Fire Extent and Severity

A view of a tundra fire from the window of an airplane.
Shrub-tussock tundra is the dominant vegetation type in the Arctic Network. Wildfires commonly occur in this kind of ecosystem fueled by cotton-grass. Underlain by permafrost, the cold environment reduces decomposition and layers of peat build up in the soils that can burn.

This fire was in 2019 in Noatak National Preserve. Monitoring wildfires, photo by Dan Stevenson (NPS)

Current and future climatic changes will impact the occurrence, extent, and severity of fires in the Arctic Network and will have cascading effects on other ecosystem processes. Fire can exert strong landscape-scale effects on vegetation composition and distribution, permafrost dynamics, nutrient cycling, carbon gain or loss, and primary productivity. Wildland fire is one of the largest natural disturbance processes in the boreal and tundra ecosystems of Arctic parklands. In the past 50 years, over 1 million acres have burned in these parks. Fire influences not only vegetation succession and distribution, but also wildlife habitat, soils (e.g., permafrost and nutrient cycling), hydrology, water quality, and air quality. In addition, the natural fire regime (fire frequency, fire extent, and severity) and secondary fire effects are likely to respond to local and global climate changes.

We monitor fire parameters (such as the number of fires, fire extent, and burn severity) across all Arctic parklands to detect:

  • Long-term changes in frequency, extent, and severity.
  • Long-term effects of fire on vegetation.

Contact: Jennifer Barnes

A researcher records data on a grassland grid.
Fire ecologists record vegetation data and burn severity one year after a recent fire at this long-term fire monitoring site at Kungiakrok Creek in Noatak National Preserve. Tussock cotton-grass can re-grow immediately after a fire of low to moderate severity.


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    Last updated: November 5, 2021