North for Science! Learns About Fire Ecology in Alaska

By Jennifer Hrobak
A group of eight students sit atop the Arctic Interagency Visitor welcome sign on a sunny day.
The 2018 North for Science! group at the Arctic Interagency Visitor Center in Coldfoot, Alaska.

J. Hrobak/NPS

In June 2018, a combined group of eight 7th and 8th grade students embarked on an exciting week long journey up the Dalton Highway and into the Brooks Mountain Range in Alaska as part of the North for Science! Program. This science education program provides an opportunity for students to learn basic camping skills and teamwork, and provides direct interaction with a variety of science and research professionals while working in the outdoor field environment.

Six students are in a burned area of the Chapman Creek Fire taking samples of new vegetation growth.
Students collect fire effects data 15 years after the Chapman Creek Fire, located 6 miles south of Coldfoot, Alaska, which burned into the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve.

J. Hrobak/NPS

One of the program sessions, made possible by a National Park Service Fire Communication and Education Grant, included learning about the role of wildfire in boreal and arctic ecosystems. Students also practiced field monitoring techniques used to determine post-fire effects. These fire ecology activities engage students in scientific dialog and help promote a positive impact on the way we react, live with and understand wildland fire. To help shape knowledge of the benefits of fire, the students spent a day with the NPS Alaska Region’s Assistant Fire Ecologist, Jennifer Hrobak. Hrobak started with a brief presentation and interactive discussion about fire in Alaska, including prominent fire behavior videos used in various research studies. This was followed by a visit to the 2005 Chapman Creek Fire that burned into Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, where students got a first-hand look at just how resilient boreal ecosystems can be.
A student kneeling in vegetation records active layer depths on a clipboard.
North for Science! student records active layer depths and soil temperature in the burned plot of the 2005 Chapman Creek Fire.

J. Hrobak/NPS

While in the field, students compared the characteristics of a 15-year-old burned area to an unburned area and described what the fire behavior might have looked like in terms of intensity and severity. They learned how to navigate using a GPS and compass, locate plot corners based on photographs, measure percent slope, and setup a fire effects monitoring plot by laying out transect lines. The group also practiced monitoring techniques including measuring active layer depths and soil temperature, counting trees and taking DBH (diameter at breast height) measurements, using quadrats to count seedlings, and tallying down woody fuels using a Go/No-Go gauge. Finally, the students ended their field excursion with some basic plant identification and a comparison of duff depths between burned and unburned plots.

This was a fantastic opportunity to expose and engage students with real, on-going research projects in Alaska. Programs like this one help foster critical thinking skills and allow the chance to be a part of the scientific process. The North for Science! Program is co-sponsored by the Alaska Song Bird Institute, National Park Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Land Management.