chapin, III, J. Foote, S. Kemmett, K. Price, and L. A. Viereck. 2004. Decadal observations of tree regeneration following fire in boreal forests. Can. J. For. Res. 34:267-273.
  • Keane, R.E., G.J. Cary, I.D. Davies, M.D. Flannigan, R.H. Gardner, S. Lavorel, J.M. Lenihan, C. Li, and T.S. Rupp. 2004. A classification of landscape fire succession models: spatial simulations of fire and vegetation dynamics. Ecological Modelling. 179:3-27.
  • McGuire, A.D., M. Apps, F.S. Chapin III, R. Dargaville, M.D. Flannigan, E.S. Kasischke, D. Kicklighter, J. Kimball, W. Kurz, D.J. McRae, K. McDonald, J. Melillo, R. Myneni, B.J. Stocks, D.L. Verbyla, and Q. Zhuang. 2004. Land cover disturbances and feedbacks to the climate system in Canada and Alaska. Chapter 9 (pages 139 ˆ 161) in Land Change Science: Observing, Monitoring, and Understanding Trajectories of Change on the Earth's Surface. Edited by Gutman, G., Janetos, A.C., Justice, C.O, Moran, E.F., Mustard, J.F., Rindfuss, R.R., Skole, D., Turner II, B.L., and Cochrane, M.A. Dordrecht, Netherlands, Kluwer Adademic Publishers.
  • Natcher, D. C. 2004. Implications of fire policy on Native land use in the Yukon Flats, Alaska. Human Ecology 32: 421-441.
  • Ullsten, O., J. G. Speth, and F.S. Chapin, III. 2004. Options for enhancing the resilience of northern countries to rapid social and environmental change: A message to policy makers. Ambio 33:343.


  • Apps, M.A. and A.D. McGuire. 2005. Climate-Disturbance Interactions in Boreal Forest Ecosystems. Peer-reviewed papers selected from the IBFRA Conference, Fairbanks, Alaska, 3 – 6 May 2004. Canadian Journal of Forest Research 35: 2073-2293.
  • Calef, M. P., A.D. McGuire, H.E. Epstein, T.S. Rupp, and H.H. Shugart. 2005. Analysis of vegetation distribution in Interior Alaska and sensitivity to climate change using a logistic regression approach. Journal of Biogeography 32:863-878.
  • Chapin, F.S., III, M. Berman, T.V. Callaghan, P. Convey, A.-S. Crepin, K. Danell, H. Ducklow, B. Forbes, G. Kofinas, A.D. McGuire, M. Nuttall, R. Virginia, O. Young, and S. Zimov. 2005. Polar Systems. Pages 713-739 In Millennium Assessment (Ed.) Conditions and Trends. Island Press, Washington.
  • Duffy, P. A., John E. Walsh, Jonathan M. Graham, Daniel H. Mann, and T. Scott Rupp (2005). Impacts of large-scale atmospheric-ocean variablilty on Alaskan fire season severity. Ecological Applications, 15(4): 1317–1330.
  • Hinzman, L.D., N.D. Bettez, W.R. Bolton, F.S. Chapin, III, M. B. Dyurgerov, C. L. Fastie, B. Griffith, R.D. Hollister, A. Hope, H.P. Huntington, A.M. Jensen, G.J. Jia, T. Jorgenson, D.L. Kane, D.R. Klein, G. Kofinas, A.H. Lynch, A. H. Lloyd, A.D. McGuire, F.E. Nelson, M. Nolan, W.C. Oechel, T.E. Osterkamp, C. H. Racine, V.E. Romanovsky, R.S. Stone, D.A. Stow, M. Sturm, C.E. Tweedie, G.L. Vourlitis, M.D. Walker, D. A.Walker, P.J. Webber, J. Welker, K.S. Winker, and K. Yoshikawa. 2005. Evidence and implications of recent climate change in northern Alaska and other arctic regions. Climatic Change 72(3)251-298.
  • Huntington, O., and H.P.Huntington. 2005. “We hate fire”: understanding statements on context. Naalaktuaqtuni Ilitchiruni-Lu/ Listening and Learning: Alaska Native Science Commission Newsletter 5(2): 1-2.
  • Maier, J.A.K., J. Ver Hoef, A.D. McGuire, R.T. Bowyer, L. Saperstein, and H.A. Maier. 2005. Distribution and density of moose in relation to landscape characteristics: Effects of scale. Canadian Journal of Forest Research 35:2233-2243.
  • Smithwick, E., M. Turner, M. Mack, and F.S. Chapin, III. 2005. Post-fire soil N cycling in northern conifer forests affected by severe, stand-replacing wildfires. Ecosystems 8:163-181.


  • Chapin, F.S., III, M. Hoel, S.R. Carpenter, J. Lubchenco, B. Walker, T.V. Callaghan, C. Folke, S. Levin, K. G. Mäler, C. Nilsson, S. Barrett, F. Berkes, A.-S. Crépin, K. Danell, T. Rosswall, D. Starrett, T. Xepapadeas, and S.A. Zimov. 2006. Building resilience and adaptation to manage arctic change. Ambio 35(4):198-202.
  • Chapin, F.S., III, A.L. Lovecraft, E.S. Zavaleta, J. Nelson, M.D. Robards, G.P. Kofinas, S.F. Trainor, G. Peterson, H.P. Huntington, and R.L. Naylor. 2006. Policy strategies to address sustainability of Alaskan boreal forests in response to a directionally changing climate. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences doi:10.1073/pnas.0606955103.
  • Chapin, F.S., III, L.A. Viereck, P. Adams, K. Van Cleve, C.L. Fastie, R.A. Ott, D. Mann, and J.F. Johnstone. 2006. Successional processes in the Alaskan boreal forest. Pages 100-120 In F.S. Chapin, III, M. Oswood, K. Van Cleve, L.A. Viereck, and D.L. Verbyla (Eds.) Alaska’s Changing Boreal Forest. Oxford University Press, New York.
  • Fresco, N. L. 2006. Carbon sequestration in Alaska's boreal forest: Planning for resilience in a changing landscape. PhD Dissertation, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks.
  • Hu, F.S., L.B. Brubaker, D.G. Gavin, P.E. Higuera, J.A. Lynch, T.S. Rupp, AND W. Tinner. 2006. How climate and vegetation influence the fire regime of the Alaskan boreal biome: the Holocene perspective. Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change 11:829-846.
  • Huntington, H. P., S.F. Trainor, D.C. Natcher, O.H. Huntington, L. DeWilde, and F.S. Chapin, III. 2006. The significance of context in community-based research: Understanding discussions about wildfire in Huslia, Alaska. Ecology and Society 11 (1): 40. [online] URL: http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol11/iss1/art40/.
  • Johnstone, J.F. and F.S. Chapin, III. 2006. Effects of burn severity on patterns of post-fire tree recruitment in boreal forests. Ecosystems 9:14-31.
  • Johnstone, J.F. and F.S. Chapin, III. 2006. Fire interval effects on successional trajectory in boreal forests of northwest Canada. Ecosystems 9:268-277.
  • McGuire, A.D., and F.S. Chapin, III. 2006. Climate feedbacks in the Alaskan boreal forest. Pages 309-322 in F.S. Chapin, III, M. Oswood, K. Van Cleve, L.A. Viereck, and D.L. Verbyla (Eds.) Alaska’s Changing Boreal Forest. Oxford University Press, New York.
  • McGuire, A.D., and M. Apps. 2006. Climate-disturbance interactions in boreal forest ecosystems. Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change 11:765-767.
  • Sparrow, E.B., J.C. Dawe, and F.S. Chapin, III. 2006. Communication of Alaskan boreal science with broader communities. Pages 323-331 in F.S. Chapin, III, M. Oswood, K. Van Cleve, L.A. Viereck, and D.L. Verbyla (Eds.) Alaska’s Changing Boreal Forest. Oxford University Press, New York.

In press

  • Amiro, B.D., A.L. Orchansky, A.G. Barr, T.A. Black, S.D. Chambers, F.S. Chapin III, M.L. Goulden, M. Litvak, H. Liu, J.H. McCaughey, and J.T. Randerson. 2006. The effect of post-fire stand age on the boreal forest energy balance. Agriculture and Forest Meteorology. In press.
  • Cary, G.J., R.E. Keane, R.H. Gardner, S. Lavorel, M.D. Flannigan, I.D. Davies, C. Li, J.M. Lenihan, T.S. Rupp, F. Mouillot. In press. Comparison of the sensitivity of landscape-fire-succession models to variation in terrain, fuel pattern, climate and weather. Landscape Ecology.
  • Chapin, F.S., III, M.D. Robards, H.P. Huntington, J.F. Johnstone, S.F. Trainor, G.P Kofinas R.W. Ruess, N. Fresco, D.C. Natcher, and R.L. Naylor. In press. Directional changes in ecological communities and social-ecological systems: A framework for prediction based on Alaskan examples. American Naturalist.
  • Chapin, F.S., III, G.M. Woodwell, J.T. Randerson, G.M. Lovett, E.B. Rastetter, D.D. Baldocchi, D.A. Clark, M.E. Harmon, D.S. Schimel, R. Valentini, C. Wirth, J.D. Aber, J.J. Cole, M.L. Goulden, J.W. Harden, M. Heimann, R.W. Howarth, P.A. Matson, A.D. McGuire, J.M. Melillo, H.A. Mooney, J.C. Neff, R.A. Houghton, M.L. Pace, M.G. Ryan, S.W. Running, O.E. Sala, W.H. Schlesinger, and E.-D. Schulze. In press. Reconciling carbon-cycle concepts, terminology, and methodology. Ecosystems 9.
  • DeWilde, L., and F.S. Chapin, III. In press. Human impacts on the fire regime of Interior Alaska: Interactions among fuels, ignition sources, and fire suppression. Ecosystems 9.
  • Keane, R.E., G.J. Cary, I.D. Davies, M.D. Flannigan, R.H. Gardner, S. Lavorel, J.M. Lenihan, C. Li, T.S. Rupp. In press. Understanding global fire dynamics by classifying and comparing spatial models of vegetation and fire dynamics. In: Terrestrial Ecosystems in a Changing World. Edited by J. Canadell, D. Pataki, L. Pitelka. Springer-Verlag.
  • McGuire, A.D., F.S. Chapin, III, J.E. Walsh, and C. Wirth. In press. Integrated regional changes in arctic climate feedbacks: Implications for the global climate system. Annual Review of Environment and Resources.
  • McGuire, A.D., F. S. Chapin III, C. Wirth, M. Apps, J. Bhatti, T. Callaghan, T. R. Christensen, J. S. Clein, M. Fukuda, T. Maximov, A. Onuchin, A. Shvidenko, and E. Vaganov. 2005. Responses of High Latitude Ecosystems to Global Change: Potential Consequences for the Climate System. Chapter in Terrestrial Ecosystems in a Changing World. Cambridge University Press. In press.
  • Rupp, T.S., Olson, M., Henkelman, J., Adams, L., Dale, B., Joly, K., Collins, W., and A.M. Starfield. In press. Simulating the influence of a changing fire regime on caribou winter foraging habitat. Ecological Applications.
  • Trainor, S.F., F.S. Chapin, III, H.P. Huntington, G. Kofinas, and D.C. Natcher. In press. Arctic climate impacts and cross-scale linkages: Environmental justice in Canada and the United States. Local Environment: International Journal of Justice and Sustainability.
© 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment