NASA's Investigating the Impact of Arctic Wildfires on Earth. Here's Why

Using a combination of field and laboratory work, as well as satellite and airborne observations, NASA is launching a study of the effects of Arctic wildfires in Alaska on the surrounding habitat and people's health, as well as how the increased frequency of these events affects climate forecasting.

Wildfires in the Arctic are usually started by lightning strikes and left to burn unless they get too close to infrastructure or people, according to a statement by NASA. However, as a result, the fires tend to spread out and consume large areas of vegetation.

"Fires are a natural part of the ecosystem, but what we're seeing is an accelerated fire cycle: we are getting more frequent and severe fires and larger burned areas," Liz Hoy, a boreal fire researcher at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said in the statement.

Related: How NASA Is Using Lasers to Study Climate Change (Video)

These record-setting wildfires raged across the Northwest Territories of Canada in 2014. (Image credit: Peter Griffith/NASA)

Hoy also works as part of NASA's Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE), a field campaign that examines the resilience of Arctic and boreal ecosystems and societies in response to changes in the environment. 

Wildfires in the Arctic contribute to carbon emissions created by the burning of a thick, carbon-rich layer of soil, which also acts as an insulation for the permafrost — a frozen layer of ground that lies beneath the soil. 

"When you burn the soil on top it's as if you had a cooler and you opened the lid," Hoy said. "The permafrost underneath thaws and you're allowing the soil to decompose and decay, so you're releasing even more carbon into the atmosphere."

The thawing of this layer of ground also causes land subsidence and soil collapse, according to NASA.

"Whether the fire-disturbed area will recover or go forward toward subsidence depends on how much ground ice is underlaying in the ground," Go Iwahana, a permafrost researcher at University of Alaska, Fairbanks, who also works with ABoVE, said in the statement. "Other factors at play are how severely the fire wounds the surface organic layer and the weather the burned area experiences after the fire."

Richard Chen, a graduate student at the University of Southern California, was sampling the soil for NASA's ABoVE campaign in an area where a fire had taken place in Alaska.  (Image credit: Peter Griffith/NASA)

The fires also have an effect on the wildlife surrounding the area as they alter the distribution of plant species, the statement added. One reindeer species that are native to the Arctic, Caribou, take a long time to recover after a fire as they rely on slow-growing plants for food. 

"After an intense fire, we can see changes in the overall vegetation composition of the land," Hoy said. "It's going to change the mammal species that are able to live there and how people can use the land, for example, for hunting."

ABoVE is also launching a project to study the effects that these fires have on the population of Alaska as wildfires release large amounts of particulate matter that affect people's respiratory and cardiovascular systems

"Fires happen during the warm months, when people spend a lot of time outdoors," Tatiana Loboda, a professor at the University of Maryland, who launched the project, said in the statement. "Especially indigenous people doing subsistence activities like fishing and hunting."

Loboda plans on using data provided by NASA satellites to look at daily records of the fire burning, as well as the intensity of the fire and the kind of greenery it burned in order to determine the type of particulates that the fire released.

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Passant Rabie
Former Contributing Writer

Passant Rabie is an award-winning journalist from Cairo, Egypt. Rabie moved to New York to pursue a master's degree in science journalism at New York University. She developed a strong passion for all things space, and guiding readers through the mysteries of the local universe. Rabie covers ongoing missions to distant planets and beyond, and breaks down recent discoveries in the world of astrophysics and the latest in ongoing space news. Prior to moving to New York, she spent years writing for independent media outlets across the Middle East and aims to produce accurate coverage of science stories within a regional context.