Tuesday, September 15, 2009

NSF awards SNAP to study climate change, forest fires

The National Science Foundation awarded $1.4 million to a consortium of UAF, Middlebury College, and the University of Wyoming to study changes in seasonality within Alaska’s boreal forest. This new project focuses on how changes in summer climate could affect forest fires and tree growth over the next fifty years in interior Alaska.

UAF’s role in the new project is spearheaded through Scenarios Network for Alaska Planning (SNAP), a UA Geography program. SNAP is a network of research organizations and government agencies devoted to forecasting the future climate of Alaska and providing that information to government officials and other policy planners. Scott Rupp, director of SNAP, said, “As the climate changes and we get different trends in growing seasons, one of its first and most important effects will be on wildfires.”

Principal Investigator Daniel Mann (pictured at right), assistant professor with UAGP, said this project is timely because Alaska is at the forefront of global climate change. “We need details of how these changes are going to affect high latitude ecosystems,” he said. “In this project, we will be trying to figure out how changes in summer weather could affect the forest, as well as the animals and people who live in it.” Mann said there will be field components to the research, as well as computer modeling. “We will test the hypothesis that shifts in the seasonality of warm season precipitation could be a key driver of the boreal forest’s responses to future climate changes.”

The effect of late summer precipitation on tree growth and fire in Alaska will be quantified by analyzing interactions between climate, fire, and tree growth. A new statistical approach will be used to analyze fire-climate relationships. Mann said the results of the study should improve forecasts of annual area burned in Alaska, including the prediction of mega-fire seasons that account for huge areas of burn, cause serious economic losses and health threats, and release gases and mercury into the global atmosphere. “At the most basic level, results of this project will increase our understanding of how climate change could affect boreal forest ecosystems over the coming century,” Mann explained.

The funding will be used at UAF for research and outreach, including a K-12 component. “We will take this to the students and teachers in a format useful to them,” Mann said. Katie Kennedy, UA Geography education and outreach coordinator, is designing the outreach component of the project. Other collaborators in this project, Andi Lloyd at Middlebury College and Elise Pendall at the University of Wyoming, will provide data about how individual trees respond to seasonal climate change, as recorded in the isotopes and density of their annual rings. In summing up the significance of this project, UAGP Director Mike Sfraga said, “Seasonal changes in climate affect soils to permafrost to flowers. So this study is both ambitious and timely.”

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